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Healthy Traveler

Fear of Flying Is Slowly Loosening Its Grip

November 11, 2001|KATHLEEN DOHENY

In the two months since the terrorist attacks, Americans accustomed to boarding a plane without hesitation have had to come to grips with their disbelief, horror, fear and anger. They have also had to debate, as they put the risk into perspective, when and how often they will again take to the skies.

Therapists who have been listening to the collective reaction of the public, as well as the individual reactions of their clients, have some good news: Most of us have been reacting in a mentally healthy way and are making progress so the attacks won't ground us forever.

Therapists can't (and shouldn't) decide whether their clients should fly, but what they have heard and observed in the weeks since Sept. 11 might give travelers insight and help in decision-making. And at least one survey echoes what therapists are saying: Most of us are getting more comfortable with the idea of flying again.

The jitters that many travelers are experiencing--especially if they were not afraid of air travel before--are not likely to develop into a phobia that will keep them grounded permanently, says Dorothea Lack, a San Francisco psychologist. She thinks that intense fear triggered by a single event is more likely to become a phobia if the trauma put the person in direct danger. But beyond this, it's difficult to predict who will develop a phobia because several personality variables come into play and because the events of Sept. 11 are unprecedented.

Being afraid to fly, at least temporarily, is understandable, says Los Angeles psychologist Dorothea McArthur. Many of her clients didn't want to fly immediately after the attacks, and she has told them that it's natural and normal to feel anxious about flying.

Therapists say they notice generational differences in travelers' fears of flying, with people in their 20s having a particularly difficult time, at least immediately after the attacks. "The younger 20-somethings have never had the fear that someone is going to get them," Lack says. "Most of us who are older have had some degree of uncertainty in our lives. The scariest thing 20-somethings may have done before is walk down a scary street. And they chose to do that. They were in control. Terrorist attacks leave them feeling very out of control. The 20-somethings are more afraid, but that doesn't tend to stop them [from flying]."

On the other hand, Lack has noticed that her older clients, including some in their 80s, tend not to be nervous about flying. Yet many are also feeling a deep sense of sadness. "Older people thought they made the world safe for us," she says. A person's response to the attacks and to making a decision about flying is not necessarily a matter of mental health, she says. "It's a matter of life experience."

Those who took flights soon after the attacks are people who tend to "accept the whole life and death thing," says Glen Arnold, an Orange County psychologist who directs a program that addresses fear of flying. They exercise reasonable caution but don't let their fears prevent them from doing what they want to do.

Travelers who were wary of air travel before, fearing such problems as equipment failure, are most likely to stay grounded now, Arnold says. "These are the people who will say to others, 'See, I told you planes just aren't safe."'

Still, Arnold says, anyone who is determined not to fly right now should not be forced or prodded. He recently counseled a young groom-to-be whose fiancee was urging him to "fix his flying problem" so they could go to Hawaii for their honeymoon. The man was distressed about flying in addition to being nervous about the wedding. Arnold told him something he didn't expect to hear: "Why burn up all your energy worrying about the honeymoon flight and spoil the wedding?" He suggested the man defer the trip and the fear-of-flying counseling until after the big day. The bride agreed, eager to make the wedding go as smoothly as possible.

"The basic message is to not push people," Arnold says. "The more the person is bugged about it, the greater the resistance."

As time passes, most travelers will likely feel more comfortable about air travel, therapists say. In a survey conducted five weeks after the attacks by J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing information services firm, nearly two-thirds of more than 2,200 adult respondents said they were "already comfortable" with the idea of flying again; only 3% said they would never be at ease with air travel.

Once we're ready to move beyond our terrorist-related fear of flying, we may still need to work on quelling anxiety. Here's how, therapists say:

* Put fears in perspective. "We get in the car and drive all the time," McArthur says. "But we get on an airplane and say, 'Oh, is my will in order?"' These days, she says, we have magnified this skewed assessment of the risks involved with flying.

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