Loopy question about fear of flying, hypnosis
February 1, 2017 9:32 AM   Subscribe

I have a fear of flying that I have 99% given up on ever conquering. It's been a long time and I've tried a number of things--the problem with this particular fear is that to test out whether the thing you've tried helped, you have to commit to perhaps hours of intense anxiety, and it's very easy just to decide not to. One of the things I've tried is hypnosis, and I don't think it did much, but I'm wondering...

I was pretty careful about finding a hypnotist. The idea of hypnosis sits on the real thing vs. woo border, for me, though I know people it's worked for. I got a referral from a friend with a fairly low bullshit threshold. I went for a few sessions. I didn't experience anything that felt like a change in my state of consciousness, though I felt relaxed by it. He even let me record it, but the thing is "soothing recording" is not a viable tactic in the face of acute anxiety, much as "take some deep breaths" is.

My understanding of hypnosis, which isn't entirely wishful thinking and pop culture, but rather what I understand from people that it has worked for, is that you do kind of go out and find your unconscious behavior altered later. So possibly I'm just not susceptible, as I imagine some people aren't.

Or...should I be trying other kinds? Are there kinds? I actually suspect* that visual stimulus is more hypnotic to me than aural, but I don't know if that's something anyone uses.

I'm open to other suggestions as well, but have read a number of threads on here and, as I say, have tried all kinds of stuff: reading about why flying is totally safe, EMDR, one time ativan and red wine which was really not that great an idea. Mostly I am fine with my life on the ground and have come around to wondering why the hell people are in such a tremendous hurry to go everygoddamnwhere, but I now live across the country from most things I hold dear and also I'd like to see Europe, which I haven't since I was 14 and didn't yet have the fear.

*basically because I get a feeling I'd describe, perhaps wrongly, as hypnotic when I'm driving at night or in a tunnel, watching lights go by.
posted by Smearcase to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Hypnosis and EMDR don't really work on me either. Xanax (similar to Ativan), on the other hand, does a great job of cutting down my anxiety without turning me into a nonfunctional puddle. I don't take much, usually 25mg or 50mg if I'm really wound up. I encourage you to give it a try at some point when you're not actually flying (or driving anywhere or working) to see if it will work for you.

Do NOT mix this with alcohol -- you're gonna have a bad time, as you discovered.
posted by ananci at 9:58 AM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Beta blockers do the trick for me. I am absolutely terrified if heights, but on a beta-blocker I was able to comfortably ride the ski lift at Lake Placid and peer down the maw of the ski jump without a single heart flutter. My suicidal ski lift companion was rocking the lift and playing with the bar and I literally did not care.
posted by xyzzy at 10:05 AM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Are there kinds? Yes, I think there are.

Take a look at NLP. Get the Life You Want, by Richard Bandler is a good example. I classify it as a form of self-hypnosis, and I believe that it can be effective. The goal of NLP is to change how you feel about particular things, allowing you to change your behaviors regarding those things.

The book has a little jargon that is introduced early on, so start at the beginning of the book. You can tell when the book proceeds to specifics, which are useful for giving you a place to start your own behavior changes.
posted by the Real Dan at 10:15 AM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Came to say that Ativan and alcohol will almost guarantee you have the opposite of the intended effect. At some point, if you care to try again, take a single tablet of the lowest available dose, at home, on a Sunday or weekend day when you have nothing planned. Just feel out how the experience works for you before you get on an airplane. That's not a good test environment for you. A cozy at-home day is a good test environment.

I fear flying, and I've taken the smallest prescribable dose on flights twice: both times before long international flights. It was fine. I felt a little sleepy, but otherwise it had the intended calming effect. No alcohol for the duration of the flight. Outside of those flights, I simply keep the bottle with me. It has a "security blanket" effect--I know it's there if I need it, but I don't usually need it.

Be well.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:19 AM on February 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

Exposure therapy will likely be necessary to conquering this fear. I suggest you book a day trip that involves plane travel, where the only purpose of the trip is to force yourself to get on a plane and go on a flight. Acknowledging that exposure to flying is the only reason you're going on this trip allows you to control the circumstances of your travel.

