Fear of flying workshop at Westchester County Airport
By Linda Lombroso – lohud The Journal News
Published: September 29, 2015
Six-week program culminates in graduation flight to Boston or Washington, D.C.
Imagine being so afraid of flying that you can’t go on vacation unless you drive there. You’ve missed family reunions, weddings, graduations, trips to Europe. You want to get over your fear, but you’re worried you’ll panic if you get on a plane. The high altitude. Locked doors. Choppy air. Tight space.
Then imagine the way to start managing your anxiety is to stand at the top of a skyscraper, or to try out a flight simulator, or to sit inside a real airplane and watch them close the doors.
Those are some of the techniques used in Freedom to Fly, a twice-yearly workshop at Westchester County Airport that ends with a round-trip flight from LaGuardia to Boston or Washington, D.C. The six-week program is led by clinical psychologist Martin Seif, associate director of the Anxiety & Phobia Treatment Center at White Plains Hospital, and includes instruction from a commercial-airline pilot and regular sessions inside a stationary airplane. Students also get one-on-one therapy with certified phobia counselors.
The program, created by Seif, has turned hundreds of fearful fliers into people who travel the globe.
Elizabeth Rodriguez, a 54-year-old from the Bronx, signed up last fall after refusing to get on an airplane for 36 years. Every family vacation with her husband and two sons was a driving trip, even if the destination was Florida. Her claustrophobia worsened, and she doubted she’d ever set foot on a plane again. Freedom to Fly changed all that. The graduation flight to Washington, D.C., was surprisingly enjoyable, she said, and she’s since flown successfully to North Carolina and Florida.
“The class helps people with all different fears — some are claustrophobic, some have a fear of heights, some are afraid of turbulence,”‘ said Rodriguez. “It’s definitely been a life change for me.”
Seif said those who enroll in the program are a courageous group. “You basically have to outbluff your anxiety,” he said. “The most common thing people say, after the flight when they’re feeling great, is ‘Dr. Seif, when I was going onto the plane I felt like I was walking into my own funeral.’ ”
We asked Seif a few questions about the program, which starts again Oct. 7. To register, and for more information, call the Anxiety & Phobia Treatment Center at 914-681-1038; space is limited. Most insurance plans are accepted.
Is it true you were once a fearful flier?
Oh, yes. I’m an anxiety-disorder specialist and I managed to turn my disability into a pretty good career. I was particularly interested in doing this because I didn’t fly until I was in my late twenties. I thought I’d never fly.
How does the first session begin?
You walk into the group and see a bunch of very reasonable, regular-looking people. I say, “How many people would get into a car and drive to Boston with me today?” and most people raise their hand. And then I say, “How many people are willing to jump on a plane with me to Boston?” and virtually no one raises their hand. The starting question is, “Why am I more afraid of something that is less dangerous and less afraid of something that is more dangerous?” That starts us on an explanation of what is anxiety, how does it fool us, how does it operate in this particular way, and how does it relate to the symptoms I have?
What sorts of people come to the workshop?
There are some who fly irregularly and are very white-knuckle people. On the other extreme, we have people even in their fifties and sixties who have never flown. We once had a professional athlete who would fly every week, but he would drug himself up so much with Xanax that he would have to fly a day before the team and spend a day recovering. His goal was to fly without medication. Then we have people who fly because their job requires it, or their family needs it, or they want to see relatives in Europe or go south for the winter.
What is the reason most people are afraid of flying?
I like to think of it as fears of flying — a confluence of a number of phobias. The most common reason is that people are afraid to experience panic while they’re on the plane. Some might think of themselves as claustrophobic, because their fear is “What if I start to get anxious and I can’t comfortably remove myself from the situation?” They’re the people who say, “I have no problem flying if I could say to the pilot, ‘Can you just land it in the field? I’m a little nervous, I want to stretch my legs, maybe open the window and get some fresh air.’ ”
What else is common?
People who don’t like the idea of being that high. They say, “I have no problem flying if the plane would fly at treetop height.”
Aren’t there other reasons too?
Those two comprise about 80 percent of people who come. But it’s a group of 22 people, and we usually can get 10 or 15 things that frighten them. They run the gamut from fear of the unknown to fear of panicking, fear of crashing, terrorism, the plane exploding in the middle of the sky. Turbulence is a big one.
What’s your approach?
The active ingredient for overcoming any sort of anxiety is exposure. The exposure needs to be willing. And it has to be manageable. That’s where the program is very helpful. We go through security, we go through the environment of an airport, we go on stationary planes, we close the door. So essentially, in manageable steps, people start to experience the elements that frighten them.
What is the one-on-one component to the program?
Each person has individual work with a therapist so they expose themselves, also in manageable steps, to the things that frighten them. There’s a wonderful flight simulator around Westchester Airport. The tramway to Roosevelt Island is used a lot. Sometimes people who are afraid of heights go to the tops of buildings with therapists.
You said a key part of overcoming fears is avoiding avoidance. What does that mean?
We often see people who’ve tried, for a long time, to help themselves and it hasn’t worked. There’s zillions of avoidances that people have, and they’re very subtle. Every avoidance, in the long term, maintains the person’s suffering from the anxiety.
Interview was edited and condensed.