Overcoming the “Fear of Flying”
A Case Study
Bobby G. Bodenhamer, D.Min.
When I sat down think about all of the NLP and Meta-State patterns that address the experience of fear, I felt both surprised and delighted. My intent was to gather highly effective patterns and to present them in a Workshop format at the local college to begin my eighth year there teaching NLP. My partner, Michael Hall, and I discovered enough patterns for a ten week coarse. Over several months, we put together our newest training manual, Mastering Your Fears: An NLP/Neuro-Semantics Approach to Mastering Fear and Anxiety.
How many patterns are there for intervening with a fear response? Dozens. Of course, we begin with the “Phobia Pattern” to alter the way a person codes fear– from associated to a dissociated. There’s deframing the meanings that a person has given to some event, experience, stimulus that creates a sense of danger or threat. There’s the Reframing of the meanings, adding new resources, changing past referents, collapsing anchors, meta-stating the fear with new resources to give the fear a more appropriate texture, dropping down through emotional states, etc.
There are many patterns and mixtures of patterns that we can use and intertwine in order to coach a person into a fear mastery state. We have focused on mastering fear, not eliminating since “fear” as an emotion is just a message and may be appropriate. We may need to listen to it and take counsel from it. For inappropriate and unreasonable fears, we need to take courage to face them and to act in spite of them. It’s for irrational and demonized fears that become part of identity, character, and higher frame of mind, that we need to eliminate.
I have provided a transcript of working with a woman who had given in and taken far to much counsel of her fear of flying. In brackets , I have noted the bits and pieces of various NLP and NS (Neuro-Semantic) patterns.
The Art of Freaking Out About Flying
Wanda’s personal coach referred her to me to assist her in dealing with her fear of flying. Since her work requires her to fly a lot, and was still flying, but feeling more and more nervous about it.
“Some of my worse fears of flying are in good weather. I don’t even have to be in a plane to feel afraid. I can panic at home just thinking about flying. First I become nervous, then my heart rate speeds up.”
“Wanda, you can even run this ‘fear of flying’ strategy in calm weather?” I asked. “And, you can even run this fear of flying at home?”
“Yes, I can.”
“Yes it sounds like you have ‘anticipatory anxiety.’ But, of course, I’m in the ‘de_labeling’ business. So I want to figure out what you’re doing inside your head to run this ‘fear of flying’ program. When we know that, we’ll deframe that old program. Sound good?
“So, Wanda, you become afraid of flying even when you are home? How do you do that? It’s quite a skill to get nervous, to speed up your heart rate, and to feel afraid. What do you have to see, hear, feel to trigger this, or how do you know when to become afraid of flying?”
“When I’m in a plane and we hit turbulence, I get really nervous.”
“So turbulence is the trigger? You have to feel nervous about flying when you are in turbulence?”
“Well, yes. I get really nervous and my heart speeds up when the plane hits turbulence.”
“When you are in a plane and you hit turbulence, you get really nervous?”
[All this gathers critical information about how and when the strategy works.]
“What about when you are at home? How do you get nervous about flying when you are not in a plane? I assume that you don’t always fear flying when you are not flying?”
“No. I’m not always thinking about flying and being nervous. It’s just when I think about flying that I get nervous . . . It’s when I think about we may hit turbulence that I get nervous. When I think that we may hit turbulence, that’s when I get nervous. If I hear that the weather will be bad before I leave the house for the airport, I get really, really nervous.”
[Looking for the Exception Frame, “When does it not occur?” And the Trigger Frame: “How do you do it apart from the external trigger?”]
“Ah, so, you don’t get nervous about flying until the thought of turbulence comes to mind?”
“Yes, that is right. It is about turbulence.”
“Have you always been afraid of turbulence? How long have you been afraid of turbulence?”
“No, I haven’t always been afraid. Ten years ago I was in a plane that hit an air pocket. I had forgotten about it until you asked. The plane dropped several hundred feet immediately. It horrified me!”
“And are you feeling that horror now?”
“Yes… yes I am.”
“As you experience that horror, do you have a picture in your mind?’
“And what exactly you see?”
