Home / General Travel Tips /
Dr. Anderson: Fear of Flying
» » View Travel Tips by Destination * » » View Travel Tips by Topic
Dr. Anderson: Fear of Flying
Dr. Eric Anderson, a charter diplomat of the American Board of Family Practice and a former president of the New
Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, is a regular contributor to Travel Tips 'n' Tales. He is widely traveled and
published, having written a travel health column for Travel 50 & Beyond and a weekly online column, Ask The Doctor, for The New York Times Syndicate.
Dr. Anderson invites you to send your questions regarding travel health issues to firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Eric Anderson
Question: Phobias stop many people from the joys of travel, the most restrictive
being fear of flying. Any simple answer why some people have them and others
don't? The physical symptoms are real enough -- weak knees, rapid heartbeat, pins and needles ...
What causes them?
Rational fear is good.
We are all frightened of something. Sometimes with reason. A
climbing instructor once told me, "People have irrational fears of
heights, we try and remove that and leave them with rational fear." So it's
fairly normal to be scared of heights. It's a common phobia
and has its own name, acrophobia. However, hundreds of phobias have been
identified ranging from understandable ones like antlophobia (fear of
floods) and zoophobia (fear of animals) to odd-ball ones like apeirophobia
(fear of infinity) and zelophobia (fear of jealousy).
Although encounters by phobic persons are very specific and reactions may
happen only in those situations, in general phobias are found as part of the
anxiety reaction, as a component of panic attacks. Those attacks are very
real. When I was a medical student, one of our top professors collapsed once
on to the dirty tiled floor of a department store, a floor soiled by winter
snow and slush, and begged the assistant , "Please call an ambulance. I'm
having a heart attack." He wasn't; it was a panic attack.
We are a bit more aware of panic attacks now that Hollywood uses them in
its story lines. In the movie, "Shampoo," Goldie Hawn was shown breathing
into a paper bag for relief as Warren Beattie charged up the stairs to help
her, and in "Starting Over" Burt Reynolds collapsed on a sofa in a furniture
store, bereft until bystanders offered Valium.
You ask why some people have those attacks?
It's as if some persons are born
one Valium below par. Clearly your genes play a part. But as always in those
arguments we can't exclude environment and nurture. I often cared for three
generations as a family doctor in NH for 21 years. I recall one family where
the grandmother and mother both had panic attacks at times and, as the little
one got older, I saw the grandchild develop the same problem. Genetics you
say? No, both the mother and her child were adopted.
We don't really know why some people get panic attacks but we're on surer
ground when we try to explain what is happening. It's all part of the
biochemistry of the brain. One of the world authorities on panic attacks was
an elderly GP in Australia. She wrote several paperbacks on the subject and
finally confessed to a colleague of mine that she suffered those attacks
herself. But she didn't give in. She would just stop whatever she was doing
and tell herself that "On the other side of Panic lay Peace"; she would just
stand there, she said, "until the chemicals in her brain rearranged
Most patients, however, can't do that and start to over-breathe
(hyperventilate). In so doing they wash a lot of stale air out of their
lungs. It sounds good, but it isn't. The stale air is CO2 dissolved in the water in
the blood to form a weak, useful acid called carbonic acid (H2CO3). If we
wash a lot of that acid out of our body, our blood becomes somewhat
alkaline. And that's what causes the symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome:
dizziness, faintness, vertigo or a sense of floating, sometimes chest pain
and often tingling in the extremities.
Those symptoms can be demonstrated by any one foolish enough to swallow huge
amounts of what we formerly used for acid indigestion, baking soda. Re-breathing from a paper
bag puts stale air back into the body to correct the acid imbalance.
What can you do?
First, let me agree that when Valium* first came out doctors
over-prescribed it, but, in time, the manufacturer tightened the protocols
for its use. Doctors use less Valium now but it's still a great
medication for occasional issues such as fear of flying or fear of other
situations. Since it can cause drowsiness it clearly wouldn't be recommended
for those in high places who get phobic when they look down.
So, are all of us with phobias suffering from anxiety disorder?
No. If you
are a fairly placid person yet an encounter with some situation causes a
fear so strong you'll do almost anything to avoid it, you may have one of
the simple phobias without any underlying anxiety state. Psychologists say
in those situations you should try to use imagery: picture the situation and
see yourself handling it successfully.
beliefs. Why are YOU scared? Confront your fear with an unafraid person,
your role model for "deconditioning." During this systematic desensitization
learn to stay calm. Talk yourself down.
Some say such behavioral solutions are superficial but they often work even though
antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications may be necessary at
the same time.
Psychiatrists say the more patients avoid what they fear, the more they are
liable to fear it and, thus, psychotherapy is sometimes necessary.
Take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Phobias are very common
and, as you yourself say, life goes on.
* Drugs like Valium should not be taken habitually or for periods
longer than six weeks
NOTE: Lorry Patton's Travel Tips 'n' Tales would like to remind you to always consult
with your personal physician before following any medical advice and to please read the Travel
opinions are not necessarily the opinions of Lorry Patton or Travel Tips 'n' Tales.