Two People on a Plane

Welcome to thinkingasaction’s way of understanding the real psychology of anxiety. Here you’ll find an exciting new way of thinking about anxiety; one that challenges the conventional ideas on most Internet sites. The latter encourage you to think of troublesome anxiety as a condition or disorder you need treatment for, but this is only one way of looking at it. Here we give you an alternative that puts you back in control. 

The destruction and misery in Putin’s war in Ukraine are absolutely beyond belief. Most Russians appear to support this ‘special operation’. But they do this only because of what they are told. The information or narrative they hear is heavily controlled by the state. If we lived in Russia we would probably support the war. Even Russians with relatives in Ukraine who are told by them about what is happening find it hard to believe.

The narratives we are constantly exposed to matter. It is hard for us to see alternatives. 

Two hundred years ago psychological distress was usually seen as caused by possession by demons.  In the 19th century the idea of mental illness gained ground. Possession by demons was replaced by possession by illness. This was a step forward but this narrative has become so powerful that all manner of our ordinary problems of living are put down to any one of a host of conditions or disorders. Since the pandemic everyone mentions mental health; every news presenter, commentator, our neighbours, and the guy who delivers our parcels. But they nearly all sing from the same hymn sheet: These conditions and disorders happen to us because of life’s difficulties or perhaps our brain biochemistry. What is missing from this all pervasive narrative is us as an active agent trying to make sense of our lives. Let’s look at an example that opens up an alternative.

Probably most people have flown or thought about it at least once in their life. More than a few get a bit anxious about it, some so much that they refuse to fly. (A survey by Boeing in 2010 found 17% of Americans said they were afraid to fly.) We can’t know for sure, but it may well be true, that virtually everyone who has ever flown has had the odd anxious thought, even if they don’t dwell on it. Flying is therefore a good example for exploring how anxiety works.

Imagine there are two people on a plane. One of them is enjoying the flight and the other is frightened.

We might be tempted to explain the difference by saying that one enjoys flying while the other ‘has’ a fear or phobia of flying. Or we might say one is a laid back person while the other is an anxious person. These are fairly standard explanations we come across in everyday conversation. However, they don’t take us very far. To get a better idea of what might be going on we can ask one simple question;

“What is each person thinking as they sit on the plane?”

Immediately we might guess the person who is enjoying the flight might be thinking about the holiday they’re going on and the fact they won’t be working for a time. They might be enjoying the book they’re reading or looking forward to the meal on the plane. They might be marvelling at the power of the engines and the whole technology of flying. They might be looking out of the window at the view, chatting to their neighbour or just enjoying a sleep.

In contrast, we might guess that the person who’s frightened is dreading the moment the plane door closes and they can no longer get off. They might be thinking about the plane crashing, and listening to the engine noises waiting for something to go wrong. They might be dreading the take-off when the engines roar into life. They might worry about the possibility of turbulence or what the landing will be like.

It’s probably true that most adults who’ve ever flown have had a thought or two about something going wrong. Our relaxed passenger puts these thoughts out of their mind and may not even notice them. On the other hand our anxious passenger is likely to dwell on them and imagine what it would be like.

Many people who are anxious when flying don’t only worry about something going wrong with the plane, they also worry about how they are going to cope and whether they will get anxious. They may think;

“What if I feel anxious?”
“What if I can’t control myself?”
“What if I start crying or ‘have a panic attack’?”
“What if I make a spectacle of myself in some way?”
“What if other passengers notice?”
“What will they think of me?”

Each of our passengers has something going on in their heads: our anxious passenger has a lot going on. The two people are in the same situation facing the same risks but thinking two very different sets of thoughts. If we think of these two sets of thoughts a bit like we think of computer programmes we can see they are both running particular but very different programmes.

 We can, therefore, ask another question;

What would happen if we could get the two people to swap their programmes of thoughts?

What would happen if we could get the person who had been running the programme of anxious thoughts to run the programme of relaxed, positive thoughts? Suppose we could get them to run this new programme with the same detail and conviction as the other person had previously. What would happen to their feelings?

