The Name Game

You know how you’re at a gathering of some kind (say at a really great party, or at a reception following your induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Okay, let’s be realistic … how many of us have actually been to a really great party? So, let’s just pretend you’re walking down the street) and you meet a new person who introduces themself* to you?

Right at that moment I start panicking, because I’m pretty sure I’ll never remember their name and equally as sure that I’ll see them again in an hour. And they’ll walk up and say, “hello again, Nikki” and I’ll be all …

Sometimes I think I remember someone’s name, and I want to say it to them so that they’ll be flattered by the fact that I remembered them, but then I’m petrified because what if I’m wrong? I’ve tried muttering it under my breath before only to have them totally blow my cover with a very loud, “WHAT?

Or the other day, I was so proud of myself for remembering a couple’s names … but forgot the actual people they belonged to. So when I said “Hi Steve and Bobbie” to two people who were not Steve and Bobbie, it became clear to me that remembering the name isn’t all that matters.

Many, many times I’ve met a person and their dog, and the only name I can remember when I see them again is “Sniffy Longdroppings” and for a moment I’ll be paralyzed thinking … “ugh, but what was the dog’s name?”

Yes, remembering names is really hard, and it’s not just something that happens as you get older. In fact, according to Dr. Charan Ranganath, the director of the Memory and Plasticity Program at the University of California, Davis, the simplest explanation for why we forget names so easily is … get ready for it …

… we’re just not that interested.

“People are better at remembering things that they’re motivated to learn,” says Dr. Ranganath. And even when we think we are motivated to remember, we often “underestimate the work necessary to remember something as seemingly simple as a name.”

People are better at remembering things that they’re motivated to learn

So, just how much work is involved? Lets’ see …

The “Grandmaster of Memory” Kevin Horsley, says that distraction is the reason we can’t remember names, and that if we “make compelling associations that stick in the mind like a TV commercial jingle” we’ll solve the problem. “[p]erhaps the best way for you to remember the name ‘Scott Morrison’ (Prime Minister of Australia) is by picturing a Scottish terrier chasing the Doors’ Jim Morrison” he recommends.

Evidently, experts say you can link the name with anything, literally anything, you already know. Researchers at Emory University determined that attaching a visual cue, like a unique facial or body feature, to their name can help improve name recall success by up to 69%. One example Vanessa Van Edwards gives in her video, “How to Remember Anyone’s Name” is to remember the name “Marilee” (whose picture she shows in the video) by her beautiful smile, her teeth with the double “ee” sound … so teeth … sounds like “eee” and she has a nice smile, so, teeth = Marliee.

Or associate their name with something it rhymes with. Say you meet someone named “Bob” – well, you can rhyme that with “rob” and picture your new friend Bob with a gun in his hand and a Zorro mask on his face, robbing a bank.

The problem for me is that I remember the association and not the name! I’ll have no trouble remembering “Jim Morrison,” “Teeth,” and “Zorro,” but the actual names they are associated with? Gone.

Another motivating tip is to imagine you’ll get $100,000 for remembering the name of the next person you meet. Or, you could repeat the name of the person a few times – like when you meet them, maybe once during the conversation, and again when you leave.

Many memory experts recommend repeating the names of all of the people you’ve met at the end of the day.

And that’s a big problem for me. Because if I have just spent a WHOLE DAY meeting new people I am way too emotionally exhausted to repeat anything except the names I was clearly VERY motivated to learn a long time ago: like “Peppermint Pattie, Orville Redenbacher, Baby Ruth, and Margarita.”


BTW, I spent waaaaay too much time trying to figure out whether to use “themselves” or “themself” in this case. For those of you who may wonder why I settled on “themself” please enjoy these references:

Photo by blogmonkey from FreeImages

Amaze Your Children and Grandchildren When You Explain Blockchain Technology and Bitcoin to Them!

