12/10/2016 - Captain Bunn

When author Malcolm Gladwell followed up The Tipping Point with Blink, he pointed out that people can be psychologically “primed” to interpret a stimulus incorrectly. That happens with flight anxiety. Since anxiety is tied to something going wrong, an anxious flier is “primed” to interpret almost any stimulus as the first sign of doom.

If we could prevent that priming, a lot of flight anxiety would disappear. How can we do that? Though intellectual understanding can’t totally end the anxiety problem, it can help reduce “priming”. Here’s how. When you go onboard a plane with the belief that if anything at all goes wrong, you are doomed, any stimulus that comes into your awareness leads to distress. But when you go onboard a plane knowing that every modern jetliner has a primary system, a standby system, a backup system and an emergency system for everything needed to get you from point A to point B, you go onboard with a different “priming”, one that is more aligned with the reality of the situation.

If something goes wrong, you are not doomed. If something goes wrong with a primary system, the standby system automatically takes over the task, and the plane operates normally. In fact, the pilots are not even informed of the switchover until after the flight is completed, and then only so they can inform maintenance to work on the primary system.

During flight, if the standby system takes over the task, and that does not solve the problem, then the pilots are notified. They open the flight manual and take the steps that switch to the backup system, and – if necessary – to the emergency system.

So the first thing we can do to deal with flight anxiety is to understand that flying is safe because everything needed for flight is provided for, not once, but four times.

Until the context is changed, “priming” is a problem. Thus, any movement, any noise, and any bump brings to mind an idea of danger. This idea may cause a fleeting image in the mind of the plane out of control. But whether the idea is visual or not, this impression – as a result of the first stimulus – causes the release of stress hormones.

Stress hormones are needed when we have the smoke alarm go off at 2:00 AM so we can instantly spring into action that may be needed to insure our safety. But stress hormones will go off just as surely with a false alarm – a malfunction of the smoke detector – as with a real fire.

After being rudely awakened – and alerted – at 2:00 AM, our proper job is to discern whether or not the noise of the smoke alarm signals real danger, or is a false alarm. This is a step anxious fliers skip. The physical feelings caused by the stress hormone release are associated with danger. Though we all should know that these hormones are sometimes released – as a false alarm – when there is no danger, the anxious person may feel too threatened to consider any alternative explanation for the feelings they experience.

For the anxious person, these feelings caused by stress hormones combine with the idea (the thought or visualization of disaster that caused the stress hormones) to produce “false closure”. In other words, the mind closes out consideration. It closes out looking for evidence, closes out examination of evidence, and closes out discernment. For many people, once the mind reaches closure, it no longer considers any other possible reality; no more testing of reality is done. Inadequate reality testing frequently results in a false conclusion being locked onto.

There appears to be a kind of chemistry between the idea – that the plane is in trouble – and the feeling – caused by stress hormones – that forms a bond. Once that bond is made, once that false reality is bought into, the person is closed to the possibility of any reality other than the false one the person has bonded to.

Pretend and Psychic Equivalence

It is interesting to speculate about why some people easily form a bond between an idea and a feeling. In a recent book, Peter Fonagy and Anthony Bateman offer an explanation. Fonagy and Bateman say that between the ages of two and three, a child learns to pretend. To explain their concept, let’s imagine a two year-old and a three year-old playing together. The three year-old has mastered the art of pretending, but the two year-old is just beginning to learn to pretend. They agree to pretend they are explorers in a jungle. The pretend exploration begins. They pretend they are encountering lions and tigers, poisonous snakes and spiders. The three year-old, who has mastered the art of pretending, can imagine these things and, at the same time, maintain awareness that the lions and tigers, snakes and spiders are not real. Though it is entertaining and exciting to imagine this, the three year-old is not overwhelmed. But the two year-old, who has not mastered this art, losings the ability to know that what is in mind is not real, and becomes overwhelmed by fear.

Are we like the two year-old, or the three year-old? Or, are we somewhere in between, say two-point-six, so that we sometimes can remember that what we have in mind may not be real? If we are not easily able to know that anything we have in mind MAY not be reality, we can expect trouble when flying. We will not be able to hold onto the knowledge that our experience may not be reality.

