Up, up and away; how I allowed my fears to fly

Lawrence Leyton uses a series of brain training techniques to help terrified passengers overcome their fear
Lawrence Leyton uses a series of brain training techniques to help terrified passengers overcome their fear

What do you get when you take a room full of fearful fliers, an experienced pilot,and phobia expert Lawrence Leyton?

Laura McMullan, who has been scared of flying all her life, found out.

Feeling my pulse pick up slightly, I turned up the volume of the monologue inside my head and told myself that bumps and jerks were, like every other aspect of the wonderful flight we had just experienced, a normal feature of air travel when you were descending through clouds.

At the same time, I tuned in to the reassuring, calm tones of Captain Jackson Lloyd-Hitt, who was travelling in the cabin of our easyJet plane, as he began to talk about the science of clouds, air molecules and all sorts of intriguing sounding things, which when combined with my newfound skills in deep breathing, seemed to be having a rather miraculous effect on me - namely, that I was not, as I usually am, terrified out of my wits whilst airborne.

Because for as long as I can remember, since the first moment I set foot on a plane to go on a family holiday to Spain when I was eight years old, I’ve been a terrible flyer; sweaty palmed, unbelievably nervous, unable to eat, convinced that all is not quite right and both the cabin crew and the pilots are concealing something awful from us about the flight, something that will see us all plummet to our deaths and never reach our destination.

For me, my fear was threefold. Firstly, I’m not great with confined spaces and will avoid lifts unless there is someone in it with me. Secondly, the lack of control fills me with dismay - once those cabin doors shut that’s it. You hand over your safety to an unknown face behind a windowless door. And thirdly, as a child I watched far too many ‘plane crash’ disaster movies and thus came to naturally think of air travel as something that was precarious.

You can throw all the statistics about it being the safest kind of travel there is at the aerophobic, but for me, the only way I would hopefully conquer my terror was to experience it how the pilots experience it, and gain a proper understanding of all those scary, strange noises and sensations that your brain interprets as being signs that ‘there’s something wrong with this plane!’

So when I was offered the chance to avail of easyJet’s first Fearless Flyer course to take place in Belfast, I knew I had to do it - for my own sanity and that of everyone who had to fly regularly with me!

The two-part programme is led by top phobia expert Lawrence Leyton, from Channel 4’s Fear of Flying, and a senior easyJet pilot - in this case, the very personable Captain Jackson LLoyd Hitt, who’s been flying with easyJet for eight years.

And it was the combined effort of this dream team which I believe, genuinely has ‘cured’ me of my biggest fear.

The first part of the two-day course got off to a rather amusing start; it was held in the Europa Hotel, and we had to take the lift to the Penthouse Suite on the 12th floor. Since chronic claustrophobia is what has always underpinned my fear of being airborne, I had to wait around to jump in with a couple, who asked me if I was as nervous as they were. I reassured them I would be worse tomorrow.

A quick scan around the suite told me there was definitely a higher women to men ratio - but fair play to the blokes who had come along. A few other people around me were sharing stories in low tones with bashful smiles; it felt strangely liberating to be in a room full of others who knew exactly what it was like to have what’s in extreme cases a really debilitating fear.

Minutes later, Lawrence bounced on stage and hit us with his opening line: “Did you know that 93 per cent of all communication is non-verbal?”

I had seen the charismatic Englishman on TV a few times; he’s been a guest on many shows and was even commissioned to star in his own prime-time TV special on Channel 4 called Fear of Flying, where he successfully cured a large number of the UK’s most extreme phobics.

When I left three hours later, I felt really emotional. It had been an intense but eye-opening and memorable afternoon. We had been bombarded with facts and figures by both Lawrence and Jackson, who devoted a huge chunk of time patiently answering questions from the audience about flying; there was barely an aspect associated with air travel left uncovered, and when one person asked him what procedures were in place should both pilots unexpectedly die mid-flight, I realised that there were people who catastrophised even more than me!

From the reality of the very small threat posed to aircrafts by terrorists, lightening and adverse weather conditions, to turbulence and mid air collisions, there was no stone Jackson left uncovered.

