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 Has it doubled down on anxiety or has it superseded fear of flying such that those formerly afraid to fly are putting aside their concerns just to get out?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

Rosamund Pike Sheds Light on Guardianship Fraud in Golden Globes Acceptance Speech

Last night on the Golden Globes, Rosamund Pike won “Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical/Comedy” for her portrayal of Marla Grayson, a professional legal guardian who defrauds her elderly clients using loopholes in the US guardian/conservatorship system, in the Netflix movie “I Care a Lot.”

“If we delivered this story on this subject matter in a way that tugged at the heart string and was told from the victim’s point of view, it would be unbearably difficult to watch,” Pike said in a recent interview. “We took this subject matter and flipped it. So, yes, we go on this fun, seductive ride, which is fun and funny, but we also get to get angry at the same time. I’m open to the debate whether this is a comedy or not.”

I watched the movie about a week or so ago, and I don’t remember one LOL moment. In fact, it freaked me out, because as far as I know, I don’t have a Russian mobster family to protect me (but I do remember my dad telling me about a Russian great-great-great-great grandfather who was a rabbi. … although I don’t feel any safer knowing that).

Unfortunately, there are some scary examples of guardianship/conservatorship fraud, and you don’t have to be elderly to become a victim. Just look at the ongoing struggle Britney Spears has been facing in court battles to stop, or at least limit her father’s 13-year legal conservatorship that removed her control over her finances, career, and well-being. If Britney can’t win, how can we expect to protect our anonymous, financially modest, sometimes disenfranchised elderly?

The day after I watched the movie, I contacted the Florida State Guardianship Association. I figured if ANY place was familiar with elderly guardianship it was Florida in which 1/4 of the state’s population is age 60 or older. Evidently, they were well prepared for my query and sent me this white paper from the National Guardianship Association (NGA), written in preparation of the release of “I Care a Lot.”

Guardians “follow a code of ethics and statutory guidelines, caring for individuals and managing their property after they have been deemed incapable of doing so,” the paper states. “Typically, our clients have serious chronic mental illness, dementia, a developmental disability, or traumatic brain injury.” These clients are evaluated by licensed mental health professionals, physicians and others with the ultimate goal of ending guardianship whenever possible. And the paper goes on to give examples of wards who have regained their independence.

I truly believe the NGA is “leading the way to excellence in guardianship” through its mission to establish and promote nationally recognized standards, encourage the highest levels of integrity and competence through guardianship education, and protect the interests of guardians and people in their care. However, despite the NGA’s intentions, the best laid codes aren’t always followed, and people can still find ways to take advantage of the system and the wards in their care. (In her acceptance speech last night, Pike thanked “America’s broken legal system for making it possible to make stories like this.”)

Here’s just a few examples of how guardianship can go wrong:

This is a conversation that has been gaining volume, and Pike’s award will hopefully bring even greater awareness to the situation. If you have ANY concerns about guardianship fraud, contact:
Adult Protective Services in your area (these differ by state)

And learn more from:
The National Center on Law and Elder Rights (See paper here, “When the Guardian is an Abuser”) and The National Association to Stop Guardianship Abuse.

Later, 2020!

2020 is almost over, and if there were ever a year in which being “NOT YET DEAD” seems like an accomplishment, it’s this one. We’ve lost loved ones, gotten sick, been scared, stayed home, washed groceries, dealt with “virtual learning,” reimagined two-parent work schedules, and lost jobs. We’re over it.

So when I started writing this blog, I thought I would write about the past, just to get myself out of the “what-a-shitty-year-this-has-been” attitude and back into a more pleasant state of mind. I’d start with the 50s, and although I had only reached age 4 by the end of the decade, I somehow remembered it as being pretty cool. I was ready to write about all the AWESOME things that happened in the past, justify my attitude about 2020, and look forward to the COVID vaccination and a new year!

And then, as it always does when I start looking at the FACTS, I had a nice little meeting with reality. 

I “Googled” the 1950s and, yeah, there were great things like Elvis singing “All Shook Up,” television sets playing “I Love Lucy,” and a booming economy. But while I was shakin’ to Elvis and loving Lucy, my parents and millions of other sentient people (unlike myself) must have been freaking out. Because if it wasn’t bad enough that the Asian Flu pandemic (1957) killed more than 70,000 Americans, parents also had to deal with the fact that polio, a “contagious viral illness that in its most severe form causes nerve injury leading to paralysis, difficulty breathing and sometimes death,” threatened THEIR CHILDREN!!!  