The ability to pretend depends up what is called “reflective function,” looking inside to see what mental processes are going on. Reflective function allows us to distinguish imagination from perception. When reflective function falters, as it does when we are under stress, we lose the ability to recognize that what we are imagining is not real. We go into a state Fonagy called “psychic equivalence,” in which what is in the psyche (the mind) is equivalent to reality, even if what is in the mind is imagination.

Until I read Fonagy and Bateman’s book, I simply believed people who have trouble with flying have a vivid imagination. And while that may be true, there is more to it than that. The question is not just how vivid imagination is; the question is this: once imagination causes feelings, does enough ability remains to hold onto awareness that we may be experiencing imagination – not reality?

James Masterson had a similar concept. He taught those of us who studied with him that the glue which holds false concepts in place is the “linking emotion”. What I’ve written above shows how emotion can bond to a faulty idea and make it seem real. Over time, a number of faulty ideas can become accepted as accurate representations of reality. Then, the emotion these fallacies have in common can, by association, link these incorrect beliefs together. Once the emotion is present, the emotion, by association, can bring to mind other situations in which this emotion was experienced.

This can result is a person holding a constellation of false beliefs, all caused by premature closure. Since premature closure is the result of anxiety, this suggests that an anxious person is likely to hold one or more constellations of false beliefs. If there is a constellation of false beliefs about flying, it must be dismantled in order to deal effectively with flight anxiety. This is where “How Flying Works” can be helpful. Until a constellation of false beliefs can be dismantled, a person can believe that what is held in the mind and reality are one and the same. This is what Fonagy termed “psychic equivalence”.

The linking of various fallacies by a common emotion tends to reinforce and strengthen each of the fallacies. Masterson worked with clients who had formed massive constellations. These constellations formed a complete aberrant reality in which they lived and to which they held onto tenaciously as the only viable reality. The experience of these clients was that their reality WAS reality. In other words, to them, their mind and reality was one-and-the same; any alternative reality (an alternative point of view held by another person) was “crazy”.


Fonagy and Bateman are of the opinion that learning to master the pretend-mode depends upon the child’s experience prior to age two. They say that when the child experiences something the mother (or other caregiver) regards as an inaccurate assessment of reality, the adult needs to reply to the child in a way that repeats what the child has said, but “marks” it in a way that lets the child understand that there are two minds at work here, and that what is in the child’s mind and what is in the adult’s mind don’t match up. This “marking” can be, for example, an exaggerated emphasis. For example, the adult may say, “So you can’t go to sleep because YOU think there is a PANTHER in the closet.” This exaggeration makes it clear that the adult hears the child, understands there is a panther in the child’s mind, but that there is not a panther in the closet in the adult’s mind.

When “marking” takes place again and again in various situations, the child comes to understand, at some rudimentary level,

This early understanding of mind – and minds – serves the developing child well. The adult who can provide this understanding for the child provides a valuable domain in which the child’s mind can grow and develop with security. For security, the child must know that its mind is – indeed – separate, and that this does not result in a problem or in danger, but that we all have separate minds, and that our separate minds can be bridged by connections between us, and yet hold different views of reality.

The child who is simply told the contents of its mind – whether ideas or feelings – are ridiculous does not receive the nourishment needed for secure development.


It has been claimed that a primitive tribe was studied which, each morning, gathered to talk about the previous night’s dreams. These daily discussions of inner experience made it clear that inner experience, not only is something everyone has, but that it is important. It was claimed that mental illness was unknown in this tribe.

Fonagy and Bateman have coined a term “mentalization”. Mentalization is awareness one has of ones own emotional state and mental processes. People who have good mentalization, they believe, have very little psychological difficulties.

Further, people who do have psychological difficulties get better through learning to mentalize.

Their views were developed, in part, by studying individuals who had no mentalization in their life. They found that most prison inmates had no knowledge that internal psychological processes exist, and they were completely unawareness of internal psychological processes within themselves.

According to interviews with prisoners, Fonagy and Bateman found most grew up in families where expression of an internal emotional state (verbal expression of discomfort, fear, or distress, and overt demonstration of these states by crying) was discouraged or punished, often severely. The implication is that without mentalization, psychological difficulties developed which led to acts which caused them to be imprisoned.

