I took that “amateur hour” picture of the North Pole during my 2012 flight to China from New York. I was entranced by the beautiful simplicity of the North Pole from seven miles high. Sadly, that’s not why I so vividly remember snapping that photo. Taking that picture is firmly stored in my memory bank because of what happened next. About 5 seconds after I tucked my iPhone 4 away, the plane, hovering majestically over earth’s peak, suddenly jerked to the right. Then, just as capriciously as it jerked to the right, it jerked to the left, then back to the right, repeating this pattern again and again. With the turbulence reaching a crescendo, I caught a glimpse of two flight attendants struggling to traverse their way down the aisle back to their jump seats. I could sense their calm looking exteriors feverishly fighting to hold back their true feelings of panic. For what seemed like 30 minutes, I endured the worst turbulence I have ever experienced. Plates fell to the ground, babies cried disharmoniously, grownups counted their blessings, and I prayed my corpse wouldn’t become a hungry polar bear’s supper. Just as I thought both wings were about to rip right off the fuselage, it all stopped. The pilots somehow found a smooth pocket of air and all of us on board let out an audible sigh of relief. Although there were no injuries on board, we were shaken up, myself included. As I disembarked the aircraft, a young woman not too far in front of me fell to her knees, vomiting all over the jet bridge. At that moment I knew flying would never be the same.
Commercial flying quickly transformed into a full blown phobia for me. At the time, I just started my graduate training in Tulsa, Oklahoma, far enough from my hometown of Fairfax, Virginia to require a plane ride to visit family. Each time I flew home, it was always the same. A few days before a scheduled flight, the worries crept in. What if the plane crashes during takeoff? What if a fatal design flaw causes the plane to come apart midair? What if I have a disgruntled pilot who deliberately crashes the plane? What if this is my last flight? The worries were like a mental game of whack-a-mole; each time I dealt with a worry, two new worries emerged. In the hours leading up to a flight, the physical symptoms of my anxiety started. From the sweaty palms, stomachaches, to trembling legs and nausea, the fear had penetrated beyond a mere mental construct. Each time the captain announced clearance for takeoff, I performed a set ritual in which I tipped my baseball cap downward, closed my eyes, and prayed the plane would make it peacefully into the open skies. During takeoff my mind would automatically attune to any thing, no matter how innocuous, that I could label as danger. The Russian missile hitting the belly of the plane was actually the landing gear retracting, the screaming bird stuck in the wheel-well was actually the sound of the wheels stopping, and the explosion in the back of the aircraft was actually the engine accelerating. At cruising altitude, I was still imprisoned with fear. The mildest of turbulences evoked panic and an immediate assumption that the plane was going down. Flying had become a dreadful experience. As a graduate student studying clinical psychology, I was learning about how phobias are formed and maintained. Phobias are not only kept alive, but strengthened through a pattern of avoidance. The more someone avoids or escapes the situation that elicits the fear response, the more the fear is reinforced. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m not like that. I still fly for crying out loud!” The truth is, while I may have been facing my fear, I wasn’t allowing myself to feel it.
The phrase “face your fear” is a household colloquialism for exposure, one of the most well researched and validated psychological interventions. As a core element of many approaches to treating phobias and anxiety, behavioral exposure exercises involve deliberately placing oneself in the throes of the anxiety-producing situation, typically in graduated increments. Although we know this works, why it works remains elusive. Most researchers believe that by exposing yourself to a feared situation for a prolonged period of time, we accumulate information that tells us, “there’s no reason to be afraid.” However, the only way you can truly garner this new information is to feel your fear as much as you face it. Feeling your fear means facing your fear head on, for a long enough time to truly internalize a new belief that there is no reason to be afraid. I didn’t realize it, but each time I flew I wasn’t exactly facing my fear head on. By closing my eyes and tilting my baseball cap downward, I was not allowing myself to really feel my fear, thereby closing the door for new information to contradict my fear structure. I concluded that in order to fly peacefully again, I’d have to try something different.
Five years after that punishing flight to China, I was in the process of applying for my pre-doctoral clinical internship. I had managed to land six interviews, each in a different state. After bleeding my wallet dry with airfare purchases, I was slated to board a plane 14 times within a three-week period. I remember looking over my itinerary thinking, “yep, pretty sure one of these flights will crash.” There was something about just how easily that thought penetrated my consciousness that made me realize I had had enough. The way I saw it, I had two choices: I could cancel my flight reservations, rent a car and spend hours driving across the country, or I could finally do something about my fear. I chose the later option. The night before my first flight I went online and changed all my seats so I would be by the window. My plan was to deliberately stare out the window during the entire take-off and accent. I was going to finally allow myself to feel every ounce of my fear. The first flight was a short one from Oklahoma to Denver. With pouring rain and high winds, the captain warned passengers of a choppy takeoff and climb. As the engine roared and the plane sped down the runway, I removed my baseball cap and stared out the plane, nose pressed against the window pane. As the plane lifted off, I could feel the suffocating fear and anxiety tighten its grip on my soul. The fear continuously intensified as the plane darted through the low hanging clouds, encountering moderate turbulence in the process. I wanted to turn away and shut my eyes so many times throughout that take off. Right when I thought I was going to explode and drown hopelessly into my emotions, something amazing happened. The grip lessened, the fear began to wane, and a sense of serenity swept over me as the plane rose further into the sky.
For the remainder of those 14 flights, I continued to do the same thing. I would stare out the window for as long as it took until my anxiety level was minimal. Every time I did this, fear’s grip become loser and shorter. By feeling my fear, I habituated to it. Habituating to a fear allows us to welcome new information that tells us we don’t have to be fearful. I’d be lying if I said I never felt nervous again flying. I certainly do. But I know exactly what I’ll be doing the next time I experience turbulence over the North Pole: staring out a the window, taking another “amateur-hour” picture.