Jim Eagles: Feel the fear and fly anyway

It's true I was at the back of the queue when hair was being passed out. But on the other hand I was also born without a fear of flying which is probably more important for a travel editor than a thick rug.

That's not to say I've never been nervous in a plane.

A couple of times when I've come in to land at Wellington into the teeth of one of their rare gales, with the wings see-sawing up and down and looking perilously close to the raging whitecaps below, I have found my jaw and fists clenched a bit tighter than necessary.

And many years ago, at a time when aircraft bombing was at its peak, things got a little twitchy when an aged Arab woman sitting beside us on a flight from Beirut to New Delhi produced a mysterious steel flask in rather dramatic fashion, patted my wife comfortingly, said something sympathetic and shed a few tears.

My wife was convinced the old woman had a bomb and wanted me to raise the alarm, but being a typical Kiwi male I would rather be blown up in mid-air than make a fuss. In the event it turned out the flask contained the ashes of some recently departed loved one. We arrived safely.

Apart from that I've always been relaxed about flying but I am aware that makes me lucky.

On most flights you see passengers having difficulty coping with the stress of being in a plane, and some people are quite unable to fly.

Fortunately, as travel journalist John Kron reports, there is now quite a lot of help available to the anxious flier ...

You would think that I'd be used to flying by now. The first time I flew on a jet airliner was 30 years ago and these days I fly five or six times a year.

However, over the years I have become more anxious about flying - not so much that I hesitate to get on a plane, but enough to have avoided watching Lost on TV2 because of its crash scenes.

I get a bit nervy when we hit real turbulence - why make it worse with stark portrayals of disaster?

Which makes me wonder - do I need help for my anxiety?

Dr Alison Smith, a Sydney psychologist, says it is common for anxiety about flying to get worse with time. Research shows that 40 per cent of people feel some anxiety about flying. Most are mildly apprehensive, about 10 per cent can still fly but spend the whole flight wishing it would end, and a few completely avoid it, she says.

People like me, who fall into the mildly apprehensive group, are vigilant when flying because we are extra aware of the dire consequences of a serious mishap. We notice sounds we haven't heard before, or if the plane banks in an unusual way, we wonder if there's something wrong, says Dr Smith.

Each time we fly the anxiety accumulates. We're a little more anxious than the previous time and those unusual sounds and events make us more anxious again. It becomes a vicious cycle.

Compounding the problem may be nervousness and stress about other aspects of life, such as work, which makes it harder to cope with anxiety about flying. Even getting married or having children can contribute through fear of being lost to the people we love.

Individuals vary over when their anxiety is bad enough to seek help. I've decided I'm okay for the moment, although I need to keep tabs on it getting worse.

Most people seek help when the anxiety becomes too disruptive.

Natasha Hydon, a 33-year-old manager, loved flying as a child.

But she first felt anxious as a teenager and the anxiety gradually increased until it reached traumatic levels two years ago.

Hydon and her husband got on a plane in Brisbane, Australia, for a five-day holiday on Hamilton Island in the Great Barrier Reef.

She spent most of the two-hour flight with her eyes shut, sitting in a fetal position, rocking and crying. When opened her eyes she constantly buzzed the flight attendants, sure that something bad was about to happen.

"I had all sorts of fears that the engine would fall off and we'd plummet to the ground or I'd have a heart attack and not get to a hospital in time," says Hydon.

"As terrible as the experience was, I buried it away and didn't face up to it until the next time we talked about flying, about a year later, to catch up with friends interstate," she says.

"It was too far to drive, we had to fly, but I was too scared. That's when I suddenly realised that, although there were things in life I couldn't control, this was something that I could try to fix."

People can reduce their anxiety about flying through self-help or professional help, which can involve seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist or, as Hydon did, complete a fear-of-flying therapy course.

* Anxiety about flying can be easily reduced with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which includes learning about the realities of flying to challenge unhelpful beliefs, learning relaxation techniques and gradually exposing people to the thing they fear, starting with the least feared and moving on to the most feared. On average three to six sessions of CBT may be required.
* Doctors can prescribe anti-anxiety drugs such as Valium and Normison, which may be appropriate for someone flying once a year or flying tomorrow.
* Reassuring facts are included in books such as The Fearless Flier's Handbook by Debbie Seaman. They include information on the realities of flying such as "each plane is put through safety checks equivalent to the most severe turbulence before being allowed to fly".
* Flying Without Fear www.fearofflying.co.nz/index.shtml, phone 0800 737 225 / (09) 483 5547. This organisation holds therapy courses in the main cities throughout the year in association with Air New Zealand. The four-session courses are run by Grant Amos, a registered psychologist with a background in the aviation industry.

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