"Oh, my God! What is happening!" These words continually resound in my ears as anxious, upset people react -- and then question their reaction -- to reports of recent airline disasters. Over the past several months, we have been bombarded with what seems like an endless string of airplane mishaps and a flood of stories about these accidents. In a very real sense the public has vicariously experienced the hijacking of a plane, the bombing of a plane, the mysterious crashing of a plane, lightning striking a plane, fire in a plane and a near miss with a helicopter.
At the time of such disasters, telephone calls to the offices of psychiatrists and psychologists make it clear that many people are greatly troubled about flying and that many others simply do not fly because of their fears.
Some people say they flew with discomfort before the current rash of mishaps and seriously doubt that they will ever fly again.
Statistically, we are assured that flying remains the safest way to travel. Why then do so many people react with heightened anxiety in the face of airplane accidents? Are the feelings abnormal? Are panicky responses to these real events phobic feelings? Is a decision not to fly in the face of such events irrational?
The answers are at once simple and complex. Three important factors contribute to our reactions to air travel:
*The shocking aspect of collective death when accidents do occur;
*Our inability to understand and to perceive air travel in the same way as surface travel; and
*The very major issue of control.
As human beings, we instinctively recoil at the thought of mass death. We respond more to the news that 300 people died in one plane accident than to the news that 300 people died in car accidents over a holiday weekend.
When major tragedies occur in close succession, the collective impact makes the odds against such occurances seem much higher than they actually are. People think: "That could have been me."
Most of us cannot comprehend air travel in the same way we relate to surface travel. We certainly know that air and atmosphere do exist, but it is difficult to experience the atmosphere with our senses, except, perhaps, when the wind blows.
Therefore, our ability to fully understand air travel as "traveling in or on something" is limited. It is just not the same for us as a ride in a car or a train.
Perhaps the most important issue of all is control. Air travel is out of the passenger's control. One's destiny during a flight is in the hands of someone else. If something goes wrong in the cockpit, most of us haven't a clue as to what to do or how to fly the plane. Our response to a crisis is limited to control of ourselves and our own reactions to the situation at hand.
Even the support and maintenance aspects of flight are out of our control. The personnel involved are not even on the flight! "How do I know that the plane was adequately checked?" "Would they find the cracks in the engine, the doors, or the body of the plane?" I can take my car into the service station for a check. If it breaks down on the road, I can return it for repairs. Returning for repairs is not always an alternative for the pilot in flight.
There is also a tendency for people to experience their own personal "fear thoughts" when faced with uncertainty. Heightened anxiety and fear are understandable when one is faced with a sequence of disastrous news events often with morbid details, limited understanding and limited control of the situation. It is in this kind of situation that fearful anticipatory thinking -- "What if I fly? That could be me" -- begin to take over.
If heightened anxiety is common, isn't it logical to decide not to fly? This, of course, is the critical question.
In the 1980s air travel has become part of the American way of life. Those who refuse to fly based on fear truly limit the possibilities of frequent and easy travel. Those who avoid air travel lead a more constricted life. The cost in terms of time and efficiency alone is significant.
The decision comes down to whether one is dominated by fearfulness caused by the recent accidents or whether one is able to understand that flying is still extremely safe despite the recent accidents.
Getting on the plane is the final test. The fearful feelings will come and go, but the passenger's willingness to deal with them during the flight makes the difference between adjustment and the emergence of a phobic response.
Fighting the problem with a willingness to experience and reexperience actual flight, even with some negative feelings, increases the likelihood that such feelings will eventually decrease or disappear. Watching the feelings change -- come and go -- helps passengers realize that the feelings may be uncomfortable but are not dangerous.
Fly with confidence in your own ability to voluntarily experience and deal with all feelings of the moment. If, however, you find that fear is overwhelming you, don't let it control your behavior. Seek help. There is no reason to take flight from flying when you can overcome the fear.