Polio was called “infantile paralysis” because it mostly affected children under five. In 1950, 28,386 severe cases were reported. By 1952, there were 55,000.

Yeah, that’s what they were dealing with. You couldn’t let your children go outside in the summer (IN THE SUMMER!!!) when outbreaks were at their peak. Pools, theatres, schools and churches were closed. Travel was restricted and quarantines were imposed on homes and towns where people were diagnosed.

And here’s a nice little vocab reminder from that time … Iron Lung. Do you remember hearing those words? Maybe it was just my ultra-anxious family, but whoa baby. I sure remember hearing about iron lungs and why they were used, and I was terrified … so I can only imagine how my parents felt!

So, by this point in my little march down memory lane I started to recognize the rose-colored tint I had on the past, especially when I added “Swine Flu,” the second measles outbreaks, HIV/AIDS, whooping cough, and other epidemics. And I hadn’t even TOUCHED on the wars and social injustices witnessed over the six decades I’d been alive.

Maybe I need to adjust my thinking.

If all those awful things happened in the past, why do I remember it as being so great? And so much better than right now?

So I asked my friend Google again, and I got more than 863,000,000 results (evidently the subject has been given some thought!). 

One article in Psychreg gave four reasons that resonated with me:

  1. You look to the past with a sense of certainty that the present can’t provide – basically, we know how it’s going to turn out
  2. As you experience more, it takes more to “wow”
  3. It wasn’t as easy to engage in social comparison in the past – thank you social media
  4. Your perspective of the past has shifted – you have more confidence that you can deal with the things that stressed you in the past, so you tend to look back on them as “they weren’t so bad after all”

Well. 

If the past wasn’t that great at the time, but I could look back on it and think it was fantastic, then would there come a day when I would look back on 2020 with the same positive lens? From doing this little exercise in retrospection, I’m thinking, yes.

But it’s not just that one day I’ll look BACK on all this with a different perspective that makes me feel a little less miserable about 2020. It’s also the fact that I can look at 2020 NOW and think about some of the OTHER experiences this past year brought that were among the best times of my life. 

And according to that same article, here’s how:

  1. “Be able to be comfortable with discomfort. You might not be able to perceive the present moment with the same sense of certainty that you reflect on the past with, but you can improve your ability to be comfortable with the discomfort and uncertainties that the present moment might throw your way.
  2. “Minimise comparison. You’re not here to outdo others, you’re here to live a fulfilling life of your own.
  3. “Manage your expectations. Not everything you do will be the best thing you’ve ever done or the best thing you’ve ever accomplished, and that’s fine. Life is going to have highlight reel moments, and some less than stellar moments.
  4. “Engage in binary thinking. Shift your focus from the quality of what you’re doing to the fact that you’re simply doing it.”

So 2020, sorry I’ve been disrespecting you so much. You really weren’t all that bad.

But COVID-19? I won’t be sorry to see you go!

Just Step Right up on the Scale …

“Okay, just step right up here onto the scale, and let’s get your weight real quick, sweetie.”

No matter how gently those words are uttered, you might as well be saying, “okay, let’s just cram this knife right into your neck real quick, sweetie, and see how fast your blood flows.”

I hate getting weighed at the doctor. Unless I walk in there and specifically ask, “would you mind finding out how much I weigh, because I don’t have a scale, a mirror, 4,000 apps on my phone, or clothes with waistbands anymore, so I just can’t tell on my own,” then PLEASE don’t weigh me. 

Unfortunately, my health care practitioners think this is my first (and only) concern when I visit them. My left arm might be hanging off from a chainsaw injury or I may have passed out in the elevator from a fever, but darn if that scale isn’t going to be my first stop.

I remember the last time I went in for my physical. It was a freezing day in December, let’s say around 4 degrees. As you might expect, I happened to be wearing a tank top … under a sweater, scarf, leggings, pants, socks, shoes, a coat, sunglasses, REALLY heavy earrings, and my wedding band. And I had a surprisingly hefty rubber band in my hair. 

“Okay, just step right up here onto the scale, and let’s get your weight real quick, sweetie” my otherwise very understanding and sympathetic nurse requested. 

“Um, do you want me to take off my coat? Or, maybe everything I have on before I do that? I don’t mind being completely naked in this hallway as long as it will shave an ounce or two off the results” I said, horrified.

