Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Santa doesn't have an irrational fear of flying

Phobias. Many people have these irrational fears. The two which have affected me most over the years are fear of flying and fear of heights.

Fear of flying has been the one that's had the most impact on my life, causing stress and anxiety. Or perhaps terror was a more appropriate word for what I felt in the early days! It's the fear I have absolutely had to deal with because most of my clients are 500 miles away. So I fly a lot.

If you experience such fears, I'll bet that you, like me, will have been on the receiving end of all sorts of 'helpful' advice... Alan, the pilots just wouldn't fly if it was unsafe.... Don't you realise it's statistically by far the safest form of travel...? Of course, this advice though well-meant is useless, because these are logical, rational explanations and phobia is an irrational fear.

I found that I had to develop my own strategies that worked for me.

One of the worst things is turbulence, that air bumpiness which you can't control. For flying phobics this is frankly terrifying.

This first effective strategy I developed was my counting backwards technique.

Firstly, I close my eyes and sit right back in the seat. Then, I consciously and deliberately slow down my breathing. And this is the most important part; I count backwards slowly from 500. I found the counting backwards to be particularly helpful. It takes more of your attention and concentration to count backwards, so helps distract your thoughts. Also, having a high starting number means you never get even close to zero before the bumpiness passes. I found that reassuring. It gave me a better sense of control. Once I had used this several times, I found I could calm myself down more quickly. In the early days, I used this strategy a lot, for take-off, landing and any bumpy parts in between. Now, I only use this occasionally, but I still find it's helpful.

The second main strategy I developed was my Santa in his sleigh technique.

This is a very different kind of strategy, but I've found it to work very well. Here, when I know it is going to be really bad (e.g. in stormy weather), I pretend I am Santa, taking to his sleigh to deliver presents. I figure Santa wouldn't be the slightest bit perturbed by a bit of uppy and downy air and may indeed revel in it (in a HO, HO, HO kind of way). I kind of take on Santa's persona and characteristics and thereby can ride it out. Although 'I' might get freaked by the storminess, it's all in a day's work for 'Santa'. Besides, my beard is nearly white these days anyway.

Psychology-wise this second approach is a bit like something called Personal Construct Theory pioneered by George Kelly. You adopt a persona which has the characteristics and behaviours you want to embody.

I hope maybe there's something in either of these approaches you can adapt to work for you if you have similar fears. Don't let it put you off trying other approaches or seeking professional help. But there's something deeply satisfying and worthwhile about developing your own strategies. It's that control thing, that self-efficacy, the sense of confidence you get when you know can deal with the stuff that has previously caused you huge stress and anxiety.

One thing I should add. If you fear flying, flying a lot does help. In my case, I had to because my business depended on it. But I'm glad I did. It forced me to face my fears and develop strategies.

I mentioned my other irrational fear was heights. Nowadays, to help me deal with heights I imagine I'm in up a plane!