Pakistan’s First Parenting Magazine

Fear of Flying

By Captain Tom Bunn

Though the onset of fear of flying often seems to be caused by a bad flight, there is another cause: becoming a parent. According to Captain Tom Bunn, airline pilot and licensed therapist, fear of flying often begins during pregnancy. It is not just the responsibility for another life. Shortly before delivery, the brain of the expectant mothers is flooded with hormones that cause her to become obsessed with safety. Everything that even remotely seems to be a risk has to be dealt with. Though the hormones subside after delivery, the patterns of behavior established by the hormones may continue.

Even though it might seem that flying is a risk, it is amazingly safe. Few things a person could be doing on the ground equal the safety of being on an airliner. Flying only seems risky because it is a time when we have no control of the situation we are in. Anxiety is easier to avoid when we are in a position to take action. This is because each time we make a decision and stick with it, anxiety is regulated. At the moment of commitment, a signal resets the amygdala, the part of the brain that releases stress hormones. 

An anxious parent may be concerned that their fear of flying will be transferred to the child. Thus, the parent tries to hide their fear. This is counterproductive. Children develop immunity from anxiety through a sharing of inner experience with the parent, and vice versa. There is nothing wrong with simply telling a child that though feelings sometimes point us in the right direction, such as when hungry or sleepy, what a person feels like doing and what they need to do are sometimes different. If we clearly recognize that following our feelings is not in our best interest, we would follow our thinking rather than our feelings.

Fear of flying is not transferred from parent to child during flight. Rather, it results from an underdeveloped ability to regulate feelings. Ability to regulate emotion is established — or fails to be established — during the first two years of life. During this period of rapid brain growth, the circuits that regulate emotion are constructed. How well these circuits develop depends upon certain qualities in the child’s relationship with its primary caregiver, usually the mother. Try this game to help your little one better control emotions: Face you child and make eye contact, then wait for the child to respond with a sound, a facial expression, or a motion. Following the child’s response, return with your own response, either identical to what your child did or something new. Like a tennis ball going back and forth across the net, expression goes back and forth between you and your child. When excitement becomes high, take a break to calm down and wait for your child to re–initiate play.

If the parent’s difficulty involves panic, the psychological processes that cause panic must be revised.

Captain Tom Bunn, an airline captain and licensed therapist, is President and founder of SOAR, Inc. He has helped over 5,000 people overcome difficulty with flying. Captain Bunn was part of the first fear of flying program, which was started at Pan Am in 1975.

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