Doesn’t common sense tell us they would now have to sit back and enjoy the flight? Maybe more obviously the person now running the programme of anxious thoughts would feel anxious. It seems unlikely they could have these thoughts (in detail and with conviction) and not feel frightened. In the same way it is hard to believe that the person who is now looking forward to their holiday etc could still feel frightened.

This tells us something both simple and profound; the anxiety our frightened passenger feels is not because they have a fear of flying or that they are an anxious person. It is not caused by the plane. The anxiety they feel is simply in the thinking they happen to be doing as they sit there on the plane. Whoever thinks this programme of thoughts and thinks it with conviction has to feel anxious because the anxiety is in that way of thinking.

any anxiety we feel is because of the thinking we are doing at the time.

The moment we stop thinking these thoughts we will not feel anxious. Of course, the example of the Two People on a Plane tells us something else; whenever we think positive, happy, relaxed, optimistic thoughts our feelings will simply mirror these thoughts because the feelings are in those thoughts.

There is a lot more to be said about anxiety. Anxiety is natural and useful; only some of it holds us back.Thinking is too complex and rapid to be controlled; many programmes of thoughts simply become habits that are hard to recognise and change. We need to accept this and also see how the way we think is heavily influenced by those around us; the media and the wider culture play a big part in the things we worry about.

The Two People on a Plane shows us anxiety is a natural psychological process. It is not something that is simply happening to us. To understand our anxieties we need to pay more attention to the detail of our here-and-now thoughts. Sometimes an example like Two People on a Plane just clicks; but for many of us we have to go over and over it to be able to make real use of it in our daily lives. But with practice it can make all the difference to how we understand ourselves and manage our feelings.

“Can it really be so simple? Then when I had finished reading The Origin of Anxieties I realised it is. I cannot recommend the book strongly enough. Accessible, intelligent challenging and above all, potentially life-changing.” PG

Could you use the Two People on a Plane (TPoaP) in your own life? Could it be life-changing for you?

When I talk with my clients I wait before I introduce the ideas in TPotP. Even if the person says “Oh yes, that makes sense”, if we talk about the ideas too soon the plane can simply crash and burn. It means more after we have talked about how they feel in various situations. Then they can see how important their thinking is in making them feel the way they do.  Best of all is when we can discover situations where they sometime feel anxious and sometimes not. One example would be comparing their feelings before and after an upsetting situation. For example, we often become anxious after a traffic accident. Together we can then see how their thinking has changed. Before the accident they were like the relaxed person on the plane; afterwards they are more like the anxious one.  

When you read TPoaP you may have a lightbulb moment. This is not enough. You need to see how it makes sense of when you feel anxious. New ideas lead to new beginnings but only when we can apply them to our own situation. Then they can be truly life-changing.  

“I was expecting to talk about my feelings and feel better because someone had listened to me. I had no idea therapy could be so interesting or helpful.” SH

Not everyone wants to have therapy and perhaps they wouldn’t need to if they knew about the very ordinary and common sense psychology of anxiety in TPotP. That is why I have written The Origin of Anxieties.

I will give more details of this in a minute but before I do let me introduce myself. My name is Charles Merrett. I have worked for nearly fifty years as a Clinical Psychologist. I studied Maths and Psychology at Cambridge University. I am well past retirement age but still working a little as it is an enjoyable privilege to help people change their lives. I have two daughters who are Clinical Neuropsychologists.

Over the years I have worked in a wide variety of settings from General Practice, with a Police Force, in a university, psychiatric hospitals and with a number of companies. I have met a lot of interesting people. It seems to me they were all doing their best to understand their problems of living, but they didn’t have the right tools.

Forty years ago, early in my career, I became convinced that a lot of people’s distress comes from the ideas they use to try to understand their difficulties. These ideas are everywhere. They stem from thinking that psychological distress should be regarded like an illness. In essence this is a medical model. The person is asked about their symptoms to work out what condition or disorder the person has. They are seen as suffering from something. They are not seen as someone who is actively trying to make sense of their life situation and who is adopting various strategies in the hope of feeling better.  