“I see the inside of the cabin (motioning her hands around as if inside an airplane cabin). I see the people and all the stuff going everywhere.”
“So, it’s like you’re seeing inside the cabin. You see the people. And you see things going all over the plane?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Do you see yourself in the picture or just the other people, the seats and the things flying?”
“I just see all the other. I do not see myself.”
[Exploring the Representational Coding Frame: “How is it coded?”]
Creating Fear– Associating and Layering
This description told me that Wanda was associating back into the plane every time she hit turbulence in a flight. Because she did not see herself in the picture, she was imagining herself back in the plane. Further, she was doing the same thing each time she even thought about flying in turbulence.
Most phobic type reactions happen this way. We unconsciously associate back into the fearful experience(s) and layer our thoughts with the same thoughts of fear and anxiety, i.e., “the plane is falling. I am going to die!” Since our brain does not know the difference between representations just imagined and those triggered by outside stimuli, associated images of past fearful experiences cue our brains to re-experienced the fear. This creates the semantic reaction.
When Wanda thought about flying in turbulence, she automatically associated into that old plane dropping memory and she re-experience similar emotions as she originally did. Usually I like to invite a person to dissociate immediately, but as Wanda followed the absurdity of her thinking so well, I decide to go another way. She said,
“I know the plane isn’t going to drop but I am thinking, ‘the plane is going to drop!'”
“Right. You know the plane isn’t going to drop. You know that isn’t happening now. It isn’t real now.”
“I know. At least one part of me knows that.”
[Separating out different meta-frames, the Reality Frame versus the Fear Feeling Frame.]
“So, in essence you’re afraid of your fear about the plane dropping?”
(Laughing, she said,) “Yes, I guess I am.”
[Flushing out the first meta-level state about a state Frame.]
At that point, I drew an illustration of how we create paranoia by fearing our fear (See Figure 1). “Wanda, as you look at this sketch. It provides a way of diagramming the structural dynamics that explains how our brain works in creating our experiences, even our fear experiences.
“First we experience the world through our five senses. So when the plane dropped, you experienced it in terms of the sights, sounds, sensations, etc. that your body registered.
“Secondly, we recall an experience using our sensory code. What we see, we recall as pictures. What we sense in our feelings, we recall as feelings. What we hear, we recall as sounds. All of this becomes an internal image. We re-present our experiences on the screen of our minds through pictures, sounds, feelings, smells and tastes.
“Then, to that image or representation, we give it meaning with words. We say, “The plane is falling.”
“Yet we don’t stop there. We then have thoughts about thoughts. “I am going to die!” “Whew, that will make you nervous and cause your heart to palpitate, want it?”
“And as time goes on following a terrifying experience like a plane falling, we continually run these thoughts and so create a mental filter. Thereafter we experience the world through that filter. “Flying in planes is dangerous.’ It began with fear and then it evolved into fearing our fear. This creates paranoia and anxiety.
And, based on that horrifying experience and through running that thought these ten plus years, you have created a filter through which you experience flying in an airplane. That filter always looks for turbulence.
[Insight Frame about the construction, growth, and power of mental frames.]
Meta-Stating Into a Mental Filter
Frames of Mind Attract
“Wanda, our mental frames such as beliefs, values, convictions, decisions, understandings, ideas, etc., function as attractors. They attract things that support their existence. For instance, if I believe I am incompetent at some task, not only will I not attempt the task, but I will also constantly look for reasons to prove that I am incompetent. And though there could be many instances giving testimony that I could do the task, I won’t see them. The “incompetent frame” will filter them out. Does that make sense?
“Yes, so if I am afraid of turbulence, I will ‘create’ turbulence in my mind in order to make my fear work whether it is there or not.”
“Yes, that’s correct. And how many times has that frame of mind created ‘turbulence’ when there was no turbulence?”
(Laughing), “I am afraid too many times.”
[Eliciting a Humor Frame about the silliness of engaging the whole Fear Strategy apart from any appropriate trigger. Laughter gives us distance from our own processes.]
“You said you had a picture of the inside of the airplane?”
“And, as you see the inside of that airplane as it drops, what do you feel?”
“I feel tightness (placing her hand over her stomach).”