“Oh no,” she replied, “that’s fine. We WANT to see just how much you can possibly weigh. According to medical research, if we put you on the scale in the dead of winter and make you look right at the numbers, we can effectively humiliate you enough that you’ll spend the rest of the day beating yourself up, buying diet books on Amazon, and scouring the Internet for weight loss plans. It’s a deal we have with therapists, publishers, and software developers.”

And don’t even think about losing weight when you’re a woman over 55. Instead, you’ll find out that once you get to “that certain age,” it’s nearly impossible to lose weight and keep the weight off. I’ve tried everything, but the real joke was the “Intermittent Fasting” trend that has become so popular.

I tried …

  • the 5:2 diet involves eating normally 5 days of the week while restricting your calorie intake to 500–600 for 2 days of the week,
  • the 16/8 method (fasting every day for 14–16 hours and restricting your daily eating window to 8–10 hours),
  • “Eat Stop Eat” (24-hour fast once or twice per week),
  • alternate-day fasting (you fast every other day),
  • and The Warrior Diet (eating small amounts of raw fruits and vegetables during the day and eating one huge meal at night)

I gained seven pounds.

Now I’m trying the 5:5 intermittent dieting plan.

I eat anything I want for five minutes, then look for something else to eat for five minutes, then eat that for five minutes, etc.

And next time, I’m scheduling my physical for a hot summer day.

How I’m Surviving COVID-19

We all have our coping mechanisms. COVID-19 and the year 2020 have certainly shown us not only HOW we cope during a crisis, but have given each of us a pocket full of tested strategies that we can pull out anytime things get bad – like when the next virus hits, or when an asteroid is heading toward the earth, or when aliens invade the planet, or when locusts overwhelm the environment, or … Tuesday.

But just in case you haven’t been able to store up enough resilience yet, I thought I would share my TOP 5 COVID-19 COPING STRATEGIES. Be sure you get your grain of salt ready …

  1. A husband or significant other who will (pretends to?) listen – this has been a big one for me, because I’ve come up with a LOT of information and possible cures that I want to send to the CDC and the NIH and all of the drug companies. But thankfully I’m able to run them by my husband who very thoughtfully considers them and kindly tells me I might need to do a little more research before I reach out. But I’m thinking I really should remind them of that time-honored cowpox vaccine, in case they haven’t thought about that.
  2. Amazon or other online stores with FREE SHIPPING – it’s Christmas every day!! You can find some really random things like “Soft Scrub In-Tank Toilet Cleaner” for mere pennies, and they also deliver CANDY. Need I say more?
  3. Therapy – the most important thing you can line up during a crisis is a cadre of great therapists. And since you’re so miserable and depressed at first, it really doesn’t matter how much it costs because you know you’re going to die any day now anyway. Win/win. Since March, I’ve tried CBT, EBT, EMDR, therapy pets, Tarot readings, astrologists, The Amazing Kreskin, The Long Island Medium, and Miss Cleo. I’ve improved all the way from “definitely going to die from COVID-19” to “I may not die from COVID-19” but I do, evidently, need to keep my eyes open for an albino squirrel who’s really my deceased grandfather and wants me to know he forgives me.
  4. Below Deck” or other quality reality TV – Yes, I know what a contradiction it is to be brilliant enough to find the cure for COVID-19 AND be addicted to a reality show. But I really do need something to take me away from all of the deep thought that I’m doing all day! Now, in all fairness, I am only bingeing on “Below Deck ” and “Below Deck Mediterranean” because … puhleeease! Anyone who can cure COVID-19 isn’t going to watch “Sailing Yacht.” Sometimes I feel like Captain Lee and Captain Sandy are getting into some tough situations, and I try to tell them what they should do … but my husband once again kindly reminds me they can’t hear me.
  5. Home repair – this is such a great and practical way to spend time. For maximum COVID-19 distraction, be sure you choose project that:
    1. you’ve never done before
    2. will take much longer than you expect it to take
    3. includes a high probability that you will get into a fight with your husband (note: this is an excellent COVID diversion. You may want to consider picking fights just for entertainment.)

In case you haven’t tried any of these strategies yet, I hope you find one or more of them helpful. And maybe, just maybe, we won’t need them sometime soon!

Have an interesting COVID-19 distraction? Be sure to add it here!