Have you heard the word “Bitcoin”? I’m sure you have. And while it might be confirmation bias (and by “confirmation bias” I mean a Google algorithm) that makes the word show up every day in my news feed, I doubt that can explain why it’s always on ‘World News Tonight with David Muir” or the lead article in my neighborhood newspaper.

As much as I was perfectly willing to audit conversations about Bitcoin (and its bestie, “blockchain”), write about its related scams (“Online Scams (or “How I (Almost) Met An American Hero”), and even listen to friends’ advice about investing in it, I didn’t have a clue what Bitcoin really was, how it works, where it comes from, if it’s legal, if it’s taxable, if it’s capitalized (in both senses!). NOTHING.

Which is like throwing down the gauntlet. If there’s a concept that’s this ubiquitous, Amazon Prime one-day delivery on books, and an entire Internet from which to learn about it …? Well, challenge accepted.

I dove headfirst down that wormhole. I read, “Blockchain for Dummies,” I devoured online articles, and I unabashedly reached out to experts all over the world (at this age, I clearly have no shame left at all). And here’s what I found out: cryptocurrency and blockchain technology are INCREDIBLY hard to explain – mainly because once you learn one tiny fact, you’re compelled to understand hundreds more.

And then I found Anders Brownworth, Maggie Hsu, and Adil Haris – experts who had not only published straight-forward explanations of Bitcoin and blockchain technology, but who offered to answer any questions I might have, so that those of us who are “not yet dead” can get a basic understanding – at least enough to know what all those news stories are all about and to think before investing our hard-earned retirement funds in it.

Adil, a Manager for the Financial Services Innovation team at Ernst and Young, received his Master of Science in Product Management at Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science and Tepper School of Business and wrote, “Blockchain — A Short and Simple Explanation with Pictures” (pictures!). Anders, a Principal Architect in Applied Research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and co-taught the first blockchain class at MIT, spoke on the subject extensively from which he created a visual demo of blockchain technology (more pictures! And they move!). Maggie, who leads global business development for Amazon Managed Blockchain and is co-founder of Gold House, sent me a link to this video in which she not only provided me the first understandable explanation of the blockchain and bitcoin, she also illustrated the value of the blockchain technology.

So, here’s a (hopefully) very simple explanation, just to give you a head start. If you want to join me in the wormhole, be sure to click on the links provided by Anders, Maggie, and Adil.

Let’s start with the blockchain

Super simple explanation: Imagine a box (block) filled with information or transactions (data). Kinda like your checkbook ledger, except that it not only shows a record of your transactions, but it can also show a record of the transactions that your payee makes with the payment they receive, and so on, and so on, and so on. Just a big ol’ history of the provenance of that item of value (in this example, dollar) and all of the travels it makes through time.

Now imagine a bunch of computers (nodes) spread out all over the world who verify that the information in that box is accurate (mining) and add their seal of verification (hash). They get paid for this work (verifying that data) in native tokens (bitcoins in the case of the Bitcoin blockchain. Other blockchains may offer other coins or tokens).

Okay, now let’s say a new box of transactions comes along that needs verification (each block can contain a certain amount of information). This new box of data also contains the seal of verification (hash) from the previous box. Once this new box of transactions is verified and is given its own unique seal of verification (hash), it is chained to the previous box (block / chain) so that there’s a running history of verified transactions. The process continues as more and more boxes of data are added and verified. And because all the computers (nodes) running the blockchain have the same list of blocks and transactions and can transparently see these new blocks being filled with new transactions, no one can cheat the system.

All of the information on the blockchain (boxes of data, verified and chained together) is called an “immutable shared public ledger.” An important benefit of this system is that no one can change any of the data or transactions that have occurred (immutable) without affecting the seal of verification (hash) in their blockchain. If they do, it is immediately evident that their hash is different from all of the others who have the same blockchain on their computers, and that their data is not valid. Then the offending (minority) chain is dropped – the nodes simply choose not to talk to the offending node anymore and they carry on maintaining consensus without that node/copy of the blockchain.

