Fear of Flying or Just Plain Fear

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.

  1. Leaving the dentist’s surgery
  2. Paying the dentist’s bill and saying goodbye
  3. Putting your coat back on
  4. Getting up out of the surgery chair
  5. Having that final rinse
  6. Hearing and feeling the dentist take his hands and equipment out of your mouth for the last time
  7. Feeling the drill polishing up the new filling
  8. Feeling the dentist put the putty in your tooth
  9. Having another rinse
  10. Hearing the drill stop
  11. Hearing the drill start again and opening your mouth extra wide
  12. Hearing the drill stop and having a rinse
  13. Having the drill in your mouth
  14. Opening your mouth extra wide as the dentist leans over you to begin work
  15. Feeling that parts of your mouth have gone numb
  16. Resting while the anaesthetic takes effect. Chatting with the dentist
  17. Feeling the anaesthetic injection go in
  18. Opening your mouth extra wide for the injection
  19. Letting the dentist find the problem through examination. Telling him what has happened
  20. Having the bib put on by the nurse
  21. Sitting down in the chair
  22. Taking your coat off
  23. Being called through into the surgery
  24. Sitting in the waiting room
  25. Talking to the receptionist
  26. Entering the surgery building
  27. Travelling to the surgery
  28. Leaving the house
  29. Getting washed and dressed
  30. Getting up on the morning of the appointment
  31. Going to bed the night before
  32. Waiting for the appointment day to come
  33. Making the appointment
  34. 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.

I just want to be me.

I just want to be me.

At the bottom of this post you will find a recipe from Honey and Co for the most wonderful White Chocolate and Tahini Cake. I recommend you make it and then sit down with a slice to read a bit about being yourself.

Implicit in coming into the world as a human being is the physical connection with Mum. If you’re lucky there is also a profound emotional connection. As time goes by Dad comes into the picture too if he is available. Little Bloggins learns who s/he is by looking at Mum and Dad and working out what they like, what brings a smile to their faces and what brings on scowls and angry words. In an ideal world we want to please our parents and they like to show their pleasure in us.

However! Anyone who has been near a two-year-old or a sixteen year-old will know that there are two periods in our lives when we ‘just want to be me’. The two-year-old has just learned to say ‘no’ and sometimes can’t be persuaded to say anything else. The teenager (at some point or other) will act out the ‘no’ loud and clear and sometimes by not speaking at all. This is normal behaviour. Not pretty but normal.

If you are parenting one of these age groups let me congratulate you if you have an obstreperous toddler or a sulky teenager – it means you have done a grand job! You have children who attached safely to you and now feel safe enough in that relationship to separate as they need to, to be themselves. Because they love you so much they have to make themselves pretty unpleasant and difficult to do that. Don’t worry. Underneath is the child you love and who still loves and needs you. S/he will emerge.

One of the ways in which those separating children may act out is with regard to food. Haven’t we all had a teenager, resident or visiting, who has a special diet? That is a way of making you notice s/he is not the same little one who complied with your food offerings. It is a way of individuating and, notice, it often disappears into the background later in life. Toddlers, of course, do not spare our feelings or our upholstery but spit out stuff they seemed to eat willingly only last week.

You can see how, if things go awry with this tricky separating process, people can get stuck in this rejecting stage, metaphorically spitting their life out as a matter of course. It’s a wearing way to relate with the world and one that often brings people to therapy. Sometimes the ‘problem’ is with food. Sometimes it is with people or other things. The curious thing is that where this behaviour becomes embedded the child remains unable to ‘just be me’. They remain attached albeit in a negative way, unable to ‘leave home’.  Of course the other thing can happen too. The eating becomes compulsive and unhealthy and, ironically, this often happens where the parents eat this way already even if they put a lot of effort into their children’s healthy eating. It may represent a refusal to separate. Whichever way of not separating occurs there is generally a lot of anger with it. The energy to separate is like rocket fuel but where it is thwarted (maybe mother is too insecure and touchy? too overwhelming?) it turns to rage. What makes working through these issues delicate is that these behaviours are deeply rooted in love and loyalty to the parents. People fear that they will lose that by separating whereas the opposite is actually true. We need to individuate to appreciate the people our parents are or were, to have compassion for their difficulties and for ourselves.

So what does healthy separation look like and when does it happen? The good news is, it is never too late. For some people it doesn’t happen until long after their parents are dead. Finding out you can ‘just be me’ without rejecting anyone or anything is the most wonderful liberation. You can explore yourself for the first time rather than defining yourself by rejecting the world around you. Likewise finding out you don’t need to hold on to Mum any more (or how she wanted you to be) is a huge gift. Separation is about growth, the way a flower pops out of its bud casing. It’s not rejecting anything. It’s not grabbing anything. It’s just being itself.

And as parents seeing the beauty of our children just being themselves is much more rewarding than trying to hold onto them or an idea of how we thought they were going to be.

White Chocolate and Tahini Cake

courtesy of Honey & Co.

Items in bold are my alternatives to their recipe.

320g caster sugar

350g plain flour or half plain white flour and half spelt flour

1.5 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1.5 tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

zest of 2 lemons

2 eggs

70g chopped white chocolate

120 ml vegetable oil

230 ml tahini paste

1 tbsp vanilla essence or the seeds from a pod

240 ml buttermilk, kefir, yoghurt or milk

180 ml boiling water

For the icing and the filling I have developed my own mixture which is simpler to make and gives a much stiffer spread than the original recipe (which included Mascarpone, cream cheese and double cream and had less icing sugar).

I use 500g mascarpone and 180g icing sugar (and 1 tbsp vanilla and 1 tbsp rum as per the original recipe).

For the decoration : 30g white chocolate finely chopped and the zest from another two lemons.

http---com.ft.imagepublish.prod.s3.amazonaws.com-e7cf2940-135b-11e7-b0c1-37e417ee6c76
Heat oven to 170C fan (190C /gas mark 5).

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.

In a smaller bowl mix the eggs with the oil, tahini, vanilla and buttermilk, then combine the two mixes, before slowly adding the boiling water.

Mix until everything is well incorporated.

Line the base of two 9in cake tins with a round of baking paper. Divide the mix evenly between the two tins, place both in the centre of the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Rotate for an even bake and return to the oven for a further 10-15 minutes. The cakes should feel lovely and bouncy and have a good golden colour all over.

Remove from the oven and carefully flip the cakes to flatten the tops. Allow to cool upside down.

Make the icing by mixing all the ingredients together with a small whisk until well combined and thickened. If you are using an electric mixer, use a paddle to avoid overworking the mix and splitting it. Place the first cake on a serving platter, top with half the icing, spread around and top with the second cake. Add the rest of the icing on top, spread and, if you wish, sprinkle with chopped white chocolate and lemon zest. If serving on the same day, it is best to avoid placing the cake in the fridge. If you are keeping it for longer do place it in the fridge, but allow it to come to room temperature before serving.