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Experts, travelers say fear of flying is treatable

Associated Press Modified: October 18, 2012 at 6:16 pm •  Published: October 18, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) — Earlier this month, NBA rookie Royce White disclosed that he is afraid to fly and said he expects to travel by bus to play in at least some of the basketball games for his team, the Houston Rockets.

But psychologists who treat fear of flying and travelers who've overcome it hope he'll ditch the bus and get help instead.

"The treatments we have for this are so effective for fear of flying that upwards of 80 percent and sometimes even more people who get the treatment can fly," said psychologist Todd Farchione, of Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, echoing statistics offered by other experts.

Farchione says fear of flying treatment consists of a "fairly standard" combination of cognitive and behavioral therapy. That includes identifying the patient's "fear-provoking thoughts" and challenging them, then getting the patient to "gradually confront" the fear, by imagining flying and then doing it. Some programs use flight simulators or virtual reality programs; others put patients on airplanes on the ground and in the air, accompanied by counselors.

Either way, "the core of treatment is exposure" to the sensations of flying, said psychologist John Hart, who treats fear of flying at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, where patients can use a flight simulator that "has noise and shakes your chair."

"It's like the cockpit of a plane, with video screens that look like windows and show the ground and various airports," Hart says. "It vibrates, bounces, takes off and lands and has different kinds of weather."

Lisa Fabrega, a detox and lifestyle coach who lives in North Bergen, N.J., was cured by a Freedom to Fly workshop at White Plains Hospital's Anxiety & Phobia Treatment Center in White Plains, N.Y. The program included sitting in a plane on the ground at a small airport and meeting a retired American Airlines captain.

"We got to bombard him with our most paranoid questions," Fabrega said.

Before she took the class, she said, "even thinking about getting on a plane would make me break into a sweat." She learned to visualize herself on a plane and deal with her feelings.

The White Plains program also encourages various types of exposure therapy, like riding a Ferris wheel, the Empire State Building's SkyRide attraction or the aerial tramway over the East River from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island. The final session is a commercial flight to a nearby city and back. The program costs about $1,500 but is often covered by insurance for outpatient therapy.

Fabrega said half her family is from Panama and she was missing weddings and other events because she was afraid to fly. If she did fly, she said, "I had to be knocked out with Xanax."

Now she routinely flies, drug-free, around the world.

Hart, of the Menninger Clinic, says medicating yourself with Xanax, used to treat anxiety and panic disorders, is a bad idea for phobic fliers because it "can actually interfere with the process" of coping with anxiety. The Menninger program consists of a one-day workshop followed by up to six months of exposure therapy and counseling that includes helping people with coping skills and changing their beliefs about air travel and using statistics and safety information with pilots going over how planes are built and flown.

Experts say many of those who fear flying have underlying fears of heights or claustrophobia. Some sufferers trace their fears to a stormy flight or other bad experience, but many don't know why they're afraid. Some experts say anxiety may run in families; others say some people are sensitive to turbulence, perhaps because of differences in the vestibular system, which controls balance.

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