And what is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin (BTC) is perhaps the most well-known of more than 6,700 cryptocurrencies in the marketplace (“crypto”). Cryptocurrencies, often called “tokens,” can be used as an online payment for certain goods and services. It’s important to note “online” here, as bitcoin is a digital asset and can only be used digitally.

Cryptocurrency got its name from “cryptography.” Cryptography keeps information secure by using a series of mathematical proofs to both hide (encode and decode) and authenticate (hash/sign) data. These proofs guarantee the security of the transactions or data, the security of the participants, the independence from central authority (like a bank … or a government), and the protection from double spending (ensuring that, like a physical dollar bill, you can only spend it once).

You can purchase bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies via a cryptocurrency exchange. You can also obtain it as a payment for goods and services. And you can “mine” it.

Mining is the process of solving a complex mathematical equation (proofs) first. Then, once your solution is verified by everyone else, you are paid in cryptocurrency. While anyone could ostensibly mine bitcoin by downloading the necessary software on a computer capable of running it, the cost of the computing resources necessary to do so makes mining much less tempting than simply purchasing it on an exchange.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have “value” in that there is a limited amount out there – just like there’s a limited amount of gold. The price fluctuates depending on media attention, rumors, speculation, and availability. That’s the cart-and-horse nature of cryptocurrencies – until they are accepted worldwide as valuable currencies, the volatility will likely continue. And until the volatility as a payment mechanism settles, it is unlikely to gain worldwide acceptance.

What does a blockchain have to do with Bitcoin?

This one is easier to answer. The Bitcoin network relies on blockchain technology to operate because the blockchain technology is what is providing the security, immutability, and historical ledger to the transactions. This organized collective of computers (nodes) is called a peer-to-peer network in that it allows each individual to interact directly with the others. In the case of Bitcoin, the network is built in such a way that each user is broadcasting the transactions of other users. And, crucially, no bank is required as a third party.

How might blockchain technology be used in the future?

Blockchains are decentralized ledgers that can keep track of essentially any data, transaction, asset, etc. If you imagine that every asset can be given a digital identity, then you can imagine how, in the future, all of those assets will be made trackable and unalterable via blockchain technology.

With blockchain technology, there will no longer be a need for third party involvement in many types of transactions. Instead, all of the data will be on the blockchain and accessible to the parties directly involved. Medical records, global financial products, banking, land ownership and real estate transactions, insurance, ID systems, intellectual property, program management within organizations, authentication and tracking can all be put on a blockchain system, one that will be secure, private, and immutable.

Lesson 1: Complete

Despite how confusing it got at times, learning about cryptocurrencies and blockchains was a fun exercise. And while there’s still a debate as to whether “brain training” activities have any effect on dementia, I guarantee you that you’ll know a little bit more the next time you hear someone say “Bitcoin.”

Associated lingo

Cryptography – the field of science that is involved with the authentication and hiding of data using mathematics.

Hash – a unique, fixed-length string of random numbers that is the digital fingerprint of some data. Hashes are produced when a hashing algorithm runs a complex calculation on any data and generates a hash as the result of the calculation. For a great, visual explanation, see Anders Brownworth’s video here.

Miners (not minors) – the computers running the hashing algorithm who are paid in tokens (Bitcoins, for example) for their work.

Peer-to-Peer (P2P) – computers that are connected on the Internet via networks, rather than a central server, so that files can be shared directly.

Private keys and public keys – A private key is produced by a complicated mathematical algorithm that allows you to decrypt data. A public key is created from the private key the same way, so that whatever is encrypted with the public key requires the related private key for decryption and vice versa. The public key is made available to everyone that needs it (it is recorded on the blockchain) while the private key is confidential and only shared with its owner. It is nearly impossible to reverse the process of key generation, such that one could generate a private key from someone’s public key.