-Pick a flight very near in the future, maybe one or two weeks away. You need the shortest timeframe from when you book to the actual flight so that you have less to talk yourself out of it.

-Go early in the morning, as early as you possibly can. Find a flight that requires you leave the house at 4:30 am. The later in the day the flight is, the greater the likelihood is that you won't go through with it because you'll spend all day working yourself into an anxious mess over the thought of it.

-Select a flight that is short, no more than an hour. All you need from this trip is to prove to yourself that you will force yourself to actually get on a plane, there is no need for this to be a long flight.

-Choose a plane that it not too big, not too small. Something super standard like a Boeing 737. Once again, you need a flight that is as standard as possible.

-Pick a seat at the back of the plane. If you do have a freakout, it will be better for you for it to happen in a tucked away area.

-Bring your partner (if you have one) or an empathetic friend. This is key. This is the person who is going to help you make sure you follow through with this. Let them take the lead on everything the day of the flight. If you're comfortable with it, have them talk to one of the flight attendants to let them know the situation.

-Then go on the flight. It's up to you, of course, but I suggest not using a medication like Xanax. It will probably help during the actual flight, but it may also cause you heightened anxiety before the flight, if you're prone to the kinds of intrusive thoughts nervous flyers often have about their awareness and ability to react if medicated, should things go wrong.

-Spend a few hours in your arrival city and then turn around and fly back the same day.

I know someone with a serious fear of flying and doing this, multiple times, was the only way he was able to get comfortable with flying for purposes other than just forcing himself to fly . This was the only thing that worked, after trying every other possible intervention, like you have. To be clear, he is still not a great flyer, but, what he has gotten good at, is just forcing himself to go and coping with his anxiety while in the air. He now travels by plane maybe four to five times per year, for both work and pleasure.

Good luck!
posted by scantee at 10:34 AM on February 1, 2017 [3 favorites]

the problem with this particular fear is that to test out whether the thing you've tried helped, you have to commit to perhaps hours of intense anxiety

Actually no, you don't have to commit to 'hours' of anxiety: at a lot of small local airports (say the ones where they teach flying) there'll usually be someone who'll charge to take you up for a short flight --- and since they're not commercial aircraft with a defined destination, just up & around & back home again, I'm sure they could cut short a flight if you needed them to.
posted by easily confused at 10:35 AM on February 1, 2017

Thanks, folks. I should have mentioned that I have taken benzos for anxiety in the past and am familiar with them and they help some but seem inadequate to SUDDEN ENORMOUS FEAR.

The short flight thing is iffy because small airplanes are a great deal more anxiogenic. But I'm verging on thread-sitting.
posted by Smearcase at 10:42 AM on February 1, 2017

You live in the Bay Area? Flights from SFO to LAX last almost exactly an hour and almost all of the flights are on airliners that seat around 150 people, probably the most typical size of plane you're likely to fly continentally.
posted by scantee at 10:54 AM on February 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

There is no reason a short flight needs to be on a small plane. Southwest does flights up and down the West Coast that are about an hour on a full-size 737 jet.
posted by 26.2 at 10:55 AM on February 1, 2017

I wouldn't do SFO to LAX because both are stressful airports and SFO has lots of delays.

I'd go from Oakland or San Jose to Burbank or San Diego. All four of those airports are easypeasy to navigate and usually on time.
posted by 26.2 at 10:58 AM on February 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

My vote is that you should use whatever airports are most comfortable for you! For seasoned air travelers, busy airports are often a pain, but for nervous flyers the busyness of large airports can be a good thing. Seeing all of those travelers, going to so many different places around the world may really encourage a feeling of comfort and assurance that air travel really is routine and safe.
posted by scantee at 11:22 AM on February 1, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm afraid of flying/planes and I've found that Clonazepam and a sleeping pill knocks me out for only part of the flight (the middle), and calms me down enough on the rest of the flight that I don't even cry. Ativan helps a bit. Definitely recommend flying with a supportive friend.