With these thoughts in mind in 1980 I was the lead psychologist on a health education project to promote a common-sense understanding of anxiety as an ordinary natural psychological process that we are all engaged in. I believed that if we understood this many of us would have fewer problems. The central part of the project was an exhibition called “Why Worry?” that was shown in over forty public venues throughout the UK.  We wrote a booklet, also called “Why Worry?” to go with the exhibition. 50,000 copies were distributed to GPs nationwide. Looking back, it achieved some success, but the format didn’t allow a detailed discussion of the many aspects of anxiety that are important to know. This could only be done as a book. That is why I wrote The Origin of Anxieties.

“It tells you everything you ever wanted to know about anxiety.” Therapy Today

Its 178 pages are a deep dive into the real psychology of anxiety. It discusses moments of anxiety and how if we are not careful we can turn these into episodes of anxiety; and how our anxious flyer has taken it further by turning it into an anxiety problem.

“This is a truly inspirational and uplifting book” SW

It argues that we end up having anxiety problems for remarkably ordinary reasons that are the same regardless of what we are anxious about.

Thinking anxiety is something that happens to us regardless of what we are thinking;

that it is caused by what has happened to us;

thinking we shouldn’t feel as we do;

thinking there might be something wrong with us;

worrying how bad it will get;

losing sight of how we have learned to get used to and enjoy many situations that we were concerned about at first.

It shows how the way we have come to think of our anxieties as conditions and disorders is the problem.

“I thought I had an anxiety disorder because of the problem with my arm. I did not realise how I anticipated every social situation as a problem. I was totally preoccupied by my concern. I built up a huge number of the habits in order not to draw attention to my arm. These habits were woven into every moment of every day. When I really understood the thinking behind my feelings and that I did not need to think like it I had a great sense of relief. I took back control and rebuilt my life anew.” MG

Like MG the person on the plane is usually not just anxious on the plane. They think about the flight for days before. They think of ways of getting out of it. They plan strategies for getting through it; taking a bottle of water, tablets, or a drink in the airport. They may want their companion to talk to them all the time or not at all. They may have other ways of distracting themselves in the hope of not feeling anxious. When the flight is over they will feel relieved. Even if they do well, they will typically not remember this and not value it as progress. Next time they will go back to being apprehensive. They will think of themselves as an anxious flyer or as having a phobia of flying.

If you have an anxiety problem, The Origin of Anxieties will help you see how it started, how it grew and what sustains it. This usually happens when we are taken by surprise by our feelings or when we judge we shouldn’t be feeling like it. If we then think our anxiety is happening to us, just like MG we can become more preoccupied and concerned by how we feel and wonder just how bad it will become.

Who should read The Origin of Anxieties? Obviously, it can be especially helpful if you have got stuck with an anxiety problem. However, we all have anxieties. Anxiety is universal and essential; we are all interested in how things will turn out for us and are bound to wonder what might happen. For many of us our anxieties just rumble on in the background of our lives never becoming a problem. But they can still affect our motivation and spoil our enjoyment of many things. The origin of Anxieties will help us understand these background anxieties and enable us to lead more fulfilling lives.

But The Origin of Anxieties offers us even more. It is not just about anxiety. Its ideas apply to all corners of our lives. It is a general theory of the quality of all of our experiences.

Through our choices of what to think about, how to judge it and our decisions about how much it matters we animate ourselves and bring colour to all aspects of our lives. Not all of us do this well all the time. You may not be interested in why you feel the way you do and how you could improve your life, but If you are, then reading it will give you lots of ideas. 

Do you want to take back control? Do you want to overcome feelings that hold you back? Are you just interested in what goes on in your head and how life could be even better?

Come back to this page as often as you like. Read other pages on this website to reinforce the message. Better still, for a fuller understanding of anxiety and the quality of all your experiences, read The Origin of Anxieties by Charles Merrett. It is available (paper and kindle) at

20% of sales will be sent to the Disasters Emergency Committee in support of Ukraine.

It doesn’t cost a lot to change our lives. We just have to change our ideas. You can do it. Let us know how you get on. Ask any questions. We will try to help. Good luck.


“This closely argued and carefully paced book offers a radically different conceptualisation of anxiety and associated problems.”

“”The author presents his ideas elegantly and logically…….truly inspirational and uplifting.”

“I am now 70% through it. I do not  want it to end… refreshingly honest, insightful, and extremely thought-provoking….I feel like running outside waving it at everyone and urging them to read it.”