THE BLOG
10/01/2013 10:15 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Be Fearless: Conquer Your Fear of Flying

Many patients see me for help conquering their fear of flying. This fear, unlike other fears, can be difficult to avoid. As a result, the impact on people is significant. I've had patients who have fits of vomiting days before their anticipated flight and I've known others who load up on anti-anxiety medications to calm down before the flight. This fear, if left untreated, can have a profound impact on people, as they may avoid vacations and business trips. This can affect a person's career and even their relationships. The good news is this fear is treatable. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Captain Tom Bunn, one of the world's foremost experts on fear of flying. What's unique about Captain Bunn is he isn't just an airline captain, but also a licensed psychotherapist and former Air Force jet fighter. His unique approach to treating fear of flying has helped over 10,000 formerly-anxious flyers and can be found in his new book SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying.

Here's some of my conversation with Captain Bunn:

How did you become such a fearless pilot?
In the Air Force I flew the F-100. It was the Air Force's first supersonic jet fighter. It was not a safe airplane. One-third of the F-100s built crashed. Over 300 Air Force pilots were killed flying this plane. Anyone who flew the F-100 and wasn't afraid of it obviously didn't understand the problem. Much of what is in my fear of flying program and book was learned dealing with the fear of flying an unsafe plane. Writer Tom Wolfe called this ability to face danger and keep a cool head "the right stuff." What I hope to do is give readers enough of "the right stuff" -- not to be an astronaut or a fighter pilot, but enough to face the very small risk posed by flying a modern jetliner.

What is fear of flying?

Fear of flying is about uncertainty. This uncertainty takes two forms, physical and emotional. On one hand, will the plane crash? On the other hand, will I have a panic attack? Uncertainty leads to "what ifs." What if the wing falls off? What if the mechanic didn't tighten a bolt? What if I lose control and do something crazy? What if I have a heart attack? In the anxious flier's mind, too many things can go wrong, and if anything goes wrong, they are doomed.

Where does it come from?

It has a lot to do with growing up. When we go out as teenagers, our mom tells us to be careful; we think she is from some other planet. What could go wrong? But, in our 20s, we become more aware of risk and vulnerability. When we realize something awful could happen, being in control becomes important. And, if being in control doesn't guarantee our safety, we want some means of escape as a backup. This is where the airline passenger runs into trouble. Passengers have no control; nor is escape available at 30,000 feet. As a person starts to board, a heightened awareness that they are about to give up control and escape can make it impossible for them to get on the plane. Sometimes this awareness increases after a bad flight. But just as often, it comes out of the blue.

People don't want to spend years in therapy and a fortune -- can fear of flying be treated?

Yes, and it doesn't take years of therapy. In fact, most forms of therapy will not help. Fortunately, brain scan research has given us new information about how the brain works. Understanding how emotion is regulated has made it possible to fix problems with flying. It has shown us ways to control anxiety automatically. The feelings people suffer from when flying are caused by an excess of stress hormones. When we stop the stress hormones, we stop the problem. By training the mind not to release stress hormones, we stop the feelings of fear, claustrophobia, and panic when flying. My book has a comprehensive program that helps readers accomplish just this.

What makes you and your book different from others?

Quick and truly effective results. Books by pilots fail to get results because there is more to the problem than knowing flying is safe; feelings still develop when a passenger is not in control or able to get out if they start to panic. Books by psychologists are based on cognitive therapy and relaxation exercises which work on the ground but have their limitations up in the air.

The method in my book helps flyers to control feelings automatically and has been tested by almost 9,000 formerly anxious fliers. It allows them to fly like others do. This is accomplished by leading the anxious flier through the steps that train the mind to ignore what happens on the plane, and to stop releasing stress hormones that cause high anxiety, claustrophobia, and panic.

For more tips on conquering your fear of flying check out Captain Bunn's book Soar: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying.

For tips on overcoming fears and achieving success check out my book BE FEARLESS: Change Your Life in 28 Days.