Volume 77
Number 4

Health for All

Fear of Flying

Flying II: High Anxiety

Virtual Vietnam

Uncovering the Past

Wired New World

Enigma: Physics Band

Emory University

Association of Emory Alumni

Current News and Events

Emory Report



Sports Updates





















































HEART POUNDING, palms damp, I take my seat and click on the safety belt. The rumble of engines creates vibrations beneath my feet. Dutifully I try to relax, breathe deeply, think of the ocean. A few moments pass and the pilot's voice crackles abruptly in my ears, causing my vision of calm blue waves to dissolve into the pattern on the seat in front of mine. As the plane begins to taxi down the runway, I resist the urge to close my eyes and instead deliberately look out the window, taking in passing sky, planes, concrete. The engine rumble rises to a roar as the ground falls away.

“Can I get a reading?” The voice of therapist Page Anderson breaks into my headset.

“So far, I'd rate the highest point about seventy-five,” I say, almost proudly. I am rating my anxiety level on a scale of one to a hundred. This was my fourth takeoff in half an hour and my best one yet.

My grandmother used to travel all over the country by Greyhound bus because she was terrified to fly. Apparently fear can be handed down through generations, like red hair or a stubborn streak. About a year ago, after a particularly rough flight, my own air travel anxiety skyrocketed to a level that became problematic: I started to find excuses not to take long trips, put off making vacation plans, seriously considered driving from Atlanta to San Francisco for a two-day conference.

Last spring, as it began to dawn on me that this little personality quirk was severely curtailing my travel options, I heard about an Emory psychology professor doing cutting-edge work with fearful fliers. I thought I might have a shot at bringing my ballooning paranoia under control.

So I completed an eight-week course in virtual reality therapy, a program that delivers a tried-and-true method for curing phobias–exposure–in a radical new way: computer simulation.

The first few sessions with Dr. Anderson followed a pattern of traditional, one-on-one therapy. We discussed my fear and its possible sources, helping me explore and assess the trouble. I then began to learn myriad anxiety-management techniques, including breathing practices, relaxation exercises, and mental gymnastics to help me stop the vicious cycle of fearful thoughts (“this plane is going to burst into flames and hurtle to the ground,” for instance) when they threatened to spiral out of control.

I also learned some convincing statistics about airline safety, which proved an effective offense against my particular brand of fear:

• If you flew every day of your life, probability indicates that it would be twenty-six thousand years before you were in a fatal accident.

• Flying is ten times safer than traveling by train.

• A sold-out 747 jet would have to crash every day, with no survivors, to equal the highway deaths per year in this country.

• You are nineteen times safer in a plane than in a car.

I compiled these into a “cheat sheet” with Dr. Anderson’s instructions to carry it with me on air flights and review this litany of comforts during panicky moments.

When I had stockpiled an arsenal of anxiety defenses, it was time for the exposure portion of the program. Rather than driving to the airport as phobic fliers in standard therapy would have done, I walked into the next room, stepped up onto a platform where an airplane-like seat was perched, and strapped on a weighty piece of equipment called a head-mounted display.

I found myself surrounded by digital images of an airplane’s interior; when I turned my head from side to side, I was looking out the window and across the aisle. Airplane sounds were piped into the headset’s earphones. The contraption took some getting used to, but it did the trick: as the minutes passed, the passenger seat in front of me appeared increasingly three-dimensional, the engines’ whine sounded more and more genuine, and the window view became nerve-wrackingly authentic. By takeoff time, with the help of Dr. Anderson’s verbal scene-setting and a certain amount of conscious vulnerability on my part, I could practically smell the jet fuel.

What followed was a series of virtual flights, with special emphasis on takeoff and turbulence (particular trouble spots for me). Dr. Anderson even created virtual storms, in which the platform below me shook, thunder boomed inside the headset, and lightning flashed outside the digital plane window. Speaking into the headphones, she checked in with me at key points, measuring my anxiety and offering helpful suggestions.

Sure enough, as I grew more comfortable with the sensations of air travel, the fear began to fade. After four sessions of intense virtual reality therapy, I was beginning to feel more hopeful about flying. I won’t say I was eager to, say, hop a flight to Australia, but when I was obliged to attend a family wedding in Memphis, I didn’t insist on taking a Greyhound bus. Instead I managed to book a reservation, board a plane, and fly, clutching my cheat sheet (“you are twice as likely to be killed by a bee sting than an airline accident”) and trying to think of the ocean. It wasn’t easy, but I did it. And making the trip gave me hope that I might someday be like most people I knew–those baffling fortunates who casually accept air travel as a simple fact, an everyday convenience, a given.

My budding confidence was shattered on September 11, as I watched hijacked airplanes explode into the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center, again and again.

The statistics on air travel hold as true today as they did a year ago: The average person’s chances of being in a fatal airline crash are about one in ten million. Even lower are the odds of falling victim to a horrific act of terror.

But statistics are cold comfort in the face of senseless destruction. Those damaging images and their profoundly tragic meaning have become imbedded in the collective American consciousness, and the resulting fear defies logic. It seems I am not the only one whose fragile trust in air travel safety and security was deeply shaken by the terrorist hijackings. Judging from the sharp decline in ticket sales since the September attacks, thousands of Americans who once took flying for granted have reevaluated their casual confidence.

These days, when I make excuses about not flying, people no longer look at me oddly, with that old mixture of puzzlement and pity. Instead, they nod their heads understandingly. They get it. Whereas I once felt like an outcast of sorts, I now have ample company. I am no longer alone with my fear of flying.

I wish I were, though. Oh, how I wish I were.




© 2002 Emory University