This has implications with fear of flying. Let me explain. When you look at a computer screen, you see what is presented there. Being sophisticated, you know the images are caused by internal processes, a sequence of steps written by a computer programmer.

We also know that a computer programmer can change a program and cause a different process inside the computer. That different process will cause something different to appear on the screen.

We, too, are like that. Like what we see on a computer screen, we are easily aware of what is on the surface. The question is, are we aware – also – of the processes going on inside? And if so, how much?

According to Fonagy and Bateman, a healthy mind must have awareness, not only what is on the screen, but of enough of what goes on inside to do several things.

It is only by awareness of what goes on inside that we are able to read our own emotional state. This ability to read our own internal state helps us know how to accurately read the emotional state and the intentions of others.

Our ability to adapt in a constantly changing world and to successfully relate to other people depends upon our ability to know what is displayed, and to sense what is going on inside to produce what is displayed.

This beings with increased ability for mentalization, so as to know what is going on inside ones own self. Without mentalization, a person will fail to recognize and acknowledge the feelings which are his or her own. When these feelings have the potential to cause distress, the feelings often are attributed to others. This is called “projection”.

Though projection may seem to rarely happen, therapists find projection happens almost continuously in troubled relationships. For example, let’s consider an adult whose emotional life as a child was not taken seriously by his or her parents, and anger was forbidden. When the adult begins to become angry, there is a sense that anger is present, but the anger is only vaguely sensed.

There is a vast difference between empathy and projection. Empathy is being able to tune into another person and sense what they are feeling. Projection is attributing to others feelings which are actually our own which we are unable to tune in.

When the adult does recognize his or her anger, it is not vague at all. Thus, when vague anger is sensed, it easily is assumed to be that of some other person. If the adult then accuses the other (non-angry) person of being angry, that accusation may indeed cause anger.

Then, due to the others person’s anger (which is in response to the accusation) is mistakenly taken as proof that the anger problem originated in the other person.

The Plane’s Feelings

Many anxious fliers are concerned that

These thoughts are a projection onto the airplane of feelings people have. Airplanes exist separately and do not have a mind; they don’t struggle; they don’t get tired; they don’t need rest.

Playfully, I have sometimes said, “The plane loves turbulence”. When an anxious flier’s orientation is that the plane has feelings, this kind of response can help. When in turbulence, the person finds it more comforting to recall my saying “The plane loves to play in turbulence like we humans love to play in the waves,” than a more logical statement that turbulence is not a safety problem.

Projecting human feelings onto airplanes may suggest that we, as children, did not receive recognition for having a mind of our own. Without adequate recognition of our own mind and of mentalization, inner life fails to develop. Then, with limited grasp of what mind is, it is not so easy to know that minds are separate, or to know what has a mind and what doesn’t.

If we step back in time, we might ask if we, as children, were allowed to be angry. In a healthy family, anger is allowed and made use of to reveal conflicts and to resolve them. When anger was not allowed, a child learns that to have anger causes a breakdown between the child and those he or she depends upon. Because of this dependency, anger must be gotten rid of.

But anger can’t be gotten rid of. Instead, when the child is angry, the anger is denied, or it is attributed to others. It is my belief that if we examine our own childhood carefully, we will find the emotions that were not taken seriously, or the emotions regarded as a problem, are the emotions we have difficulty with today. It seems that the family which does not deal with emotions as “user friendly” is the family that produces children who, as adults, have difficulty regulating feelings. That frequently leads to anxiety and depression.

We still can learn mentalization skills to use in our own life comparable to those a computer programmer uses on a computer. We can become aware of our emotions. We can become familiar – if not comfortable – with our emotional states. We can become more aware of the internal processes that are associated with them.

We are not likely to rewrite our emotional software on our own. We are well-advised to consult a professional, a therapist who is skilled in dealing with mental software.

When it comes to fear of flying, we know what slight changes need to be made to provide adequate calming. When these changes are made – simply by learning and practicing the Strengthening Exercise – adequate calming to fly is produced within.

SOAR will take care of flying. And, what you learn in SOAR may help elsewhere. But for life outside of flying, work with a therapist and become more “user friendly” with emotions and internal processes.



Image Credit: Stuart Miles –