Photo by The Boeing Company via Flickr
Flying anxiety makes perfect sense. If anything I’d make the case that you’d have to be crazy not to be a little apprehensive in the air. Most people just feel good about suppressing it. One interpretation of flying panic or phobia is the relationship to control. Everyone knows it’s much safer than a car, but you have no control over the outcome governed by faceless strangers and fickle fate. (NB: Ask yourself if you interpreted this as “it’s bad or immature to want control.”)
The social convention is that people are not supposed to show public fear. Travel is supposed to be fun, show a little solidarity! After all, you’ll frighten the children. An Id analytical line (drive theory) of interpretation may be that the person who is outwardly anxious on an airplane is too entitled and is selfishly seeking attention or control of others (instill care taking) to compensate for the vulnerability of actually having no control or to discharge their anxiety.
An ego-analysis level of interpretation is that this individual is flooded with shame about their anxiety, shame that they cannot contain their anxiety. The act of publicly exposing the anxiety is a display of inadequacy in hopes of reconciliation. They will feel guilty, get punished and experience a transformation back into the good graces of the other.
Another angle is that you can notice how people we say are panicking are not panicking. They are not screaming and running around hysterically. Instead they generally are afraid but do not feel entitled or justified in their fear. They are already telling themselves that they just shouldn’t be so irrational and afraid. They may be leading others into the role of a superego figure because they just expect others to not take them seriously because that’s how they relate to themselves.
So the next time you’re flying with someone who tells you they get anxious on planes either tell them everything I just said or simply “You should be ashamed of yourself.” Then she’ll just be pissed off, but at least she’ll feel like she has the right to be pissed off. Then retort with “You seem pretty pissed off, but at least you’re not anxious anymore” and prepare for a vigorous initiation into the mile high club.
Of course, you can’t tell her that the reason you said all of this was that you were anxious about flying and compulsively use sexuality and intellectualize about psychology to reassure yourself about your adequacy as a defense against shame. Lastly, if you were aware of that insight you could have the freedom to either choose to go down this path and enjoy the bitter sweet nature of reality or you could choose to simply say “I wonder why you told me you’re anxious?”
Much like I wonder why you found and read this article when you did.
Which is a good place to introduce one of the basic insights of analysis: Distinguishing having facts from feelings, truth from wishes, or said otherwise, getting back in touch with the intentions of why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Another angle on this for flying anxiety (and elevator anxiety and other forms of social anxiety) is to start with the assumption that interpersonal anxiety is a real phenomenon. In most situations we have accepted ways of handling it: We have courtesies and pleasantries (Good mornings, how do you do’s and handshakes). We also have more direct ways we can learn of resolving our anxiety by reaching out to make contact with others. But when surrounded by strangers we tend to need something more.
At bars, sporting events, churches and other large gatherings there are either ways to avoid contact (loud music, alcohol) or ways to ritualize it (structured group activities and roles). On planes and in some situations, it’s not so clear what to do. You are surrounded by strangers yet in some ways alone with your fear. Many of the things you would ordinarily do to relieve anxiety are not appropriate in these contexts. You could say your defenses break down.
A common anxious flyer is the type who solves their interpersonal anxiety by being very social – flitting about between people or talking loudly and annimatedly, showing people how confident, outgoing and social they are. These behaviors seem intrusive and gauche in a quiet confined space.
This leaves you with the option of having to reach out to solve your anxiety too directly in that you have to confront that you are doing it on purpose. To many people that seems immature and the feeling remains a mystery, the solution out of grasp.
This is where psychoanalysis can be distinguished from other forms of therapy in that in some way the solution is out of grasp.
For instance, a psychoanalytical perspective on my writing this article would of course identify that I want what I’m saying to be true. I want readers to read it and comment to reduce my anxiety about these thoughts being true. To understand that these thoughts I have, even before writing them, are themselves are an attempt to reduce anxiety is insight. By understand, I mean a felt understanding.
It has to be a felt understanding, which is why this article won’t help you reduce flying anxiety unless you can feel a relationship with me as an author and experience that you yourself feel felt.
(NB: What prevents that relationship, among other things, is my narcissism/desire for ego satisfaction, and the way it threatens your narcissism and desire to be right. Further, us creating a shared relationship around the truth of these concepts would become a social phenomenon where we rally around commonly held concepts to mutually reduce our anxiety qua religion.)
The reason this is the case is that more thoughts and words become an infinite regress. My disclosure of this further insight can become just another concept of which I want to convince you of it’s truth to relieve anxiety. As is the last sentence, and this one, and so forth.
This is one reason psychoanalysts don’t do as much outreach to the public and remain in a sense aloof. Their explanatory framework I say is in some sense more directly in connection with why they are writing and also makes them more aware of the limited value of words and concepts.
The felt relationship to another in analysis helps you experience separateness with a felt sense of common being. Some people live in this like water to a fish, to others it is an abject horror, warded off by fears of what might ultimately be death and meaninglessness. To the anxious flier this experience can mean being existentially separate, but not alone.
You have to come to the point where you can hold the idea that you wish for other people to help you feel better. When you can really hold that idea seriously, unclouded by guilt and shame, you may start to realize you don’t need it as badly as you thought. It may be gone entirely, or you may be able to satisfy that need in the ordinary fashion – reassurance from the confident humor of the pilot, a warm smile of a traveling companion, the squeeze of a hand, or simply the knowledge that the silence of those around you is about them and their own fear.
You have much more in common with those around you than you think. This includes anxiety, shame about it, and the impulse for desperate or exaggerated ways to forever take it away. This impulse itself which is so savagely scrutinized, warded off, and shamefully grasped, returns exaggerated anew in panic, all too human, while you’re floating through the skies.