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  • Elaine Way

September 2019: A Flying Start!

The first week of September often brings a noticeable change to the caseload at the Studio. For many it marks the end of vacations and it's back to either work or school. Like most other years, September has started on a positive note, as I find myself in receipt of various photos of beaming clients trekking up misty mountains, reclining on stunning white-sand beaches and, in some cases, from the bottom of the ocean during a snorkelling adventure. That's because a few months ago in early summer, generally around May and June, we always have a definite increase in the number of people wanting to conquer their travel anxiety or flying phobias. It is always a delight at the beginning of September to see just how well people have learned to control and defeat their fears and as a result, have enjoyed a great summer holiday!

Fear of flying is a subject close to my heart, as this was one of the reasons I first came to Clinical Hypnotherapy many, many years ago. I know exactly what it is like to feel that dread of knowing I need to take a flight and doing anything I can to avoid it - to the point I once found myself seriously considering taking a ferry to New York rather than flying.

I know what it is like to walk through the sliding airport doors and feel so tense I could snap, my fear level so high I could hardly take in information, read signs, speak or even breathe. Was I breathing? Was this a heart attack? It was embarrassing, particularly as back then I was travelling with my then fiance - I mean, how romantic is it to have to tell someone 'Thank you for this lovely weekend away, but there is a high likelihood that I'm going to be temporarily curled up in fetal position and trying to not cry or vomit during the flight' ?

The very idea that I would be wafting around the departure lounge picking up duty-free and sipping a glass of champagne seemed a million miles away. The reality was that I would be snappy, irritable, shivering wreck by the time I even boarded the plane. And no matter how lovely the travel companion or air stewards, sympathy just seemed to make me feel more embarrassed. Why couldn't I get this under control? Why could everyone else enjoy flying and I couldn't?

At the time, I couldn't even put my finger on what it was that scared me so much. People tended to presume I was scared of dying in a crash. While that was on my mind, I can't say it was at the forefront of my concerns. Seeing terror attacks on the news had increased my sense of high alert, but I'd had the phobia before terrorism came to prominence. If anything, it felt more like a control issue - the fact I was in a small metal tube in the sky and couldn't get out if I needed too. But it wasn't claustrophobia. An aeroplane was somewhere I was really, really scared to be and didn't know why.

Determined I wouldn't be spending yet another year in Cornwall, I decided to do something about it. Trying to rationalise the situation by myself wasn't working. I knew millions of people travelled safely on aeroplanes each day. I knew pilots were highly trained and that the air-stewards looked perfectly relaxed. As an avid surfer, I had hobbies that were probably more dangerous than flying in an aeroplane. People did their best to reassure me with statistics, but something in my brain just wouldn't accept that it wouldn't be 'me' who came a cropper on that flight. It was like my rational brain had left the building. The fear was so strong and so deep that I couldn't stop the panic jumping in, try though I might. I'd tried calming oils, herbal remedies, alcohol, meditative CDs.....nothing, absolutely nothing helped to stop the panic attacks when boarding a plane. At the time the only successful fix was from my Doctor in the form of Temazepam, a type of benzodiazepine that I could take 1mg at a time until I felt I could fly without blind panic. I never needed to take more than one and a half and they worked quite well, but taking them meant that I was sleepy, quiet and uncoordinated for a significant while - not exactly the best company on holiday or if I was away on business.

So, I sought a more natural method, which brought me to the door of a hypnotherapist in London. The experience was not great. I had two weeks before a flight (nothing quite like leaving it to the last minute) and she spent a solid two hours of our first intensive appointment probing about my relationship with my parents, specifically my mother, as she believed that all issues with control began when we were young and my problem was not to do with aeroplanes at all (thanks a lot, Freud!). Using a type of timeline hypnosis she then took me to a 'safe place' as a child where I could take back my control, convinced this would fix my fear of flying.

I left the practice feeling rather nonplussed, unimpressed and much worse than when I arrived. The therapist didn't seem to understand that my anxiety and fear only ever occurred when I had to get on an aeroplane - it occurred at no other time. Nor did I really understand, on a scientific level, why I had a fear of flying.

I didn't return, but I did feel the answer was in hypnosis, so I visited another practitioner. This time a more 'solution focused' approach was used and I underwent what is called the 'Fast Phobia Cure', derived from Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and with great success. Similar to the process I am trained to use with clients today, the new therapist understood that what I had was a specific phobia. It was an irrational and overwhelming fear that only arose only as a result of having to make a flight. I was then able to use the technique to quickly 'rewind' previous events and replace my negative flying experiences with much more positive versions, so my brain would think that a very good flight experience had occurred. My brain would then defer to the good experience, as it was filed and accessible in my memory as the most recent.

At the time, I was also embarking on a psychology degree and it was while studying the brain I learned how and why we have a fear response that can activate at incorrect times. In short, I began to understand the science of my brain (that no-one at all along my phobia journey had ever communicated) and more importantly, that my brain sometimes got things wrong. My brain had an irrational and incorrect perception that flying was dangerous, so rather than thinking it was 'me' that couldn't fly, I learned that it was my 'brain' pressing the panic button at the wrong time - an explanation I still use today with my own clients. I realised that I could choose not to listen to my fearful thoughts because they were a 'false alarm'.

Fast forward nearly fifteen years and I'm pleased to say that I still love flying. In fact, I'm the weird person who really enjoys aeroplane food (Those trays! The citrus-scented hot towels!) and can even enjoy a glass or two of wine as I jet off on my holidays. I can pack my bags with a clear head. I can get full value from an airport lounge, sniff my way through the latest perfumes at duty-free counters and peruse cosmetics to my heart's content. I wasn't able to do that before.

I still do get a bit worried by turbulence, but nothing like the level of panic I would have had before. And that's the important thing to remember about having treatment for phobias - you don't take away all of the anxiety. We don't 'wipe' your brain, we simply help it to scrub and obscure old experiences and reframe with something better and more realistic. I still get a little bit nervous during take-off, but I don't have the fear response I used to have and actually recognise that I quite enjoy the buzz of going so fast! I can calmly ignore any irrational or negative thought. I am happy to get on an aeroplane knowing that I might be a little bit nervous, but know that I have the gift of perspective and control. I know that any anxiety is just one small part of my brain being irrational, and I get on that plane anyway. I don't avoid it, make excuses or suggest that another week in Cornwall* would be just as nice as the Maldives. Since that day, I haven't had a panic attack in an airport. I am phobia free.

So when I see those photos from clients on holiday this summer, I completely understand why they are smiling so widely!

*PS. There's nothing wrong with Cornwall and I still go there every year, but have also been to Greece, Antigua, USA, Italy, Spain and many other places too......

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