Nightmare at 30,000 feet: can hypnotherapy cure a fear of flying?
I havent always been an anxious person. In fact, I was an utterly fearless child, with a predilection for dumb and dangerous stunts, like doing somersaults off the roof of our garden shed. I cant identify exactly when my outlook shifted, but somewhere in the crucible of puberty and secondary school a profoundly neurotic fear of illness and death wormed its way into my psyche. I dont somersault off sheds anymore, not since I discovered how fragile necks are. Every headache is now a potential aneurysm, every chest pain a myocardial infarction, and I once became briefly petrified that I had found a vast tumorous lump in my chest, only for it to turn out that I was actually fondling my rib.
My hypochondria is nothing, however, compared to the extremity of my fear of flying. I never enjoyed air-travel, but until three years ago I was able to grit my teeth and get through it without much complaint. I dont know what changed, or why, but over the course of a summer what had previously been a minor neurosis suddenly metastasized into something wild and unmanageable.
Unfortunately, this happened just as I was preparing to begin a study abroad year in Austin, Texas. Over the next twelve months my aviophobia wreaked havoc: I missed around half a dozen flights, in the process running up a parental debt that Ill probably be paying off for longer than my student loan. There are lots of tales I could regale you with from that year – the time I necked a whole bottle of St Johns Wort because I couldnt find my Benzos, for instance – but for the sake of brevity I will limit myself to describing what I consider my magnum opus; a festival of stupidity and humiliation, spread across one ridiculous week in December.
It began during Thanksgiving, which I had arranged to spend in Seattle with a friend who was studying abroad in Vancouver. I missed my first flight – standard – but was able to get on one the following day, and spent a lovely week meandering around the Pacific Northwest. The real problem arose when my return flight left Seattle-Tacoma airport with me still lingering in the departure lounge. I was already exploring the outer edges of my student loan; if I booked and missed a third flight I wouldnt have been able to afford my next term in Austin. My options almost exhausted, I booked the only remaining transport that would get me back in time for my exams: a sixty-six hour bus trip, taking me from the very top of America to a city close to its southernmost tip.
On the face of it, this doesnt necessarily sound so bad – trace the route on Google Maps, and it could be a wicked West Coast road trip. But I didnt have any friends with me, I didnt have any hot food or wi-fi, and the intricacies of my bus schedule (six inhumanly tight changes) didnt allow for any breaks longer than an hour. I had Candy Crush and a novel Id just finished and one episode of Football Weekly. It was, unquestionably, the worst three days of my life.
Of all the flights I took that year, only one was free from anxiety or fear. It was my final return flight to the UK, and I was acutely aware that my visa was expiring in a few days time. Keen not to become an illegal immigrant in the US, I took what I will describe only as an inadvisably large amount of Xanax; far more than Id taken on any previous flight.
Initially, it didnt seem to be working. But as the plane took off, I felt a glorious calm descend upon me, as if I were being floated back to London on an enormous fluffy cloud. This is great, I thought to myself. I love flying. And then I passed out, having finally found the Xanax dosage strong enough to counteract the amount of adrenaline coursing through my body. I dont know much about the rest of the journey, except that at some point I mustve been given my in-flight meal, because I woke up with melon all down my front.
Unfortunately, ingesting a medically dangerous amount of Xanax is not a long-term solution, and my aviophobia has if anything worsened since I returned from the US two years ago. Lately, I have been finding this situation almost unbearable, and so in an effort to remedy it I recently arranged a hypnotherapy session with James Mallinson, who co-runs the enormously successful therapeutic programme Fix My Mind.
At the centre of James therapeutic approach is a technique called Havening, which involves crossing your arms as if warding off a vampire, and then rhythmically rubbing them while intoning the name of the phobic emotion you are trying to purge. There is a dual theory behind Havening: first, it is intended to simulate the sensation of being hugged, making you feel warm and fuzzy and releasing lovely comforting serotonin into your brain. It is also supposed to unlink the subject of the phobia from the attendant phobic emotions, allowing you to observe your fear from the outside (and, presumably, see how silly it really looks).
Initially, Havening didnt seem to be affecting me much, and eventually I started to wonder whether I was doing it wrong. It was only towards the end of the session, when James briefly hypnotised me, that I began to feel it working. Ordinarily, thinking about flying makes me intensely nervous, but under hypnosis I was able apprehend the feeling of flight from a position of extraordinary calm. At James command, I would imagine myself on planes, but without simultaneously imagining them exploding or crashing into buildingRead More – Source