Fear of Flying during Heightened Security

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jonathan-brickerJonathan B. Bricker, PhD, is a psychologist at the University of Washington Department of Psychology where he conducts research and provides both research and clinical case supervision to students. He also has a therapy practice, through which he has helped people overcome a wide variety of challenges, including anxiety, fear of flying and unhealthy behaviors. In 1999, he developed the Air Travel Stress Scale, which suggests that air travel stress has unique emotional components. The scale measures anxious reactions to adverse air travel events, angry reactions to other passengers and the trust that airlines/airports are ensuring people’s comfort and safety.

APA: Airports around the world are tightening security, resulting in longer lines and more travel stress. Despite these stepped-up security measures, there are still breaches. How do these enhanced security measures and occasional breaches affect people who are already nervous about flying and what can they do to relax?

Dr. Bricker: These security measures and breaches will affect two types of people who experience air travel stress–distrustful flyers and anxious flyers.

Anxious flyers are the folks who score high on the Air Travel Anxiety subscale of the Air Travel Stress Scale. While enhanced security measures will bring them temporary relief from their anxiety, they are the ones who are going to focus on the breach story. Anxious minds are brilliant at finding the exception. How anxious flyers react to a breach will depend on their unique learning history and their biology. For some, this will mean more avoidance of flying and for others, this will mean another scary story in their large file cabinet of fears.

The knee-jerk response to anxiety, or even the anticipation of anxiety, is to do things to try to keep calm, like taking a sleeping pill, deep breathing or avoiding flying altogether. The problem with these strategies is that they have only temporary effects. The anxiety usually comes back and sometimes stronger than it did before. To address this problem, I teach my clients skills to increase their willingness to have anxiety. For example, they may practice focusing on a place in their bodies where they feel the strongest anxiety. To work on their scary thoughts, I show them how to watch their thoughts come and go like passengers walking by in an airport terminal.

Distrustful flyers are a different story. These are people who score low on the Airline/Airport Trust subscale of the Air Travel Stress Scale. They have little faith that the airlines and airports will ensure their safety. No matter how enhanced airport security becomes, these individuals will continue to have little trust of airport security.

I think the ultimate help for distrustful flyers is to ask themselves how well their view of security is working for them. Perhaps there are some actions they can take instead to ensure that their own flying experience is safe. For example, one of my clients brings his own smoke mask with him when he travels. Now, while it is not realistic for flyers to take security and safety into their own hands, it is interesting that in both the 2001 shoe bomber and the 2009 Christmas bombing attempts, it was passengers who helped take control of the incident and prevented a catastrophe. Perhaps distrustful flyers could take a cue from these incidents and rather than dismissing the security system, they can instead focus on what steps they can take to empower themselves.

APA: Some airports are installing full body scanners, which have prompted concerns over privacy and possible health risks. In general, do you think more searches and more thorough searches deter people from flying or do they make them feel safer?

Dr. Bricker: A big challenge for the TSA [Transportation Security Agency] will be convincing the public that these time-consuming procedures have a higher purpose: increasing safety. If handled well, I think the overall impact of body scanners and extra searches on the general public’s willingness to travel will be rather small.

But the story will be different for the anxious and distrustful flyers. I think extra searches will paradoxically increase anxious flyers’ discomfort and potentially deter them from flying. Safety measures can become linked with anxious flyers’ mental network of scary thoughts about flying. The reassurance and calm they may experience after a body scan will be only temporary because eventually their minds will remind them again of the dangers of flying and the possibility that the TSA officer might have missed a terrorist.

The distrustful flyers will likely view body scanning with skepticism. But my published data would not suggest that that this group of flyers would give up on travel. Instead, they will probably bring their distrust with them to the airport—like the baggage that they carry with them. So my prediction is that the distrustful flyers will be quite annoyed with airport body scanners and they will still get on the plane.

APA: A USA Today/Gallup poll, taken Jan. 5-6, found airport hassles are causing some people to consider other modes of transportation. It appears anxiety about flying and terrorism tends to increase after incidents such as 9/11 and the shoe bomber attacks and then goes back to normal over time. Do airport screeners grow lax after awhile and how can policymakers and security experts help maintain vigilance in the months, or even years, after an incident?

Dr. Bricker: My sense is there is indeed a trend over time in which the public’s anxiety peaks immediately after an incident and then fades over time—especially after it is no longer covered extensively in the media. I am now beginning a large longitudinal study to examine air travel stress trends over time to test this and other hypotheses.

Airport screeners are a different issue. In addition to all the events the public learns about, screeners receive secret alerts, which can increase their vigilance. But screeners have difficult jobs: They have a highly repetitive task in which they have to identify extremely rare targets such as explosives. Consequently, some screeners can become bored, inattentive and burned out. To address these challenges, my colleagues in aviation and cognitive psychology are testing various learning techniques to increase and sustain screeners’ accuracy and attention in identifying explosives and weapons. I think that mindfulness techniques may hold promise for training screeners.

APA: Are there differences in the types of anxiety people feel after commercial plane crashes, hijackings and bombing attempts?

Dr. Bricker: Beyond the flyers I can identify with the Air Travel Stress Scale, there are basically two types of anxious flyers most deeply affected by commercial plane crashes, hijackings and bombing attempts. The first is the fearful flyer who has intense bodily sensations associated with the thought of dying in a plane crash. The second is the panicky flyer who fears having panic attacks on planes. The physical symptoms of panic attacks are frightening to these flyers. So one is afraid of dying on and the other is afraid of panicking.

When hearing the plane crash or bombing stories in the media, these flyers have common and distinct responses. Both experience panic sensations: their heart rate increases, their muscles get tense, their breathing gets shallow, etc. The content of their scary thoughts will look different. The fearful flyers may have repeated pictures in their minds of plane crashes or of dying on a hijacked plane. The panicky flyers may be reminded of the image of having panic attacks on a plane. But both flyers have similar responses to their thoughts. Because scary thoughts and sensations are so uncomfortable, a common response for both types of flyers to is to avoid noticing them or to avoid flying altogether. Avoidance is a common response to the content of anxiety—be it fear, panic or any other type of anxiety.

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