Consider this example from Adil Haris’s “BlockchainA Short and Simple Explanation with Pictures”: The public key is like your mailbox which everyone knows about, and can drop you messages. The private key, on the other hand, is like the key to that mailbox. Only you own it, and only you can read the messages inside.

Signature – a cryptographic way to prove ownership. You would use your private key to sign something and then the resulting signature could be verified by everyone against your public key.

Wallet – where you keep all your money – in this case, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Photo by Pascal Bernardon on Unsplash

Body Image as We Age: Why Aren’t We Kinder to Ourselves?

I’d love to think I’m an evolved adult woman. And in many ways, I’ve learned a lot over my 64 years and have made some healthy improvements (like, one shot of tequila is enough – the other five won’t make me a better singer or dancer). But one area in which I haven’t grown as much as I would like to is in my perception of my “looks.” Depending on the day, the outfit, the social media influencers, the people I’m with, or the magazine I’m reading, my body image can swing from “meh, fine” to “why can’t I zip this zipper, and why are those lines in my forehead so freakin’ prominent, and when am I going to go back to the hairdresser and get a decent dye job?”

Then I keep the ball rolling by criticizing myself for even thinking those things! With all of the troubles in the world, is that really what’s important?

Let’s just say that I can dig a really deep hole for myself that starts with just. one. zipper.

As you might imagine, I’m not alone. In one Glamour magazine poll, 97 percent of women said they have at least one negative thought about their body image every single day.

Dr. Leslie Morrison Faerstein, Ed.D., LCSW, believes we can change those distorted images of ourselves. In the mid-’80s, “Dr. Leslie” founded the first New York State licensed, nonprofit mental health clinic specializing in Eating Disorders and women’s issues. Her practice now focuses on women, aging, and body issues, and she runs a weekly Body Positivity group for Sesh. Dr. Leslie shares her expertise with us in this week’s post.

NYD: Some women feel that they can’t find the perfect balance. If they “act their age” they might be considered boring, irrelevant, invisible, but if they succumb to societal pressure to remain youthful, unwrinkled, thin, non-gray, they are judged for “trying too hard.” How can women reconcile these conflicting pressures in a healthy way?

Dr. Leslie: They can ignore these constrictions and “shoulds.” There is no perfect balance and whose balance is it anyway? I think the bigger question is why do they care that “acting their age” or looking their age – whatever that means – suggests that others (men?) would consider them boring, etc.? I wonder why we try to do what we can for the “male gaze” as well as for some societal/media expectation of what women should look and act like at “a certain age.” 

I let my hair go gray several years ago. I was always blonde but started covering the gray in my late 40s. Then around five years ago, my stylist said my hair looked like it was coming in silvery or ash blonde and let’s not color it. I was all for that considering the cost. I love my natural hair – there’s almost something subversive about not coloring it and claiming my age (now 70). With the pandemic, there seems to be a “greynaissance” going on, and increasingly more women are not only letting their hair go natural, but many younger women are now dying their hair gorgeous shades of gray.

NYD: Considering the large number of women in the aging Baby Boomer demographic, and the fact that we hold the majority of wealth in the US, why aren’t advertisers understanding us and changing their narrative?

Dr. Leslie: It’s certainly puzzling when we do indeed hold the majority of wealth and there are so many of us. I’m always disturbed when older women show up in so many pharmaceutical commercials or ones for needing a supplement to “sharpen” their minds.

With so many wonderful older women actors, it still baffles me that younger women are chosen to play older women. Several years ago, Maggie Gyllenhaal was turned down to play the role of the lover of a 55-year-old man because she was too old. She was  37! She said that at first, she was astonished: “It made me feel bad, and then I felt angry, and then it made me laugh.” Recently, I watched “The Dig” a British film with Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan.  Mulligan, 35 years old, is a terrific actor, but she was playing a real-life woman who was in her 50s at the time. Are there no appropriate women actors in their 50s? We can all think of quite a few. Why don’t advertisers and producers change their narrative? Ageism and Sexism.

