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Freaked-Out Fliers Find There's Hope

October 27, 1989|ROBERT OSTMANN JR. | Robert Ostmann Jr. is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Dana Mendenhall has a problem. She has a chance to vacation in the Bahamas, but she hasn't been able to set foot on an airplane in 21 years.

"I used to fly everywhere, and then one day we'd gotten on a plane in Las Vegas to fly back to Orange County, and I had a panic attack," said Mendenhall, 45, of Yorba Linda.

"The only thing I remember is standing up screaming, 'I've got to get off this plane.' They turned around and went back to the gate. I haven't flown since."

But determined at long last to conquer her fear of flying, Mendenhall joined a small group of other similarly afflicted folk one recent evening in the classroom of a flight school at John Wayne Airport. Instrument panel mock-ups graced the walls. The noise of jets roaring into the air drifted in through the door.

Mendenhall and eight others sat grim-faced, their heads nodding rapidly in recognition as the various flying fears were listed on a chart.

Fear of takeoffs. Of turbulence. Of claustrophobia. Of panicking. Of being embarrassed. Of dying.

The long list complete, seminar leader Glen Arnold set to work reassuring the fearful travelers that it's OK to be freaked out by flying.

"A Gallup poll found that half of all Americans express some concern about flying. None of us chooses to have problems. They just arrive on our doorstep," Arnold says.

For 12 years, Arnold has been helping fliers send their fears packing. A pilot and clinical social worker, Arnold, 47, founded Thairapy flight relaxation training service in 1978.

"People knew I was a therapist and involved with aviation, and they kept asking me for advice on dealing with their flying problems, so I decided to give it more formally."

Arnold, who also is on the counseling staff at UCI Medical Center, has Thairapy offices in Newport Beach and Santa Monica. He holds three-hour seminars, such as the recent one at John Wayne Airport, as well as group and individual therapy sessions.

Arnold said his goal is to get people to at least tolerate flying, if not enjoy it.

"A lot of people use the New York subway, and they don't feel they have to enjoy the experience."

Arnold led the seminar participants in a discussion of why some people fear flying.

"Flying, first of all, is vividly three-dimensional. We live in pretty much a two-dimensional world--all our other transportation is forward and back, side to side. In a plane you experience very intense up and down sensations."

Arnold said that most people with flying problems had parents with similar phobias. Children can either learn their fears or acquire the inclination toward them through heredity.

For others, he said, "their experiences have made them view flying as dangerous."

Anita Berresse, 49, of El Toro said she knows exactly when and why her fear began.

"Jan. 6, 1988, on a flight from Dallas to Detroit. One of the engines exploded right after takeoff. I sat there frozen with fear.

"Now I feel that when I get on a plane, I'm relinquishing all control. I'm handing somebody my life."

She flies about six times a year, but each flight is filled with the terror of waiting for something to happen.

"On my last flight I talked to myself all through the turbulence. You don't want to be on a plane with me."

The way to begin dealing with flying fear, no matter what its origin, Arnold said, is to identify the most troublesome part of the flight and realize that usually it accounts for a very small part of an hours-long journey. Takeoffs, for instance, last only 40 seconds. Turbulence may last only a few minutes.

"If you figure out which part bothers you the most, you already have a much greater sense of control and are able to manage the rest of the flight much more smoothly."

Once the main source of fear is identified, Arnold recommends attacking it with the following four-pronged strategy, setting a goal of small improvement with each flight:

* Relaxation. Arnold suggested deep-breathing and visualization techniques for getting in a relaxed frame of mind before the troubling part of the flight. "Imagine yourself in some restful, peaceful place with the sun soaking into your body."

* Mental armor. Think positively, Arnold said. "Welcome the takeoff or turbulence or whatever. Tell yourself, 'I'm here to learn. This is an outdoor laboratory.' That's the attitude you need."

If that resolve begins to crumble, use various sensual distraction techniques, he suggested, such as applying a drop of perfume to a shirt cuff, turning up the volume on the audio headset or chewing on something crunchy. Arnold provided the seminar participants with a list of 32 anxiety-reducing ploys.

* Nutrition. For 12 to 24 hours before a flight, minimize or eliminate foods that interfere with relaxation, Arnold said. The main offenders are sugar, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.

The most common mistake anxious fliers make is using alcohol, he said. "Eighty-five percent of people with flying problems are hindered by the use of alcohol. It actually heightens their anxiety."

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