Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fear of Flying

After an irresistible offer greeted me this morning in my webmail inbox from Travelzoo ("$119 West Coast Fares From the Northeast" do they know???) and just as quickly deflated my hopes (it was each way, and somehow climbed up to $244 anyways by the time I put my in dates of travel), I thought it might be a good time to devote an entry to one of my two completely consuming phobias (I'll save the other for another time): flying. Although I'd classify myself a confirmed aerophobic, since I do still fly in spite of it, I think many [i.e., a psychologist, which I should probably see about it] would hesitate to bestow the official title upon me. To that I say, phooey. Just because I can physically get myself on a plane when the situation requires does not mean that it doesn't take every ounce of my willpower to do so, or that I don't display embarrassing adverse reactions once in said airplane. (Oh, just wait. They're coming).

I don't really know when this fear came about. I honestly can't pinpoint a time. I can remember a time that I wasn't afraid of flying, at all. When I was little I think I really liked it. My biological father (I'm adopted; as with most side-thoughts, more on that to come) relocated our family from New Hampshire to the Bay Area whe
n I was four, and at the time it was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. My thoughts were so preoccupied by excitement for my new life and my new bedroom, and also with worrying about our cats who were traveling below deck, that I had no time to think about the fact that I was suspended thousands of feet in mid-air. Also, of course, I was four, and four-year-olds aren't afraid of anything.

I've had an acute awareness of the fear for the last six years or so. When I was a freshman in high school I flew to London for two weeks with a group of classmates, and although I hadn't reached the code red rock-bottom that is the present stage of my fear, I remember feeling uneasy and trying to sleep the whole time. R
ecently it's gotten much, much worse. Strangely enough I love being in actual airports; getting my tickets, rushing to my gate, browsing the Hudson News kiosk and grabbing an overpriced issue of Cosmo and bottle of water is great fun. But once boarding time is called, my stomach sinks. When I get into my seat I feel on edge and anxious. My breathing starts to increase. When the plane starts to taxi, sometimes my hands start shaking. And, in March when I was flying with my parents in what was probably the worst time of all, during takeoff I essentially drew blood on my mum's hand, couldn't breathe and began hyperventilating and crying. My freakout was so bad that my mum, a calm flier, actually began to get nervous as well (it didn't help that, through tears, I kept saying "Something doesn't feel right"). I'm totally that person.

Ironically, with this fear being the at th
e level that it is, I've probably flown more in the last year than the average person. I flew in December to stay with L. and his parents in Santa Barbara over New Year's (an impromptu Christmas ticket that resulted in about 5 layovers, so I count each of those 5 planes as five "times"), in the infamous March trip my parents and I flew to Ft. Lauderdale and back for our cruise, and when L. and I took our road trip to St. Louis at the beginning of the summer, I took a plane back to Boston. That flight was bad, not only because I felt miserable and had a pounding migraine (at the time I thought L. and I would be separated for 3 months, and yeah, I cry about things like that), but combined with my super sensitive motion sickness, I actually thought I was going to have to use my "little bag" in the seat pocket.

This feeling of mine is totally magnified when I fly alone, and as morbid as this sounds I think it's because I feel like if something were to go wrong, I do not want to die alone, without anyone I love around me or even getting to say my
goodbyes with, in the company of 150 strangers. This is probably rooted in a deeper fear of being alone, which I think everyone has to some degree. On this last flight home from St. Louis, I finally tried to take control of my fear and develop methods to, if not cure it (long shot!), at least temper it. I think I came up with some good ones. The first: Thinking of categories and then closing my eyes and mentally checking off everything I can think of in that category. It sounds simple, but it originated when, as the plane was taking off and I was starting to feel my panic rise, I tried to think of the last thing I had to memorize. One of my many jobs is working as a hostess at Applebee's, and in the hopes of being trained on the floor I memorize our menu in my spare time. This was the only thing that popped into my mind, and so as the plane took off I found myself running through the ingredients in the Oriental Chicken Salad (lettuce mix, cabbage, grilled chicken, crispy noodles, almonds, dressing) and the Soups of the Day that I wrote up on the board at my stand (Monday: Broccoli Cheddar, Tuesday: Chicken Noodle, Wednesday: Tomato Basil, Thursday: Chicken Tortelinni, Friday: Brocoli and Cheddar again because it's the best). And strangely enough, this virtual menu in my mind preoccupied me enough to get through take-off. Even though I'm not that comfortable in the air, it's the plus three/minus eight rule that really worries me, not so much the time in between.