NYD: How does family affect our body image?

Dr. Leslie: This question particularly interests me as I’ve been talking about how attitudes about our body image is passed down through the generations. I’ve written four separate blogs on this in regard to my family on my website, LeslieMFaerstein.com

We need to recognize that what our grandmothers may have passed down to our mothers and then to us is powerful. Women’s roles, how they dress and how they interact with both men and other women affects our beliefs about our bodies. I come from a family of working and professional women starting with my grandmother who was the Executive Secretary to the President of Paramount Pictures in New York in the 20s, 30s and 40s. She was known as “Sexy Sadie” and was obsessed with her body and how to look attractive, based on the fashions of those decades. 

My mother who was born in 1929 was called “Bubbles” as she grew up which, of course, she hated, and her weight was a constant concern of my grandmother’s and, of course, to my mother herself. She was a professor at Columbia University at a time when there were few women in these positions, but she was always obsessed with her weight and subsequently mine as well. She thought she had the answer to her weight, caring for two small children and getting her advanced degrees when she discovered amphetamines when working at a hospital where they were readily available. She always wrote down what she wore to each class she taught, in case she repeated an outfit and students might think she didn’t have a full wardrobe. She smoked three packs of cigarettes a day from the time she was 16.  When she was diagnosed, not surprisingly with lung cancer at 69, she said to me “Screw it – for the first time in my life I’m going to eat whatever I want.” This blew my mind and was very upsetting.  Only when facing death did she feel that the world of food was open to her.

I was also caught up in dieting and looking professional. It was only when I met Susie Orbach in the early 80s that I started to revise my thinking about diets and the world of food. Susie wrote “Fat is a Feminist Issue” in 1979. This changed my world. Since my daughter was three when I continued my training in Eating Disorders at the Women’s Therapy Centre Institute, I raised her with the idea that all food is equal, you eat what you want when you’re hungry and you stop when you’re satiated. She is the one who has broken free from the bonds of dieting. She feels comfortable in her body but has also said that she lives in this culture so is aware of wanting to look good and fit. However, she doesn’t diet and has a healthy relationship with food.

So, this is a long history and way of saying: of course, our families and what our grandmothers and mothers pass down to us affect how we look at ourselves. The good news, though, is that we can break free of the generations of expectations.

NYD: Do body image issues only affect certain socio-economic groups?

Dr. Leslie: We all live in this culture, so many women from all the socio-economic groups experience body image issues. They may differ based upon the expectations of their particular culture and what their “ideal” body type may be. Anorexia and Bulimia were often thought of as privileged white women’s problems. 

Back in the 1980s, I started the first New York State licensed, nonprofit mental health clinic specializing in Eating Disorders and women who had been sexually abused. I was determined to provide good treatment for all women, regardless of whether they could pay or had public health insurance. When I went to the licensing hearing the evaluators – all white men – were hesitant to grant the license because they felt that “poor” women or women on public assistance didn’t have eating disorders and therefore, I didn’t need to receive Medicaid payments for their treatment. Somehow, this illusion persists.

NYD: Certainly, the traditional media play a part in the low self-esteem that women have about body image, but what effect does social media have? Is it equally impactful? More so?

Dr. Leslie: This question follows from the previous one. I think one of the most striking studies demonstrating the power that media has on women and their body image comes from Fiji.

Prior to 1995, television did not exist in Fiji. Then American television started to show up. By 1998 – in three short years – eating issues and body image distortions became rampant among the female population. Prior to this, women who were larger were seen as better off – they had access to food and a larger body meant well-being. However, by 1998, 11% of Fijian women and girls engaged in self-induced vomiting, 29% were at risk for a clinical eating disorder, 69% had dieted and 74% felt “too fat” (reported in “Pursing Perfection” by Margo Maine and Joe Kelly).

