inability to regulate feelings at the root of fear of flying?

a guest post by captain tom, on the topic of fear of flying that we’ve discussed on and off here on this blog.

first, by way of introduction, i’m both an airline captain and a licensed therapist. working with people who have trouble with flying has been my specialty for twenty-eight years.

i am fully trained in hypnotherapy and in NLP (neurolinguistic programming). i studied both years ago in my search for things that would help me treat fear of flying clients. i found hypnotherapy to be very “hit or miss”, too unreliable. NLP works with mild cases of flight anxiety.

over the years, my work has been focused on work with people unable to find help any place else. thus, we give away ” free ” the help that some other sites charge for. for free help, see the SOAR library and other free help is available at the fear of flying web site

we also offer free group phone sessions every wednesday night.

there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the cause of fear of flying. it is not caused by a bad flight; most people on a bad flight don’t develop fear of flying. difficulty with flying is caused by insufficient ability to regulate feelings when facing uncertainty.

research since the advent of the functional MRI just eight years ago has helps us understand how the brain works. we now recognize that the ability to regulate feelings is learned and that the part of the brain that does this regulation requires stimulation of the right kind during the first two years of life. the right kind of stimulation requires a caregiver who is empathically attuned to the infant and responds to the infant’s signals, rather than simply providing for the infant according to an agenda set by the caregiver.

if the child is afraid, the caregiver needs to tune into the child’s fear in a way the child really knows the caregiver feels the same way. thus the child knows he or she is not alone.

then, the magic happens; the caregiver then lets the child know that ” though the child’s fear is 100% shared ” the adult has an additional point of view, which is that it is not the end of the world; it will work out alright.

many of us, obviously, didn’t get such optimal early development. thus, when facing uncertainty, we control our anxiety by being in control of the situation, or by having a way to out of it.

that works fairly well on the ground ” except for annoying those who regard us as control freaks. but when flying, there is uncertainty, of course. and, not being in control and not having a way out, there is no way to regulate the feelings.

therapists try to help with CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy), but anxiety can develop so rapidly that CBT techniques cannot keep up with the anxiety build-up.

hypnosis is pretty “hit or miss”. if it helps on one flight, it can fail to help on another flight.

medications are not to be recommended ” according to the world health organization ” because when sedated, the passenger doesn’t move around enough to protect against DVT, deep vein thrombosis. if a DVT clot forms, it is a serious and potentially life-threatening problem.

also, use of medications ” according to research ” is only helpful in very mild cases of fear of flying. in more severe cases, medications make the flight worse!

i have tried to give a good understanding of the cause and cure of fear of flying in a video here and here.


  1. nice to meet you here, palma!

    evan, some would say that this is what therapy is about: adding to a person’s psyche what she/he could not receive as a child.

    let’s ask captain tom what he thinks …

  2. What about adults? When it comes to building additional emotional strength to deal with challenges, we look for a moment with another person in which there WAS a moment of empathic connection. Then, we relive that moment pretending there is a magazine lying there, and on the page of the magazine, there is (when the challenge is fear of flying) a picture of a plane taking off. And then, forget the magazine, and focus on the feeling of empathic connection. We do that with each moment of the flight, takeoff, landing, cruise, noises, etc. Then, during the flight, a sense of empathic connection unconsciously strengthens the person so that anxiety is reduced if not completely controlled.

    This is, indeed, similar to what happens in therapy. As you relate — and relive — the moments of challenge, you do so in the presence of an attuned, empathic person (at least hopefully your therapist is) and that links together the challenge and the empathic moment. This builds emotional strength.

    I’ve written quite a bit on this in the SOAR Library at

  3. Isabella,

    Great site. Informative, warm friendly. I wanted to let you know that the NLP phobia process has been updated in the last few years to the NLP trauma process. Unfortunately, it’s nowhere on the web yet, but I can get you a copy if you want (assuming you don’t have it already). The NLP trauma process works with anxieties that were more difficult to cure with the phobia process. Another thing you can do with just the phobia process is to do it on 3 to 4 different life experiences of the same phobia, and to especially do it on the first time the person had the phobia feeling. You can guide the person back focusing on a (small) piece of the phobia feeling and see where it started. If it’s a high level phobia, you may even have to give resources to the family system in the original experience. Anyway, I’m health certified in NLP (the 3rd level training – practitioner, master practitioner, health) and I didn’t start getting results with everything until I went through the health cert. Anyway, I love your site, I will browse around it and I’ll try to keep in rapport with you by not always talking about NLP. Thanks again Isabella

  4. A reply by Capt. Tom:

    If there is a phobia due to exposure to some event, then the NLP exercises are very useful. But what I’m finding is that fear of flying is due to a lack of ability to regulate feelings. On the ground, a person can use control of the situation, or escape from a situation to provide control of feelings.

    But on the plane, there is no such control and no escape.

    So, the solution is to provide additional emotional strength rather than to try to erase the effects of some bad flight, because the reason for the bad flight was lack of emotional strength to deal with emotions in the first place.

    That is seemingly not understood by most psychologists or NLP practitioners; instead, they cling to the idea that it is the intensity of the stimulus, not the weakness of the client, that is the problem.

    Consider a sail boat. One with a big keel can handle strong winds and sail well in weather that would sink a boat with only a centerboard, instead of a keel.

    Yours truly,


    Captain Tom Bunn LCSW

  5. Hi, Nice article about Fear of Flying

    I think the most important thing in overcome our fear is RELAX. Try to look at the flight attendant while they are instructing you on emergency exits. Also don’t ever think about the worst comes to the worst, that will never happen to you. So you can follow what the airhostess is saying if you want to or just casually glance at the chart.
    .-= NLP Eye Patterns´s last blog ..Conversational Hypnosis Benefits =-.

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