I get a reading? The voice of therapist Page Anderson
breaks into my headset.
far, I'd rate the highest point about seventy-five,
I say, almost proudly. I am rating my anxiety level on
a scale of one to a hundred. This was my fourth takeoff
in half an hour and my best one yet.
grandmother used to travel all over the country by Greyhound
bus because she was terrified to fly. Apparently fear
can be handed down through generations, like red hair
or a stubborn streak. About a year ago, after a particularly
rough flight, my own air travel anxiety skyrocketed to
a level that became problematic: I started to find excuses
not to take long trips, put off making vacation plans,
seriously considered driving from Atlanta to San Francisco
for a two-day conference.
spring, as it began to dawn on me that this little personality
quirk was severely curtailing my travel options, I heard
about an Emory psychology professor doing cutting-edge
work with fearful fliers. I thought I might have a shot
at bringing my ballooning paranoia under control.
I completed an eight-week course in virtual reality therapy,
a program that delivers a tried-and-true method for curing
phobiasexposurein a radical new way: computer
first few sessions with Dr. Anderson followed a pattern
of traditional, one-on-one therapy. We discussed my fear
and its possible sources, helping me explore and assess
the trouble. I then began to learn myriad anxiety-management
techniques, including breathing practices, relaxation
exercises, and mental gymnastics to help me stop the vicious
cycle of fearful thoughts (this plane is going to
burst into flames and hurtle to the ground, for
instance) when they threatened to spiral out of control.
also learned some convincing statistics about airline
safety, which proved an effective offense against my particular
brand of fear:
If you flew every day of your life, probability indicates
that it would be twenty-six thousand years before you
were in a fatal accident.
Flying is ten times safer than traveling by train.
A sold-out 747 jet would have to crash every day, with
no survivors, to equal the highway deaths per year in
You are nineteen times safer in a plane than in a car.
compiled these into a cheat sheet with Dr.
Andersons instructions to carry it with me on air
flights and review this litany of comforts during panicky
I had stockpiled an arsenal of anxiety defenses, it was
time for the exposure portion of the program. Rather than
driving to the airport as phobic fliers in standard therapy
would have done, I walked into the next room, stepped
up onto a platform where an airplane-like seat was perched,
and strapped on a weighty piece of equipment called a
found myself surrounded by digital images of an airplanes
interior; when I turned my head from side to side, I was
looking out the window and across the aisle. Airplane
sounds were piped into the headsets earphones. The
contraption took some getting used to, but it did the
trick: as the minutes passed, the passenger seat in front
of me appeared increasingly three-dimensional, the engines
whine sounded more and more genuine, and the window view
became nerve-wrackingly authentic. By takeoff time, with
the help of Dr. Andersons verbal scene-setting and
a certain amount of conscious vulnerability on my part,
I could practically smell the jet fuel.
followed was a series of virtual flights, with special
emphasis on takeoff and turbulence (particular trouble
spots for me). Dr. Anderson even created virtual storms,
in which the platform below me shook, thunder boomed inside
the headset, and lightning flashed outside the digital
plane window. Speaking into the headphones, she checked
in with me at key points, measuring my anxiety and offering
enough, as I grew more comfortable with the sensations
of air travel, the fear began to fade. After four sessions
of intense virtual reality therapy, I was beginning to
feel more hopeful about flying. I wont say I was
eager to, say, hop a flight to Australia, but when I was
obliged to attend a family wedding in Memphis, I didnt
insist on taking a Greyhound bus. Instead I managed to
book a reservation, board a plane, and fly, clutching
my cheat sheet (you are twice as likely to be killed
by a bee sting than an airline accident) and trying
to think of the ocean. It wasnt easy, but I did
it. And making the trip gave me hope that I might someday
be like most people I knewthose baffling fortunates
who casually accept air travel as a simple fact, an everyday
convenience, a given.
budding confidence was shattered on September 11, as I
watched hijacked airplanes explode into the twin towers
of New York Citys World Trade Center, again and
statistics on air travel hold as true today as they did
a year ago: The average persons chances of being
in a fatal airline crash are about one in ten million.
Even lower are the odds of falling victim to a horrific
act of terror.
statistics are cold comfort in the face of senseless destruction.
Those damaging images and their profoundly tragic meaning
have become imbedded in the collective American consciousness,
and the resulting fear defies logic. It seems I am not
the only one whose fragile trust in air travel safety
and security was deeply shaken by the terrorist hijackings.
Judging from the sharp decline in ticket sales since the
September attacks, thousands of Americans who once took
flying for granted have reevaluated their casual confidence.
days, when I make excuses about not flying, people no
longer look at me oddly, with that old mixture of puzzlement
and pity. Instead, they nod their heads understandingly.
They get it. Whereas I once felt like an outcast of sorts,
I now have ample company. I am no longer alone with my
fear of flying.
wish I were, though. Oh, how I wish I were.