In the last five years, I’ve become quite anxious during flights – especially when turbulence hits. And while my wife Cassie never feared turbulence before, she has recently “caught” my anxiety, for which I feel inherently guilty.
Now, we’re as bad as each other, and that can make for some terrible flight experiences. A recent case in point was our return flight from an otherwise lovely holiday in Bali.
It certainly didn’t help that Mount Raung’s ongoing eruptions clouded the air with volcanic ash. This led to many cancelled flights and scores of tourists stranded at airports. When some flights finally did resume, the ashy air made the journey more turbulent than usual.
We’re both clinical psychologists, so you would think we’d easily be able to manage our turbulence-related anxiety. But counselling others is one thing; applying the same strategies to yourself is another.
I know how anxiety works and practise the commonly taught technique of controlled breathing in anxiety-provoking situations. It works sometimes, but I still feel on edge during turbulence. During this flight, I employed a different strategy to combat my fears - compassion-focused therapy.
The alert zebra
Compassion-focused therapy was developed for people whose mental health issues are linked to high self-criticism and shame. It holds that humans have “tricky” brains, which have fantastic capabilities, but come at an emotional cost. Let me explain.
Imagine a zebra in an African savannah eating grass. There’s nothing a zebra likes to do more than eat grass. But when it spots some rustling in the bushes, the zebra becomes alert and runs to safety.
Nine times out of ten, the rustling is just wind, or maybe a small animal, but that one time it could be a lion. And it’s better to be safe than sorry.
When the zebra has found another safe spot in the savannah, it just goes back to eating grass. Here’s the difference between a zebra and a human: if you put a human brain in the zebra, it will start to think, “Oh my goodness that was a close call. Could you imagine if it was a lion? What if it ate me? That would be awful! Being eaten alive would be the worst!”
Humans tend to ruminate or ask the “what if” questions over and over, which can lead to more anxiety, fear and distress. And that’s what happens when I encounter turbulence.
Paul Gilbert, the man who developed compassion-focused therapy, describes three key emotion systems in the human brain:
the threat and self-protect system, which helps us keep a lookout for danger and to be “better safe than sorry”. Emotions that alert us to danger include anger, fear, anxiety and disgust.
the drive and resource-seeking system, which helps us do things such as finding food, sexual partners and friends. Helpful emotions here are excitement, joy and happiness.
the soothing or affiliative system, which helps us become content, calm and feel safe.
All these systems are important, but our threat system is overly developed. And rightly so, since it helps us stay alive. We want a threat system that activates and overrides other systems in times of danger, hijacking all our attention.
What’s important here is this: although emotions of fear and anxiety can be very difficult, it’s not our fault that they are there. It’s just our brain doing what it has evolved to do. But although it’s not our fault that we have painful emotions, we do have a responsibility to learn how to soothe them.
How it unfolded
Going back to that flight from Bali: when the turbulence hit, I was in my threat system. I was alert. As my anxiety took hold, I thought, “Oh goodness, the volcanic ash is playing havoc with the plane (replace goodness with a profanity of your choice)!”
I looked at Cassie and she was anxious as well. She said, “Oh, why is this happening?” This increased my anxiety and also made me angry. I started thinking, “This is ridiculous! We shouldn’t be having turbulence and this is upsetting my wife!”
Then I felt sad and thought, “Poor Cassie. She has never had anxiety like this before. This is my fault!” My sadness made me think of compassion-focused therapy and the idea of developing our soothing system. This was clearly what I needed to feel calm, content and safe.
I decided to to do what’s known as an “imagery exercise”. I imagined a safe place, one that would welcome me and make me feel at home.
For me that place is the beach down at Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast. I imagined the smell of the ocean, the feel of the sun on my skin, and the sights of the golden sand. That helped direct my attention away from anxiety, to a place where I felt comfortable.
It also slowed things down and gave me space to think, “Okay, thanks anxiety. I know you are here to warn me. I shouldn’t blame myself for you being here. It’s just my brain doing what it has evolved to do. But right now I don’t want you to run the show.”
Then I thought about my “ideal compassionate image” – another compassion-focused therapy exercise. My ideal compassionate image is of someone (I don’t know the gender, for me that isn’t clear; that’s important with imagery, it doesn’t have to be picture perfect) who has a soft voice and a welcoming, embracing attitude. This compassionate image has the strength, wisdom and commitment to support me.
After spending a few minutes doing this, I noticed my attention had broadened to other things beyond the turbulence. I realised I needed a drink of water. And I felt comfortable enough to reach out to Cassie and say, “Hey, things are going to be okay. Turbulence is normal.”
At home that night, Cassie thanked me, saying that I had really helped her. And we both had the startling realisation that it was I – the one with the fear of turbulence - who calmed Cassie down, not the other way round.
None of this would have been a problem if I wasn’t anxious in the first place. But that was just my tricky brain at play. That brain isn’t my fault – just as yours isn’t your fault – but I am now learning how to take responsibility for it.
One last thing I want to share is that when I first started to engage in the calming exercises on the plane, I found it very difficult and wanted to abandon them almost straight away. That’s helped deepen my empathy for what many of my anxious clients are struggling with on a daily basis.
Engaging with your suffering is difficult - and it takes courage. That’s why we all need help dealing with our fears sometimes.