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Don't be grounded by flying fears

By Thurston Hatcher

(CNN) -- Barbara MacLeod hadn't flown in 13 years.

Even when an enticing job offer required her to travel from Texas to North Carolina, she just couldn't bring herself to board a plane. Instead, she took the bus.

"It was such a shameful and exhausting experience that I vowed I was going to put this thing front and center in my life and beat it," MacLeod says.

With the help of a North Carolina therapist, she quickly realized the source of her fears, and overcame them. The flight back to Austin went just fine.

"I was grinning ear to ear," she says. Now MacLeod not only rides in planes regularly -- she's a licensed pilot who teaches others the art of aerobatic loops and stalls.

  • Learn relaxation techniques, including deep-breathing exercises.

  • Check Web sites devoted to flying fears. They may have message boards where you can swap information with other travelers.

  • Learn more about aeronautics and meteorology.

  • Don't be frightened by turbulence. It's a routine part of flying.

  • Avoid alcohol, which can heighten anxiety.

  • Inform flight crew members that you're nervous about flying. They may be able to assist you.

  • Enroll in a seminar, buy a self-help tape or consider private therapy.
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    At least one out of seven people have some fear of going up in an airplane, and for those who refuse to get on board, that phobia can be paralyzing.

    "People have passed on wonderful family trips, family reunions, missed funerals, missed weddings," says Liz Harrison, program coordinator for Northwest Airlines' WINGS program for fearful fliers. Some have even skipped their honeymoons.

    "It's really serious for a lot of people," she says.

    Help is available

    But they don't have to live with flying fears. Experts suggest therapy, workshops, self-help programs or even a few basic tips can go a long way toward getting them off the ground.

    Tony Martinez, a United Airlines mechanic who serves on the board of the San Mateo, California-based Fear of Flying Clinic, says knowledge is the key to overcoming flying anxiety.

    "We're not saying you have to like to fly, but at least you have the tools to fly, and of course, practice makes perfect. Over time and repeated flights, your anxiety and phobias diminish dramatically," he says.

    The clinic features instruction by a pilot, mechanic and air traffic controller, who explain the basics of aerodynamics and flight safety procedures and take clients on a tour of the control tower and maintenance area. A licensed therapist also works with participants to help them determine what their base phobia or fear is.

    Like the Northwest program, it ends with a short, orientation flight.

    Sometimes the fears have little to do with the flight itself. It may be a lack of control, or an aching sense of responsibility.

    Women, for example, have told Harrison their flying fears worsened when they had children.

    "It's a fear of flying, but it's really a fear of leaving your child and being responsible for something and thinking who would take care of them," she says.

    Although fear of flying is sometimes the subject of jokes and sitcom plot lines, people familiar with it say there's nothing funny about it.

    "I think the public out there needs to be educated that fear is an accident that happens to us. It has nothing to do with being cowardly at all. It's no less an accident than having a broken leg in a ski accident," says MacLeod, whose fears were triggered by the deaths of two friends in a canoeing accident.

    Relax, prepare

    There won't necessarily be easy remedies for flying fears, but the experts say there are a few things short of therapy or seminars that might help.

    One suggestion is to learn relaxation techniques, including deep breathing exercises that may help you stay calm.

    Consult Web sites devoted to flying fears, some of which have message boards where travelers share advice and offer support. MacLeod helps moderate the Fear of Flying Clinic's board.

    Another is not to let turbulence get to you. It's a fact of life when you're flying, and it doesn't mean your flight's in peril. Actually, Harrison suggests lifting your feet off the ground and adapting to the movement of the plane.

    "It really helps people get through the turbulence," Harrison says.

    Harrison strongly recommends that you introduce yourself to the flight crew if you have the opportunity, and let them know flying makes you uncomfortable. They may be able to offer some extra assistance to help you through your flight.

    And don't wait until the hour before the flight to start preparing yourself for the journey.

    "Whether it's one week or three months, this is the time you need to start relaxation techniques, to understand the industry, to understand the airplane," Martinez says. "That in itself will drop the anxiety before you actually board the airplane."

    And avoid alcohol. You may think it will relax you, but it could actually make the anxiety worse.

    Harrison has one other word of reassuring advice.

    "If I can tell anybody anything, it's not to worry because we're not going to fly that plane if the weather is bad," she says. "If it's not safe to fly, we're not going to fly in it."

    • Anxiety: Most common mental health problem
    February 2, 2000
    • Afraid to fly? Help is at hand
    December 23, 1999
    • Swissair crash increases flying fears
    September 4, 1998
    • Conquering a fear of flying
    November 27, 1997

    • Fear of Flying Clinic
    • Northwest Airlines - Wings
    • Fearless Flying - Conquer Your Fear of Flying
    • AVweb Profile: Barb MacLeod

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