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 Has it doubled down on anxiety or has it superseded fear of flying such that those formerly afraid to fly are putting aside their concerns just to get out?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

A Very COVID Thanksgiving

Here we are, the Sunday before Thanksgiving 2020, and I still haven’t fully committed to our Thursday plans. There’s no turkey thawing in the fridge, no potatoes already starting to spoil on the counter because I STILL don’t know how to store potatoes, and no boxes of Stove Top Stuffing just waiting to thrill my guests (there are, however, many empty bags of Ghirardelli Peppermint Bark that really were bought for Thanksgiving but ended up in my mouth).

I’m confused and not quite ready to act.

Which is exactly how I felt this past week as I started writing this post.

Because every time I started to write something “thankful” about the holiday, I thought about the people who had lost jobs, and worse … lost family to this pandemic. And I wasn’t feeling all that grateful.

BUT THEN I thought about how fortunate we are, and how truly thankful I am for our blessings. And I was back to writing about gratitude.

BUT THEN it was back to how upset I am that my family can’t be together this year, how lonely these past months have felt, and how wonderful it would be to see everyone, to meet my newest great-niece (who is already a year old!), to be with friends we love.

And back and forth and back and forth … you get the picture.

Well, after about eight different drafts (a few therapy sessions, some “CALM” mindfulness practices …. Hell I even found Keano and got her advice), it has come down to this: Thanksgiving 2020 just is confusing. At a time I’m supposed to be thankful, I’m also feeling a little bit guilty because I’m just a little bit pissed too.

So, I’m going to accept that there’s room for gratitude AND frustration this year. That maybe nothing is perfect, but nothing is absolutely horrible either.

And wherever you are, with whomever you’re able to share the holiday, I hope it’s a great one. Next year, everyone is welcome at our house!

Now where’s that bottle of Patron?

I’m Just a Singer on a Sofa

I always wanted to be “a singer in a rock and roll band.” I’ve had more fantasies about being in a band than most Americans have about a final word on the 2020 election. Alas, the one time I was in a band (remember my “Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp” gig?) it turned out that my voice wasn’t quite as up to the challenge as my fantasy was.

That hasn’t stopped me. Put me in a car by myself, and I’m ready for my Vocal Eze throat spray and my sound check. But I never want to take the lead vocal. That’s a hard pass. Just like my girl Melanie M. knows, I’ll take the harmony any day! I’ll be a Pip to your Gladys, 

a Blowfish to your Hootie, 

a Crystal Taliefero to your … well, just about ANYBODY!

But this week, I found a way to combine my need to make sure no one actually HEARS me sing with the excitement of being a part of a “band.” Ladies and gentlemen, introducing “The Sofa Singers.”

The Sofa Singers is a twice-weekly online singing event that brings hundreds of people together from around the world to “spark joy and human connection.” Founded by musician, vocal leader, author, and speaker James Sills as a response to global self-isolation during the Coronavirus outbreak, singers register once a week via Eventbrite then use the free video software Zoom to connect with everyone for 45 minutes of simultaneous singing from the comfort of their own homes.

Thankfully, The Sofa Singers encourages you to “sing as if no-one is listening, because they won’t be.” Due to latency (the delay between video and audio) it’s not possible to synchronize and hear all of the singers at the same time. James therefore gratefully keeps all audio off except for himself and his guitar, while the rest of us belt it out and share the stage with hundreds of fellow singers around the world

So this past Tuesday, I went on my first worldwide tour, joining more than 400 people from around the globe (including the US, Canada, the UK, France, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Brazil, Equator, the Netherlands, and Israel) as we sang “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson Five (and although there were probably a few Michaels among the crowd, I was totally Tito!).

What a great way to get through the pandemic, AND fulfill one of my fantasies. 

Now if I can just find “The Sofa Billionaires” and “The Sofa People with Thin Thighs and No Cellulite,” all my fantasies will be fulfilled.

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!