I do believe that social media has upped the challenge about how we feel about our bodies and our own beauty, since the images we see are of women like us but who have made themselves the arbiter of beauty – at any age – and I wonder what their own body images are if there is the desire to project themselves as the model we measure ourselves against. We believe so much of what others post and envy their lives, their bodies, their beauty. There is this belief that our bodies are plastic. The average American woman is 5’4” and weighs 164 lbs. The average model is 5’10” and weighs 107 lbs. It’s not realistic to measure ourselves against this ideal of beauty.

The average American woman is 5’4″ and weighs 164 lbs. The average model is 5’10” and weighs 107 lbs. it’s not realistic to measure ourselves against this ideal of beauty.

I am, however, encouraged by the Body Positivity movement – and the images on social media – encouraging women to feel good about their bodies no matter what the size at that moment in time.

NYD: I heard you say (in “Twisting the Plot – Twist Your Body Image”) that diets don’t work – they are made not to work, and that it isn’t an issue of discipline. Can you elaborate on that? Would you recommend this to someone who might be reading this and feeling discouraged by dieting?

Dr. Leslie: Dieting begets more dieting. The usual cycle is: “I’m too fat, I have to go on a diet” which then leads to finding a new diet. We follow this diet with its restrictions and may very well lose weight but at some point, we can’t live in a “cage,” so we break out. Once we eat something not on the diet (we’ve been “bad”), our response is often “Screw it – I’ve already blown it, so I’ll eat all the things I haven’t been able to eat.” This leads to bingeing, feeling bad about ourselves, trashing ourselves and then finding another diet that “will work.” The U.S. Weight loss/control industry is now worth $72 billion! There’s a lot riding on keeping us on diet after diet and feeling bad about our bodies.

I believe that if we identify when we’re hungry (not starving) and eat what feels right (intuitive eating), stop when we’re satiated (that’s the hard part), then we will reach our set point without dieting. The great thing is that we have multiple times during the day to work on identifying what we really want to eat when hungry. We can ask ourselves: do I want something crunchy, smooth, hot, cold etc. and then find the right match to our hunger. It is like going back to being a baby. If a mother is nursing, she doesn’t know how many ounces of milk the baby is taking in. The baby herself stops when full. It’s at the point that we introduce solid food that we put a value to it. Certain foods become particularly charged, especially those that may be considered “junk” or “special occasion” food. We don’t tell our children to hurry up and finish your ice cream so you can have broccoli. This is what I mean by all foods are equal.  It’s all food: cauliflower, chocolate, cake, chicken.  If we take away the “charge” around those foods like cake, etc. then there will be times we’re hungry and want that or just feel like having some of it for whatever reason.

I also recommend to my clients that if you’re not hungry and you find yourself looking for something to eat, then there is a feeling state going on that has nothing to do with hunger. It’s useful to try to identify that state and what is really going on: boredom, sadness, anxiety? If you realize that after you’ve eaten when not hungry, try to go back and slow down the experience from the time the idea of eating popped into your head. Look at it frame by frame and try to identify the feeling and what might have taken care of it more appropriately than food.

During the pandemic, so many people (of all ages and genders) have put on weight while home and isolating due to anxiety, depression – a host of feelings.

Food and alcohol have been one way to cope with it. We did what we can to get through this period. We’ve talked about the Covid “19” but it’s also been reported that many gained between 20-29 lbs. We need to be kind to ourselves and not go on crash diets as we start to slowly move out of isolation. So many of us have experienced this, and it takes time. I would recommend starting to get in touch with body hunger and experience the pleasure that comes from eating the right match to what your body wants at that moment.

NYD: Can you suggest any practices that will help women overcome negative body image internal messages? (Mindfulness practices, social media vacations, journaling, etc.)