“So, you feel tightness and it is right there in your stomach?”
“And what do you feel underneath the tightness? … Feel it… and now just drop down through the tightness … and what is underneath it?”
(Going into a mild trance) “Nothing. I don’t feel anything.”
[Using the Drop Down Through Process… Framing an Emotion as having something Underneath it… Frame.]
“Great. And, what is under the ‘nothing?’ Just drop down through and out the other side.”
“Calm, I feel a calm.”
“Great. You feel calm. Now, what is under the calm? What feeling supports calm?”
“Space. I just feel a sense of space. It is extremely calm.”
“And being there in that calm space, what happens to fear of turbulence?”
“It is gone. I can’t feel it.”
[Bringing these Resourceful feelings to bear upon the Turbulence, a meta-stating process of Resource Application Frame.]
“Wonderful. I see doves out the deck (I keep bird feeders), they look so calm and peaceful.”
“Yes, doves are a symbol of peace.”
[Using a Metaphoring Frame… “What is this like”? Then bring that to bear upon the problem.]
“So anytime you should experience a little of that fear or anxiety of turbulence you can just recall sitting here and seeing the doves and know how calm you can feel whether you’re at home or in a plane. The fear that began it all happened a long time ago. It isn’t happening now, and chances are it will never happen to you again. Just feel greater calm as you see the doves.”
[Future pacing Frames… Past Frames… Resource Frames.]
After this, I had her future pace the feelings as she imagined flying and experiencing turbulence… recalling the doves and feeling the calmness and relaxation and so enjoying her flight. About a month after this session she sent the following E-mail and has graciously given permission to share it:
“I just returned from a trip to Los Angeles, my first flight since our session. Thank you so much, again, for helping me. … As you know, my nervousness didn’t have as much to do with actual turbulence as it did with the anticipation of fear. So I didn’t need actual bad weather to make me nervous. I was so calm on this LA trip. It was just amazing. On the return flight, I had to deal with a canceled flight, missed connections, and an announcement of severe thunderstorms. Normally, that would have been enough to put me over the edge since when I’m really tired (and I was exhausted after a 16 hour day of airports), I am more susceptible to nervousness.
Anytime the flight got bumpy or they announced coming turbulence, I just went to that ‘place’ you showed me how to access. I am still amazed that it works so well. I simply said the word “peace” to myself, and I was no longer on that bumpy plane. I was back with you watching the doves… Then I went from there to this beautiful valley at the base of a mountain. At the base of the mountain, I was engulfed by that great sense of nothingness I told you about. The sound of an eagle overhead was the only sound I heard. It is the most relaxed sensation I have ever felt. I never sleep on planes, and I slept for hours both going and returning. Take offs and landings were fun! I actually enjoyed flying again. Simply amazing!
While I was in LA, I read an article in USA Today about a technique for fear of flying that used very expensive virtual reality equipment. The treatment was long and very expensive. I wanted to write the author and tell him he was looking in all the wrong places. But you are right. Why should they give up thousands of dollars when you “fixed” me in less than hour? Bob, thanks so much for your help.”
Though we had scheduled a two-hour session, we were finished in less than one hour. I love it when it turns out that way even though it doesn’t always work this quickly. It worked this quickly with Wanda because her fear was anchored in primary experience of a one-time event, in the sudden descent of the plane. When a fear and or anxiety is anchored in years of experiences that have numerous higher level frames (meta-levels) of references that has coalesced into a primary frame of reference, it takes more work to tease out the solidifying layers. But, no fear, they can be teased out and reframed.
Framing “Fear” so that We Live Masterfully
Ultimately, fear is just an emotion. Whether it accurately or inaccurately cues us about particular actions we should or should not take depends upon the evaluations that create the danger-threat-feelings. We master our fears as we understand the cognitions from which they arise, the evaluations, standards, values, and compare them to the sensory based information before us.
Fear can be our friend and a useful ally. Fear of fear, fear of ourselves, fear of any other emotion, fear of ideas, concepts, memories, imaginations, etc., this is the kind of fear that does us damage. With NLP and NS we have so many ways, methods, and processes for understanding fear, dealing with fear, and mastering fear.