He also played a video which identified some of the strange - and often seemingly scary - sounds one hears when boarding and flying on a plane.

“What about engine failure?” shouted out someone. Jackson’s feathers remained unruffled. “Can I ask, how many of you drove here this afternoon? And how many of you drivers checked your tyre pressure? And popped the bonnet and had a look around?”

Raised hands around the room began to slither back down. Jackson went on to reveal that planes were maintained to the nth degree, and that pilots did a ‘walk around’ in between each flight to ensure their ‘vehicle’ was safe to fly.

Engine failure, he added, was a “remote possibility”, and in the unlikely event that both engines failed, planes were by their nature gliders; what followed was an informative and enjoyable science lesson on the mechanics of flight using a simply sheet of paper, as he explained how upward lift or force occurred when there were more air molecules underneath the wing than the broken structure of the molecules above it, created thus due to the curved shape of the wing.

Conclusion? I needed to eye the wings of a plane not as structures which were solely there to catch fire or fall off, but key facets in keeping the aircraft airborne!

For me, the entire question and answer session with a pilot may have been the key to truly unlocking my fear and letting it go. It began to disappear along with all my misconceptions. And even when Lawrence played a trick on us - issuing us with fake boarding passes and telling us that a coach was waiting outside to bus us to the airport for our ‘experience flight’, which had now been rescheduled from the following morning - my first instinct was not one of panic, but the more rational: ‘The hubby’s away - I can’t go flying, there’s no one to feed the dog!’

Lawrence passed on some genuinely invaluable advice and tips as well. His main role was to make us engage in a number of ‘brain training’ exercises; as he explained, perception is everything, and very often, our brain will see what we want it to see, and is an expert at “filling in the gaps”, as he described it, inventing often outlandish explanations for something which has a perfectly reasonable explanation.

And whilst positive thinking is helpful, it will not change behaviour patterns, so what Lawrence endeavoured to do was teach us techniques which would, quite literally, interrupt the patterns and rewire them.

“The brain does not know the difference between what is real and what is imagined,” he said. “So if you imagine a positive outcome for yourself over and over, you start to create positive references and the more you create the more they turn into a solid belief. And because the brain does not know the difference between what is real and what is imagined you can actually train the brain to believe that you have achieved something ahead of time.”

First off, we had to physically train our bodies to deal with fear we felt. This meant placing out hands against our lower abdomen and taking deep breaths in through our nose and out through the mouth. He explained that when you feel scared your breathing becomes shallow, but if you change or control your breathing, you will automatically change and control your thoughts and feelings. Next, he showed us the NIM (Negative Internal Dialogue) technique, which involved using our internal voices to speed up and slow down the negative, fearful thoughts we are having so that they sound ridiculous; we cannot possibly be afraid of a thought that makes us laugh at it.

The Mind Movie exercise I found particularly helpful. Eyes closed, we had to find our ‘fear movie’ i.e the most frightening moment that came into our minds when we thought about taking a flight.

“Freeze the frame and turn off the sound,” said Lawrence in almost hypnotic tones.

“Drain out all the colour and make it go black and white. Now make it flat like a photo. Put a frame around it. Shrink it to the size of a postcard, now, a stamp. Now zoom it off into the distance and watch it smash into tiny pieces.”

We then had to create a ‘good movie’ in our heads, an image that represented how we wanted to feel whilst on a plane - happy, safe. Lawrence spent time training us to visualise this image sprouting up from the old, bad movie, which we mentally tore in two with a loud, internal ‘scratch’. We had to repeat this procedure six times in our heads, the aim being that the ‘good movie’ would from now on pop into our heads when we thought about flying.

Finally, Lawrence introduced the concept of tapping points, as a technique to be used during the moment of fear and tension.

To practise, we all stood up and repeated this sentence: ‘Even though I have this fear of (insert fear), I know flying is safe.’ And as we repeated that mantra over and over, we used two fingers to tap the side of our head, then the top of our head, above our eyebrows, under our eyes, under our nose, above our chin, our collar bone, the side of our body, and finally, we tapped the inside of our wrists together.