Conquer Your Flying Fears by Picturing Fido's Face

05/27/2015 09:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2016

Are you a fearful flyer? Many travelers admit to some level of uneasiness associated with air travel and, odds are, you may be feeling a bit more anxious than usual since the recent Germanwings plane crash involving a suicidal co-pilot. In lieu of filling a prescription for Valium, what does one do to calm jet-induced jitters? We decided to get some expert perspective and coping methods for managing flying phobias and anxiety from Capt. Tom Bunn, a retired commercial airline captain and licensed therapist who's helped more than 10,000 phobic flyers get off the ground.

Shortly after the Germanwings Flight 9525 plane crash in the French Alps, it came to light that co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, was researching suicide methods on the Internet days leading up to the crash. What is your reaction to this information?

In aviation, safety depends on two things: 1. Maintaining control, so problems don't develop; 2. In case a problem does develop, always have a backup that will take care of it.

For example, when the Boeing 777 was being designed, Todd Curtis, Ph.D. (who now runs had two jobs. His first assignment was to think of everything that could possibly go wrong in-flight. Then, he had to develop a solution - it might be a procedure, or it might be a change in engineering - that would get the plane back on the ground safely in spite of the problem.

In the U.S., someone realized what happened on Germanwings was possible and developed a protocol to prevent it. That should have been done everywhere, but it wasn't.

Talk about the two-person cockpit rule and is this enough to prevent a tragedy like the Germanwings incident from reoccurring?

The two-person cockpit rule will prevent the kind of thing that happened on Germanwings. The rule prevents a pilot from being alone in the cockpit and crashing the plane with no interference from the other pilot. But, the two-person rule doesn't prevent a pilot from attempting to crash in spite of the other pilot's efforts. That is apparently what happened in 1999 on EgyptAir Flight 990. Airlines may now be called upon to routinely screen pilots for signs of psychological trouble. Whether this will work remains to be seen.

While many individuals with a fear of flying are most anxious about technical plane malfunctions or weather issues that may cause their plane to crash, the fear of hijacking and terrorism has grown significantly post-9/11. How does one manage those fears, especially when the news media is churning out a steady diet of threats adding to our list of concerns?

Some of us are vulnerable to what the media is doing. But, others have developed immunity. According to one recent survey, fear of flying is at an all-time low.

How a person responds to threats in the news may be related to how secure a person feels in general. In the first year of life, the mother is the child's whole world. As the child's world gets larger, it extends to the father, and to others. How secure the child feels in the family has a lot to do with how secure the child will feel as an adult in the world at large.

You talk about fearful flyers that may actually suffer more from the dread of an impending panic attack than they do the flight itself. What's that about and is there a different way to control this type of anxiety?

A part of the brain, the amygdala - after the Greek word for "almond" - monitors what goes on around us. It releases stress hormones when it senses anything non-routine or unexpected. Stress hormones make us notice what the amygdala has come up with. The hormones also cause arousal: increased heart rate and breathing rate, and other changes. In a secure child, arousal causes curiosity. In an insecure child, arousal causes fear. Arousal has too often been followed by being yelled at, punished, hit, etc.

Insecure children don't deal well with uncertainty. They don't have healthy ways to calm anxiety. The relationships they are in don't allow for that. In a healthy parent-child relationship, when a child is aroused, the child is responded to. When a caregiver consistently responds and calms the child, the caregiver's response becomes built into the child's mind so that, in time, even when the caregiver is not physically present, the caregiver's psychological presence calms the child.

That built-in psychological presence carries over into adulthood. It continues to provide automatic unconscious calming. When the person flies, if they hear an unexpected noise or feel the plane drop, they - like anyone else - feel aroused. Arousal makes them curious. They look around. If they don't see any obvious problem, they drop the matter.

But, when a person who does not have a built-in psychological presence is aroused, they feel threatened. To them, arousal equals fear, and fear means danger. If they don't see any danger, they imagine it. Dangers they imagine set off more stress hormones that, in turn, escalate their arousal higher. The result is high anxiety, panic, or even terror.

Anticipatory anxiety and flight anxiety are different. In anticipatory anxiety, stress hormones are released completely by imagination. In flight anxiety, stress hormones are triggered by sounds, motions, awareness of being up high, and thoughts that the plane might fall. Many are concerned about panic. If they have a panic attack, they cannot get relief through escape.

Through your work as a therapist you have come up with some unconventional methods to help folks get through intense fears about flying in an aircraft. Tell our readers about some of the basic principles and how the body's naturally occurring hormones help out in the process.

There are two kinds of memory cells in the amygdala: fast-learning and slow-learning. The fast-learning cells quickly learn when something is threatening. When the threat is no longer active, the fast-learning cells quickly learn that things are all right again; they stop reacting. The slow-learning cells take longer to learn about mild or moderate threats. They learn instantly if a threat seems life-threatening. Once they learn about a threat, they never forget. Even if the threat is in the past, it remains present in these slow-learning cells. They are old dogs that can't learn new tricks.

The slow-learning-and-never-forgetting cells present a problem when trying to overcome fear of flying. No matter how many uneventful flights a person has, these amygdala cells keep expecting the worst. Since those cells cannot be retrained, we turn the amygdala off when flying so those cells can't make trouble. After all, if your smoke alarm goes off because you are cooking on the stove, you could open the smoke alarm and remove the battery.

How do we shut off the amygdala? Oxytocin inhibits the amygdala, keeping it from releasing stress hormones. There is a sequence of things that happen on every flight: the door closes, the engines start, the plane taxis out, takes off, climbs, cruises, descends, and lands. We link each of these things to vivid recall of an oxytocin-producing moment.

Oxytocin is produced when a mother nurses a child, when first seeing a newborn, during good sexual chemistry, and - interestingly enough - when gazing into your dog's eyes. If you have a dog, it looks at you like you are the only person in the world. That, according to research, produces oxytocin. Why? Apparently that is how lovers look at each other when there is good sexual chemistry. Cats? Well, it depends on the cat. A cat that looks at you like, "What have you done for me lately," isn't going to produce oxytocin. But one that purrs affectionately will.

In aviation, we always have a backup. Our emotional control backup involves a powerful calming system researcher Stephen Porges calls "The Social Engagement System." Recall a person who - at least at times - is attuned, empathic, and accepting. When there is no judgment on their radar screen, you can feel your guard being let down. You are not consciously letting your guard down. Rather, the signals the person unconsciously sends - and you unconsciously receive - slow your heart rate and calm you, mind and body. To make this happen in-flight, we link a vivid memory of the person to the sequence of things that happen during flight. As a backup, if stress hormones are produced, this system overrides them.

Is there anything else that our fearful flyers should know that will help them get on a plane and maybe even enjoy the experience?

Meeting the captain helps. After all, you would never go to a hospital for an operation and not want to meet the doctor. A little personal contact goes a long way. Board early and ask a flight attendant to ask the captain if you can come to the cockpit and say hello.

The free SOAR app at has lots of great tips and a g-force meter that measures turbulence and proves scientifically that the plane is nowhere near its limits.

Happy Travels!