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Debbie Rae Does ... Aerophobia with CBT

As you can imagine, Aerophobia (a fear of flying) is not the best infliction for a travel writer. Two months ago I decided that it was time to do something about it!

I have used hypnotherapy as a tool to ease a previous fear of water. I had hoped that this would be the route again: Get hypnotised, and hey presto, I would get on with my life, preferably somewhere exotic, reached by plane. Unfortunately this was not to be the case.

In my search for a ‘cure’, I was lucky enough to encounter a therapist who convinced me to try CBT/Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (an approach that works on changing negative thoughts and how they affect behaviour). He was confident that although he could help me with hypnosis alone, other phobias and fears could replace it. With CBT therapy, he would delve deeper into my history to discover the root cause of my fears. Yippee probing!

Before I began my treatment, I filled in a form about my mental health, history of trauma and illness. I had worked hard to bury harrowing events of bullying, grief, severe depression. I wanted to get on a plane without shaking and scaring my kids; why were these questions necessary?

By the time I sat down with my therapist, I had decided he was an arsehole who got off on torturing people, but I’d already paid for 4 sessions, so I tried to commit to the process as best I could.

Within 10 minutes, asking a few questions about the darker parts of my past, he nodded and announced, ‘You are not scared of flying. you are frightened of losing control.’ I was marginally annoyed. He had the measure of me. Why hadn’t I seen it before? I had spectacularly lost control of my life once before; following a toxic relationship, I lost everything. My partner, my job, many friends, my grasp on my mental health and finally, all of my money. It wasn’t shocking that this had a lasting impact on my life; however, it was uncomfortable to admit that I wasn’t over it. Also, it wasn’t nice to be told that I had bigger problems than the one I’d signed up to be treated for; but, after some explaining, it made sense.

I was not born with a fear of flying; it manifested in me following the birth of my children. When they’re on a plane, I can’t help but feel that I am wilfully putting their fate in someone else’s hands. When I fly without them, I am putting myself unnecessarily in harm’s way, perhaps leaving them motherless.

I’d love to say that this eye-opening first session, primarily based on recounting horrible memories and triggers for my stress, was great. However, I would be lying if I did that. For a day or two after my session, I felt worse. Scared that such huge issues from my life were causing my Aerophobia, I felt that it may never be cured. I was, however, confident that my therapist was no longer an idiot; in fact he seemed to know me better than I knew myself.

I was a diligent subject, talking honestly and immersing myself in tasks that made me feel like a total twit. Suppose you had walked into the room at any given moment. In that case, you could have found me following my therapist’s finger in all directions with my eyes, singing songs that made me laugh while recalling memories of flights that had frightened me, once I even skipped around my chair backwards. I’m still not quite sure what that was about, but something was working.

After three 1 hour sessions, I was getting more than I had bargained for. I was feeling less anxious in myself, not only when thinking of flying. I was growing in excitement for impending trips. Quite unexpectedly, I found that being a passenger in a car had become more enjoyable; I have previously been jumpy and critical from the passenger seat.

I felt drained after each session, sometimes weepy, but this is pretty standard with any therapy, so don't let this put you off. We had several regressive hypnosis sessions, taking me back to times when I felt scared or helpless, remembering that feeling, acknowledging that I had leant from those events and giving the old me the advice needed to never be in that situation again. He related this feeling to how helpless I felt while flying, and brought clarity to my feelings.

By session 3, we were delving into hypnotic visualisations. I would picture myself in a cinema, watching myself board a plane, happy and relaxed. Then I would become the person in the movie who was boarding the safe and enjoyable flight. Initially I wasn’t too taken with this; it felt overly simplistic; could the cure to my phobia be as simple as me imagining it away? Regardless of my scepticism, I continued, and by the end of my fourth session, I enjoyed these visualisations. That in itself was huge. I could picture myself flying and find it funny, sometimes relaxing and indeed not scary; previous to the therapy, the thought would have made me physically shake and sweat, possibly even cry.

I was surprised that after 4 sessions, my therapist said that he thought we had come as far as we needed to get me flying happily again. I was more surprised that I agreed with him. Regarding my previously dormant issues, those may still need a bit of work, but the pain of the memories has largely dissipated. I have booked a flight for next month, along with my husband and children. So far, all I feel is excitement for our impending trip, no nightmares or anxiety at all. I will have a 1-hour top-up session the week before our flight, and then I should be good to go. I will keep you updated!

I would recommend CBT to anyone who has an anxious disposition or a phobia. You may not even realise why you have the fears, but a good therapist will be sure to find the reasons. I would highly recommend mine (please contact me privately if you do want his details). This therapy may not always be comfortable but will be effective if you open yourself up fully. I would love to hear your personal experiences with CBT.

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