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The Psychology Behind My Fear of Flying: Physics Agnosticism

I travel a lot. I believe that I have shared that already with you dear world. I love seeing new cultures, interacting with new groups and just sitting at a café and documenting everything I see. I am always doing a community mapping.  I try to understand the psychology of the new environment and people. I love figuring out the cultural scripts. Luckily, I have found a way to embed that as a legitimate work activity into my business trips. I have developed (still in progress) a stigma mapping tool for when I go to new cities. It hasn’t really ever been done before, so I am super jazzed about it.  But I need to work a little more on that tool (maybe do the capitalist academic thing and publish it in some obscure journal first) before I share it with you dear reader. .

Anyway, why do I bring this all up? Currently, I am 37,000 feet high above on a delta flight I was super lucky to get on considering I have been stranded for a few days due to hurricane Isaac. I was even able to score a first class seat, my third one in two weeks.  I am happy to travel in such style with access to the internet so I can keep myself busy. Honestly, I itch to go to new places all the time. BUT, I have one major, and I mean major, problem. I have a fear of flying. Yup. It’s the strangest thing really. How can I love traveling so much yet be so afraid –be in sheer terror for the first ten minutes of a flight?  I am like a baseball player who has her lucky rituals (I can’t share those with you-that would be unlucky) and lucky underwear. I never go on a trip without it.  I read somewhere, perhaps one of my old psych textbooks, that a fear becomes a phobia once the individual has to make plans to avoid the flying due to fear; When the individual introduces safety behaviors into their life to manage around the fear or keep them safe whilst flying.  Hmm, Ok. Let’s redefine my problem. I have a flying phobia?

Why do I put myself through this; especially in light of all the major security hiccups and delays that occur now on a rather consistent basis and all the weird and screwy flight shenanigans (e.g. lack of de-icing fluid; landing in wrong airport; being in a plane where half the seats have yellow tape across them).  Psychologists say (except for this one here) that fear of flying may be a distinct phobia in itself, or it may be an indirect combination of one or more other phobias related to flying, such as claustrophobia (which is not the issue for me) or acrophobia (not really at the root of my fear either-if allowed to self-diagnose)..Am I masochist? Perhaps? But I really do like myself; although who doesn’t like a little self-inflicted torture? My husband has his own theory. Remember I am a bit of a curmudgeon. He likes to say that I am a physics agnostic; meaning I am willing to go with the idea that the law of physics work but I am not entirely convinced. That explanation works for me to some extent.  Perhaps if I tie that that agnosticism with a sense of agoraphobia -especially the type that has to do with being in a place that I  can’t escape from- it might explain my sheer terror. I remember reading an article once on a man who has actually survived several plane crashes. He attributed his luck (really luck? Let’s redefine that word, eh?) to always finding the exits when he first sits down. He always knows where to run to.  That’s a good skill to have. I’d say he has mastered that fight or flight instinct quite well.  Considering I am such a control freak who has some doubts about how the world works, it’s a wonder I can manage to fly at all; let alone the sheer volume that I do.

I read somewhere that Aretha Franklin has a major fear of flying and that she tries to train or car it everywhere she goes. Truly, that would be a great thing to do (I have gone cross country four times now and have done a roadtrip across Canada as well), but this world is too vast for me to be limited to just the continental United States or North America. Also, I have a confession to make-I have never had a driver’s license. I don’t drive. I have a bit of a spatial issue in that-I tend to walk into chairs and walls.-I’m a little bit clumsy. Thus, I can’t imagine myself behind the wheel of a car having so many people’s lives in my hands or worse yet my spatial inadequacies.

I must state: The flight attendant today is super awesome having refilled my wine glass four times now, and I don’t think she plans to stop anytime soon.  Although, she is a bit loopy. But considering that I have been on flights where the flight attendants were crying and praying in a corner (you want to know why, right? Remind me to write about my trip to the virgin islands), I will take loopy anytime. Meanwhile, I will dream of the day when teleportation becomes a reality and I can become a true physics believer.  Till then my physics agnosticism will continue; while wine, cocktails and social media will continue to smooth my rides. Onwards it is intrepid but oh-so-terrified-traveler.

4 replies »

  1. Fear of flying is common to more people than would admit it. I think conservatively over 60 million Americans alone. The good news is that it is one of the most successfully treated. The bad news is that you have to fly to get over it. And to fly, you have to be willing to persevere through sometimes painful emotional feelings. But, since we are more than our feelings, this quickly passes. I led a class of fearful flyers on a flight over the weekend and all did famously once they got through the first couple of minutes.

    Best of luck to you!

    Capt Ron


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