Dr. Leslie: It’s helpful to talk to others who are also struggling. A Body Positivity group can help. If it’s a problem that haunts you, seeking therapeutic help is always useful. Mindfulness or Intuitive Eating is a good place to start – there are books, workbooks and courses that can teach you how to approach food this way. I find it helpful to remember “If we talked to our friends the way we talk to our bodies, we’d have no friends” (Marcia Germaine Hutchinson). That often brings us up short. Follow women who are part of the Body Positivity movement and see how they relate to their bodies. If you enjoy journaling, then by all means write down how you speak to yourself and your body – what’s going on at those times.

And it’s always delightful to see Ari Seth Cohen’s beautiful older women in Advanced Style.

My teacher, Susie Orbach said “Women are trying to change the shape of their lives by changing the shape of their bodies.” I think that’s something we should think about: what really needs to change in our lives? 

Leslie Morrison Faerstein, Ed.D., LCSW has over 40 years of experience in nonprofit administration, founding the first New York State licensed, nonprofit mental health clinic specializing in Eating Disorders and women’s issues in the mid- ‘80s. She then went on to help establish, as Executive Director, Musicians On Call, bringing weekly live music to the bedsides of patients in 6 cities. Most recently, she was the first Executive Director of amazing.community, a nonprofit organization that worked to expand the workplace for women 50+ who had a gap in their work history. She has always maintained a psychotherapy practice as well. 

Currently, Leslie is focusing on women, aging and body image.  As she approached 70 (she is now approaching 71), she started thinking and writing about issues this generation now faces. She is expanding her practice and runs a weekly group on Body Positivity for Sesh. You can find her at LeslieMFaerstein.com and she can be reached at LeslieMFaerstein@gmail.com. She is very much Not Yet Dead.

COVID-19 and Fear of Flying: An Anxiety Daily Double

Depending on which study you read, one-third to nearly one-half of Americans have some fear of flying. Whether it’s turbulence, unusual sounds, or claustrophobia, fear of flying is one of the most common phobias, second only to fear of public speaking.

And in March 2020, we added a new phobia to our repertoire. Survey data from YouGov shows that the majority of American adults fear contracting Covid-19 to some degree, from “very” to “somewhat.”

Now, after a year of being isolated from family and friends, we’re starting to tentatively emerge from our homes, like the munchkins when meeting Dorothy. And many of us are thinking about travel, whether to see family, fulfill a bucket-list entry, or just see something other than our four walls.

But what about the fearful flyer? Has COVID-19 made fear of flying worse? Has it doubled down on anxiety or has it superseded fear of flying such that those formerly afraid to fly are putting aside their concerns just to get out? And what about those with flight phobia who think, “I’ve lived this long without it. Why risk it now?”

I asked Captain Tom Bunn, LCSW, a retired airline pilot and licensed therapist who has specialized in the treatment of fear of flying for over thirty years, to share his observations about how COVID-19 has affected the fear of flying. Since 1982, Capt. Tom’s company SOAR, Inc. has helped more than 14,000 clients control fear, panic, and claustrophobia. For more information about his bestselling book SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying, and app for iOS and Android, please see the end of this article.

NYD: How has COVID-19 changed anxiety levels for fliers, and what should they know?

Capt. Tom: It has been a bit of a journey. At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of anxious fliers felt relieved. They had a valid reason to avoid flying with no feelings of shame. But as the pandemic dragged on, fearful fliers were saying they wanted the pandemic to be over so they could travel, even if it meant taking a plane.

As to this kind of change, a client said before the pandemic her fear of flying was unjustified. Then, during the pandemic, there was good reason to be afraid to fly. She was aware of both positions. The two things were in her mind at once: her justified fear of being on a plane during the pandemic, and her unjustified fear before the pandemic. Somehow, when she thought of the pandemic being over, and thus her justified fear being over, she had trouble continuing to be afraid of her unjustified fear. She began to look forward to being able to fly again.

