I wrote recently about the 5,4,3,2,1 exercise that Captain Tom Bunn describes in his book Soar and quite a few people have told me how they have successfully used it, not for flying but for other tricky experiences where our nerves can make life hell. Making Christmas Dinner under your mother-in-law’s critical eye. Driving on the motorway when you don’t like motorways. Waiting for an interview or an audition. Asking for a pay-rise. This simple exercise can interrupt the production of adrenaline which fear produces but which isn’t needed in those situations. Famously adrenaline is invaluable when you meet a tiger in the jungle. It give you the oomph to run away faster than you ever knew you could. However situations where no running away is going to be possible, all it does is wind you up, freeze your brain so you can’t answer simple questions and ruin your breath control so you can’t control your voice. Its effect is also cumulative. If the body cannot discharge or use up the adrenaline by direct action (shouting, running away, hitting someone) it builds up and the message gets through that there really is an emergency and more adrenaline is needed!
Today I have come back to tell you about Captain Tom’s other seminal exercise, designed for nervous flyers (read terrified) for whom other approaches have not worked. I can testify that this has brought my flying experience (six flights in the last 9 months and counting) well within the realm of bearable, sometimes even fun. It has also come into its own at the dentist’s and for you there may be other areas of your life where terror tends to win over common sense because the body is out of your control.
The second exercise is called the Strengthening Exercise and you need to practise it once or twice to learn it and then for a week or so before the challenging experience is coming up. (Incidentally you don’t need a week. I had two days and trust me, it works.) It is hard to believe that it will work for you but if you take a peek at the Fear of Flying website you will see hundreds of testimonials from people who didn’t believe it would work for them but did the exercise anyway (desperation is a great motivator) and now fly confidently.
The Strengthening Exercise is based a moment in your history when you had a deep empathic connection with someone. You knew about the empathic connection because of the eye contact you had with them in that moment. You felt you were the only person in their world at that moment. Bringing this moment of deep empathic connection to bear on the feared experience dispels the terror. Technically the visualisation of that moment produces oxytocin in the body and adrenaline production is inhibited. Oxytocin gives us the courage to connect deeply with others and we feel completely unafraid. Oxytocin is the enemy of adrenaline. They cannot both be produced at the same time.
The moments which produce that magical oxytocin are many. When you were just about to make love for the first time and you looked into each other’s eyes, when you were feeding your new baby or exchanging a look with your child are likely to work. Simply catching the eye of someone who makes you feel in that moment that you are the centre of the universe is the moment we are looking for. It DOESN’T MATTER what happened next! if the relationship went on to be a disaster or if the person has subsequently died you still have the benefit of that moment and you can use it today. What matters is getting in touch with that feeling the eye contact produced. If you can, find a person. If you can’t, you may remember a moment of deep eye connection with a pet. Use that. When you have identified such a moment or two or three, what next?
If it really is flying you are dealing with I recommend you buy the Soar book because it conveniently lists all the various stages of boarding an aeroplane, taking off, flying, landing etc. You are going to connect that oxytocin-producing moment to the stages of the experience in your mind so the first thing you need is a list of the stages. If it is, for instance, going to the dentist, this is what you do. Make a list of every minute stage of the experience starting with walking out of the dentist’s surgery with a big smile on your face because it’s all over. Then work backwards to making the appointment. Your list for having your tooth filled might look like this.
- Leaving the dentist’s surgery
- Paying the dentist’s bill and saying goodbye
- Putting your coat back on
- Getting up out of the surgery chair
- Having that final rinse
- Hearing and feeling the dentist take his hands and equipment out of your mouth for the last time
- Feeling the drill polishing up the new filling
- Feeling the dentist put the putty in your tooth
- Having another rinse
- Hearing the drill stop
- Hearing the drill start again and opening your mouth extra wide
- Hearing the drill stop and having a rinse
- Having the drill in your mouth
- Opening your mouth extra wide as the dentist leans over you to begin work
- Feeling that parts of your mouth have gone numb
- Resting while the anaesthetic takes effect. Chatting with the dentist
- Feeling the anaesthetic injection go in
- Opening your mouth extra wide for the injection
- Letting the dentist find the problem through examination. Telling him what has happened
- Having the bib put on by the nurse
- Sitting down in the chair
- Taking your coat off
- Being called through into the surgery
- Sitting in the waiting room
- Talking to the receptionist
- Entering the surgery building
- Travelling to the surgery
- Leaving the house
- Getting washed and dressed
- Getting up on the morning of the appointment
- Going to bed the night before
- Waiting for the appointment day to come
- Making the appointment
- Noticing you need to visit the dentist
You can add to this list as many stages as you like. The more the better. Make a small photo in your mind of the first stage of the experience and imagine that loved person is holding it next to their face as they make that fabulous eye contact with you. Make the photo black and white and small. Make the experience of the eye contact live in your whole body. Then move on to the next stage and so on right through to the very beginning where you are making the appointment or booking the flight.
If you lose track don’t worry. Start again.
If imagining yourself in the chair or on the plane produces more fear than you can handle you can imagine your favourite cartoon character in the photo instead of you. Cartoon characters, you will have noticed, come out of every situation unscathed. Imagine Micky Mouse in the picture, or Spiderman or Pop-Eye. Put your whole mind into this as you go through the stages. You are retraining your amygdalae, desensitizing them, to accept the experience you are working on as routine, non-threatening, nothing to get excited about. You are sending the message that you are safe.
On the first day do the exercise two or three times and then fewer times over the subsequent days. Don’t worry about it in between. The magical effect on your body responses will show up when you begin the actual experience.
If you suffer anticipatory anxiety, use the 5,4,3,2,1 exercise to dispel it as often as you need to. On the day use both exercises.
This is the kindest way to help yourself with fear and it builds on itself so that it gets easier. Gritting your teeth and giving yourself a good talking to is unkind and the fear does not go away.
I’d love to know how you get on.