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Health, Nutrition : Experts' Tips to Ground a Fear of Flying


In the wake of recent air disasters, fear of flying is on the rise, local mental health experts say.

Most susceptible to increased anxiety aloft are passengers already classified as white-knucklers, said Dr. Dennis J. Munjack, director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the Los Angeles County USC Medical Center and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the USC School of Medicine.

"I haven't seen many people with new phobias (since the Dec. 7 crash of a PSA plane in San Luis Obispo County and other recent disasters)," he said. "People who already have fears (about flying), at least for a short time, get worse."

About one in six adult Americans fear flying to some degree, say experts, who point out that the fear can spring from several different concerns.

Many Sources of Fear

"Some people have a plain old fear of crashing," Munjack said. "Some people have a fear of being in a closed space and not being able to get out. For others, it's fear of heights. For others, it's fear of having a panic attack and not being able to get to the emergency room."

Separation anxiety--leaving behind familiar routines and environment--can play a role too, according to Gary Emery, director of the Los Angeles Center for Cognitive Therapy and a clinical assistant professor of psychology and psychiatry at UCLA. Loss of control can fuel fear, other experts say.

Whatever the fear's source, nervous people with mild or moderate anxieties can often learn self-help techniques to minimize their distress, said Munjack, who suggests a three-pronged approach.

--Thought-stopping: "Be aware of catastrophic images," he said. Without realizing it, many people begin picturing disaster in the back of their minds days or weeks before the flight. "Get those thoughts out of your head," he advises patients.

--Respiratory control: To avoid hyperventilation, extremely rapid breathing that over-oxygenates the blood and causes dizziness or fainting, Munjack suggests passengers learn to breath from the abdomen.

Slowing Down Breathing

"People who hyperventilate are almost invariably moving their chest very rapidly," he said. One way to practice becoming an abdominal breather: "Lie on a bed. Put a book on your abdomen and breathe so the book rises and falls. If you learn to breathe by having the abdomen puff out, it automatically slows you down."

--Relaxation training: Before and during the flight, listen to relaxation tapes, Munjack suggested. "Some people actually lie down and relax in the terminal," he said. Others call up a particularly relaxing mental scene.

Simple organization and planning ahead can also allay flight fears, added Emery, who advises his patients to arrange such details as parking and rental car pickups well in advance, thus reducing overall anxieties.

Best Breakfast Bets

About 74 million Americans--about one in three--begin the day with cereal for breakfast, estimates Dick Lovell of the Kellogg Co., a Battle Creek, Mich.,-based cereal manufacturer. Nutritionally, some cereals are great grains. But other flakes flunk dietitians' tests.

How to separate the worthy wheats (and other grains) from nutritional chaff?

First and foremost, cereal should be a source of dietary fiber, advised Rita Storey, a registered dietitian at NutraCare in Newport Beach and an American Dietetic Assn. spokeswoman. Many nutritionists recommend a daily fiber intake of 25 to 35 grams, and cereals vary in their fiber content. Frosted Flakes and Special K, for example, provide just a trace of dietary fiber, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research, while All-Bran provides 9 grams and Fiber One has 12 grams in every one-ounce serving.

Avoid Sugar and Fat

Cereal should not be a significant source of sugar or fat.

"Two or three forms of sugar (in the ingredients list) are a bad sign," Storey said. "Sugar and fat, if present, should be somewhat down on the list of ingredients (denoting smaller amounts of them)."

"If sugar or fat is listed as the first or second ingredient, pass up the cereal," said Joan Levinthal, a Tarzana registered dietitian. And don't be fooled by listings of "vegetable oil" or "turbinado." "Those are still fats and sugars," she said.

Not so important in cereals, some nutritionists say, are the amounts of protein, vitamins and minerals, assuming the consumer eats an otherwise nutritionally sound diet.

Plenty of Protein in Diet

"Most nutritionists recommend eating about 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight (daily)," Storey said. "For most people, that's about 50 to 70 grams a day. And we eat probably twice that without cereal.

"If you buy the cereals with 'fortification,' you're probably paying extra for nutrients you're getting from foods already."

People on low-salt diets should check the sodium content of cereals, experts agreed. But others who limit their intake of table salt, processed meats and other salty foods probably shouldn't worry much about cereal salt, they say.

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