I don’t think flying during the pandemic is a good idea. There is no clear line as to what is safe and what isn’t. If a person really needs to fly, with good precautions they should be fine. But every exposure is worth avoiding unless necessary. It is not just being on the plane. There is getting to the airport, checking in, going through security, and boarding on the departure end. There is deplaning, getting to a hotel or other accommodations, and meeting with business people or family. Eating – obviously without wearing a mask – is going to be done in the presence of others who are not wearing a mask and whose COVID status is unknown. All in all, a trip is not just one exposure but a constellation of many exposures to people who have also had many recent exposures.

After vaccination, there is a lot of protection and that should make flying OK.

Another thing people are going to run into is this. After being at home for a year, just going out in public is going to trigger the amygdala. The amygdala is no longer used to what used to be routine. If a person lacks good ability to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, what you used to do routinely is going to cause anxiety – which will not make sense to them unless they understand the amygdala is regarding it as something they have never done.

NYD: Does having even more years in which to gather crashes in “your mental filing cabinet” make it even harder for the older adult to overcome fear of flying?

Capt. Tom: I think so. There doesn’t seem to be a “best used before” date on past crashes. There should be, because the problems that caused crashes years ago no longer exist. We are flying better planes, and they are being flown by better-trained pilots. Thus, there should be a cutoff date.

When would that date be? I think it should begin after all the first generation of jet airlines had been retired (707, DC-8, 727, A-300) The 747 produced a huge leap in engineering standards. The post-747 planes are much safer than the pre-747 planes. All the older planes were retired in the early 2000s. So, start with 2005 and consider the crashes since then. Also, because standards are different elsewhere, disregard crashes outside the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the UK, and Europe. How many crashes does that leave us to fret over? Zero.

NYD: Is anxiety about flying different from generalized anxiety? Specific to flying? Is it treated much like any other anxiety disorder would be treated? If not, how is fear of flying treated differently?

Capt. Tom: All anxiety comes from the same source. When operating your car, you have the accelerator to go faster, and the brake to slow down. A person with anxiety is like a person who bought a Tesla that is supposed to drive itself, and someone forgot to service the brakes. It would accelerate just fine. But when it was time to slow down or stop, it wouldn’t be able to. Anxiety is like that. It is due to a lack of psychological programming to operate the system that is supposed to slow us down when stress hormones build up and get us going too fast.

NYD: How would you respond to the comment: “I’ve lived this long without flying, I don’t need to risk it now”?

Capt. Tom: What’s the risk? It’s less than driving to the supermarket. The risk is so low that if you stop doing your daily routine that involves some driving and you fly someplace instead, you have made yourself safer.

… if you stop doing your daily routine that involves some driving and you fly someplace instead, you have made yourself safer.

NYD: How can the SOAR Course help someone who experienced anxiety while flying years ago, and has not returned to it for many, many years?

Capt. Tom: One (of my clients) had a panic attack on a flight when she was a teenager. Finally, forty years later she did the SOAR Course. Now she has done about 60 flights. Sometimes the motivation turns out to be disgust that you are not able to do what others do. Sometimes it is a bucket list thing: not wanting to get any older without seeing the places you want to see.

Tom Bunn, L.C.S.W., is a retired airline captain and licensed therapist who has specialized in the treatment of fear of flying for over thirty years. He is the author of the bestselling book on flight phobia, “SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying. His company, SOAR, Inc., founded in 1982, has helped more than 14,000 clients control fear, panic, and claustrophobia.

I’m one of them!

Be sure to download the “SOAR Conquers Fear of Flying” app, free for iOS and Android that features:

  • a step-by-step “Basics” course that provides reassuring information about flying at all steps along the way, from “Getting Ready” to “At the Airport” to “In the Air” to “Landing” including relaxation exercises to soothe anticipatory anxiety
  • a G-force meter that you can use to prove that turbulence is safe and never approaches the plane’s limits
  • Live forecasts for turbulence potential around the world and storm position and height
  • in-app purchases including Capt. Tom’s “Take Me Along” to coach you through the flight