The plus three/minus eight rule is one of many interesting things I've learned about plane crash statistics. Yes, that's right, I am not a
n irrational fearer. I do research on plane crash statistics and advice on how to travel safely, I read the planes chapter in "The Way Things Work"...and yet I'm still afraid. Well, maybe that is a tad irrational, but at least it's not uninformed. Anyway, the plus three/minus eight rule is something I learned from an article in Time called "How to Survive a Plane Crash." What it means is that research has shown that ~80% of accidents occur during the first three minutes of flight, and the last eight. So if you can stay alert and prepared during this time, the article says, you have a better chance of surviving. There are more helpful tidbits like this one in the article:

The five-row rule comes from the research of an English professor who has analyzed plane seating charts and crash statistics and interv
iewed survivors, and found that the maxium number of rows survivors usually move, and still survive, when getting off a plane is five rows. Apparently after five rows, your surival rate plummets.

I also read a
n article in Popular Mechanics about a back-of-the-plane rule, which states that the farther back in the plane your seat, the greater your chance of survival. Popular Mechanics arrived at this conclusion after doing a study of all the commercial jet crashes that took place in the United States from 1971 through 2007, when the article was written. The study cites specific crashes to prove its theory: In both the 1982 Air Florida accident in Washington, D.C., and the 1972 crash of an Eastern 727 at New York's Kennedy Airport, all of the survivors were all sitting in the last few rows. In the United DC-8 crash 1978, all seven deaths were passengers sitting in the first four rows. The study even calculates survival rates for different parts of the cabin. Rear cabin: 69%. Overwing: 56%. Coach, front-wing: 56%. Front or First-class: 49%. (Isn't it funny that airlines charge more for the least safe seats? Popular Mechanics lists some airlines' claims on its site that there is no part of the cabin that is safer than another. I would rethink that.)

The minute-and-a-half rule: An ABC news article says this amount of time after a crash is considered to be the "golden time," because many people survive the intital crash but don't get off the plane quickly enough. Crew are trained to evacuate an entire jet in 90 seconds, but I guess that doesn't always happen.

So, anyways, when I fly, here's what I do: book a seat in the back, one row away from an exit row but not in the exit row (it's like Tyler Durden (Edward Norton-Tyler Durden, not Brad Pitt-Tyler Durden) says in Fight Club, "It's a lot of responsibility...I'm not sure I'm the man for that particular job"). That makes me feel better, but apparently my "feeling better" is most people's highest point of anxiety.

If I am really that absolutely terrified of flying, why do I do it? Well, there are a couple very simple answers. One is that it's necessary. There's really no getting around it. I can say quite sheepishly that there have been some important life decisions that my phobia has affected rather negatively, and I do resent that. For example, I only looked at colleges with a driving distance of ~6 hours or less from my house. But I still ended up at a school that I love, and when move-in and move-out happens, I get to neatly pack everything into my cute little Ford Escape and transport it to/from home in a beautiful two-and-a-half hour drive through the mountains while I watch my friends struggle with storage, the dreaded 50 pound limit for suitcases at the airport, and jet lag. And I know that flying to school at the beginning of the fall, home and back for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break, and flying back again at the beginning of the summer would just be too much for my poor little anxiety-ridden heart to handle. But I'm determined not to let it hinder me from my upcoming life plans. After I graduate from Williams I have my heart set on attending grad school in the West, perhaps St. Louis, Chicago, or California, and I won't let an airplane ride come between me and that. Of course, even though I know I'll be able to get on the plane, I don't think my anxiety is going to disappear, and that's frustrating because it is a really difficult experience every time I fly. Knowing what I know about how vital it is to stay alert and prepared in the chance of an emergency, I'll never treat my phobia with medication or alcohol, because being out of it can actually hurt you rather than help you, especially in the crucial "minus eight" time of the flight. Which brings me to the other very simple reason that I still fly in spite of my fear, which is that in a strange way I can rationally recognize the irrationality of my fear. I'm completely educated about flying, I understand--perhaps not accept, but at least logically understand--the physics behind it, I know what to do in an emergency, and I know that the survival rate for deadly crashes is 76.6%, according to the Time article. For accidents, it's 95.7%. That means that out of the 53,000 people that have been involved in accidents or crashes in the last 16 years, 51,000 have survived.

I know all this...but damn it, I'm still terrified. I guess sometimes logic is only logic, and then comes emotion. To use a nicely convenient quote that is going to biasedly support my argument, "Feelings are not supposed to be logical. Dangerous is the man who has rationalized his emotions." So maybe if I were an Aldous Huxley character, I could be condemned for my fear, but I don't think we're quite there yet.

Image from[
Popular Mechanics.]

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