How EMDR Helped my Flying Anxiety
EMDR is a powerful technique that can help with phobias.
You might have read my first blog about flying anxiety. I wrote about practical strategies for flying anxiety and how I used a tv show to help occupy my mind during short exposure flights. EMDR played a big role in helping to resolve my fear of flying.
I'm certain that I couldn't have resolved my flying anxiety without therapy. I tried to do it alone with medication for flying and exposure, but my attempts didn't resolve the fear. I learned that sleep through a flight was the most pleasant experience, but it didn't cure a thing. For me, it was only a bandaid. The way I had major gains in reducing my fear was through a mixture of EMDR and then gradual exposure with flying. (This is called the in vivo practice part of EMDR.)
EMDR for Phobias
The EMDR process for phobias involves learning how to self-regulate and then desensitizing the feared stimuli. Unlike exposure-based therapies like CBT, in EMDR treatment you reprocess experiences associated with the phobia. This can include processing the first experience, your worst experience, your most recent experience and ancillary experiences. (You can learn more about EMDR here.) People who have used EMDR report feeling a sense of confidence, calm and positive belief. By now I've had plently of client testimonials in my own office.
Titrating Fearful Imagery
Titration is a technique used in EMDR where you imagine some distance between yourself and the feared experience. For example, you might image the scenario as a black-and-white image, as a photograph, or on a tv screen. In my EMDR therapy, I imagined a polaroid photo of myself sitting in a seat on a plane while doing eye movements with my therapist. Once this reduced in intensity, I played a mental movie of arriving to the airport, boarding the plane, sitting in my seat (the polaroid image), taking off, flying, experiencing turbulence and landing. Projecting this future movie helped me imagine any scenarios that might cause anxiety and desensitize those too.
Where I'm at Now: *An Update*
The COVID-19 pandemic changed my level of comfort with flying for some time. I had multiple trips planned in 2020 and as the world closed down, I honestly felt pretty uncomfortable with it opening back up again initially. As fate would have it, some great opportunities came up for me to travel by plane several times when mask mandates and PCR testing were required. I thought of these as opportunities to practice in vivo exposure once again. Armed with my turbulence affirmation ("waves in the ocean") and my mask, I set off into the skies and tested my comfort.
Flying with a mask was better than I imagined it could be (isn't is usually that way with anxieties...) I was concerned about if others would fuss over the rules, if they would wear it properly and if my face would feel too hot if I got anxious. I used to get a sore throat most times after flying from the mix of the oxygen and overhead air, lately I don't. So now that the mask requirement on planes is lifting, I'll likely keep mine on for all the benefits I experience. It's my cozy little mouth and nose cave while I fly, and I can easily add some calming essential oil or sniff my Vick's stick when I need a refreshing blast. Have I had anxious moments in the air? A few. Turns out that it depends on the plane more than anything. I had a dreamy-but-turbulent flight (seriously!) on an airbus that was as smooth as riding my paddleboard on the river. As I'm in the clouds, I remind myself that I experience anxiety and I've been okay every time so I'll be okay again. That seems to do the trick. (Plus enjoying the time to focus on the latest book or tv show I'm watching!)
Do you have a fear of flying?
Let's work together.