Fighting the fear of flying

— Photo by Terence L. Kindlon
No fear of flying: Pilot Terence L. Kindlon took this picture of a sunrise from his Cessna 340 in 2012 on one of many Angel Flights, transporting patients to far-flung hospitals.

ALBANY COUNTY — This weekend, Albany International Airport will re-launch its popular class on overcoming the fear of flying, a common specific phobia. 

The National Institute of Mental Health defines “specific phobia” as an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no danger. For adults with a specific phobia, even thinking about the feared object or situation can bring on severe anxiety symptoms. An estimated 12.5 percent of adults in the United States experience specific phobia at some time in their lives, according to the institute.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, simple phobias can involve fear of a specific creature (such as dogs, spiders, snakes), an environment (thunderstorms, high places), people (clowns, dentists), or a situation (riding on a train, being in a confined space); these conditions are at least partly inherited and seem to run in families, and in extreme cases, a phobia can dictate a person’s job location, driving route, recreational and social activities, or home environment, as people avoid anxiety by avoiding what triggers their fear. 

On Oct. 5, clinical psychologist Loretta Malta, Ph.D. will talk to attendees about fear of flying and give them some ideas about what can be done to overcome it. Retired Southwest Airlines pilot Rick Weiss will discuss the safety features of modern airplanes. 

The two-hour class was originally scheduled for 10 a.m., but demand was so great that a second class was added, at 1 p.m., said Doug Myers, director of public affairs for the Albany County Airport Authority, which operates the airport; he added last week that both of those classes were full. The cost to each attendee is $60. 

The airport is already planning for another class, probably in November, said Myers, which already has a list of 10 people interested. 

Myers said that this is the first time a class on this phobia has been offered at the airport in more than a decade. 

In years past, a longer version had been offered that included two sessions and a short round-trip flight, said Myers, noting that the cost of that class, including the flight, had ranged from $300 to $400. During a decade-long hiatus after the teacher became unavailable and the airport was unable to find a replacement, many people called, asking for it to be revived, he added. 

In the future, the Airport Authority might add the option of a flight, if possible and depending on demand, Myers said. 

Malta told The Enterprise the class will discuss what phobias are, what is known about how they develop, and options for treatment. She will explain the different cognitive behavioral therapy techniques used to treat phobias, she said, adding, “The main one is exposure therapy.” She will explain to attendees what exposure therapy entails. 

Malta will also talk about, she said, medications that could possibly be helpful for those with a fear of flying.

Exposure therapy involves gradual, repeated exposure to the source of the specific phobia and to the thoughts, feelings, and sensations associated with it, in an effort to learn to manage anxiety, according to the Mayo Clinic website, which offers the example of fear of elevators.

Exposure therapy for the person with this fear might involve starting out by thinking about getting into an elevator, and then progress to looking at pictures of elevators, then to going close to an elevator, then to stepping into one. Finally, it might involve taking a one-floor ride, then going for several floors, then riding in a crowded elevator. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy, the Mayo Clinic’s website says, involves exposure therapy coupled with learning alternative beliefs about fears and bodily sensations and their impact. It emphasizes, the website says, “learning to develop a sense of mastery and confidence with your thoughts and feelings rather than feeling overwhelmed by them.” 

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