Is there anything you find really engrossing? A really good book, movie, or podcast might help you out. I sit in the middle or aisle seat so I can't see out the window, pretend that I'm just on a bus, put on music and read a book til I fall asleep.
posted by Lay Off The Books at 1:00 PM on February 1, 2017

Many years back I was afraid of flying but had to fly a lot for a new job. It was misery. But I had started going to a weekly meditation group about the same time. And at one point I realised that I feel the exact same sensations often but they don't scare me because I'm not on a plane. So I did these things:

Developed a mantra (yellow raft on blue water) to say for take off, which I find most scary.

Brought calming music to listen to for every single flight.

Educated myself on why flying works. Since I couldn't see air currents, etc., it felt like magic. A private pilot buddy explained to me how it worked.

Got a great deal of exposure to flying (like one round-trip a month, over more than a year) because of my job. And it turns out that exposure is really key to many of us with excitable nervous systems.

At first I had to consciously remind myself that "Nothing is wrong. This is what it feels like when this type of plane takes off. (Lands, hits a air pocket, etc.) After enough trips, my excitable brain stopped shouting "YOU ARE GOING TO DIE" at me with every twitch of the plane. My system had been exposed to enough air travel that it started to recognise a plane's occasional shudders, creaks, etc. as normal, which they are. But they don't feel normal unless you are A. Oblivious to stuff like that or B. Habituated to it.

I am highly sensitive to such things but was able to habituate myself to flying. If there's an unexpected jolt, I have a few seconds of Yikes! but go back to calm pretty quickly. I'm still more anxious about life than many people but I am able to go on long flights and short flights without the misery that used to dog my days before and during a flight. I don't dread flying any more, and that's a huge gift. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 1:13 PM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Several airlines offer course specifically for a fear of flying, and some of them culminate in a short flight (ideal for practicing new skills and seeing how you do in a real situation, without committing to a big flight without support). British Airways partners with http://flyingwithconfidence.com/ for example, and although I don't see any US courses listed right now, they do appear to run them from time to time. Virgin also has similar courses. I know of several other airports/airlines that have run similar things in the past. It is worth contacting your local airport or even a local airline and asking what they have available, or know of locally. If you're willing to post or memail a general area of the country, I can see what I can find locally for you.
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 1:20 PM on February 1, 2017

I've used hypnosis CDs by Glenn Harrold. I found I had some slight improvement if I listened to it once or twice at a time, but I had a really big breakthrough after listening to it over and over an entire night. It was a surprise, the only reason I was listening to it that much was because I was sharing a room with two very loud snorers, it was hideous hot and sleeping was out of the question. I figured the zoning out from the hypnosis was better than no sleep at all..

Even better though was going on Zoloft. I was taking it for depresssion but found it had an amazing effect on my anxiety levels. Where before I was easily at 70 - 80% anxious all the time (and flying would easily tip me over the edge), Zoloft brought that down to maybe 10%. With a much lower baseline anxiety level, I was better able to manage the stress of flying.
posted by kitten magic at 1:27 PM on February 1, 2017

scantee has it- cognitive behavioral treatment, of which exposure therapy is one type, is the treatment of choice. EMDR is not a treatment for phobia, so I have no idea why it was used to treat you. There is no high-quality research evidence, to my knowledge, to suggest that hypnosis is effective. It is very much *not* best practice in psychotherapy.

I asked a psychiatrist friend about best-practice guidelines for benzo use a while ago (not specific to you) and this is what she said about phobia: "The treatment of choice for specific phobias is behavior therapy, specifically, systematic desensitization [ETA: also called exposure]. Pharmacotherapy data are extremely limited. At time of discharge from an inpatient unit, starting benzodiazepines for a specific phobia should generally be avoided."

In general (meaning, across the anxiety disorders), taking benzos long term is a pretty bad idea because it prevents acute anxiety from getting better, and can even make it worse in the long term, because it makes it impossible for exposure/desensitization to occur.
posted by quiet coyote at 2:50 PM on February 1, 2017

basically because I get a feeling I'd describe, perhaps wrongly, as hypnotic when I'm driving at night or in a tunnel, watching lights go by.

That is not what hypnosis is. It is not a trance; it is simply a feeling of relaxation, which is exactly what you experienced.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:18 PM on February 1, 2017

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