Probably most people have flown 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 cannot 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 we 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 between the two people 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 that 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 is frightened is dreading the moment when the plane door closes and they no longer have the option to 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 have ever flown have considered the possibility of something going wrong. Our relaxed passenger will put these thoughts out of their mind and may not even notice them. On the other hand our passenger who is anxious is likely to dwell on them imagining what it would be like.
Many people who are anxious when flying don’t only worry about something going wrong with the plane, they may also worry about how they are going to cope and whether they will get anxious. They may think some of the following;
“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. In fact, 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.
Now suppose we had two similar computers next to each other running quite different programmes from discs. If we take the discs out and swap them over we would expect the programmes to run more or less the same regardless of which machine they are on. 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 degree of detail and conviction as the other person had previously. What would happen to their feelings?
Doesn’t common sense suggest that they would now have to sit back and enjoy the flight? Maybe more obviously we would guess that the person now running the programme of anxious thoughts would be sitting there feeling anxious. It seems unlikely that they could have these thoughts (in detail and with conviction) and not feel frightened just as 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; that the anxiety our frightened passenger feels cannot be explained away by saying they have a fear of flying or that they are an anxious person. The anxiety they feel is simply in the thinking they happen to be doing as they sit 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.
We can draw a general conclusion about the nature of anxiety; 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 embedded in the thoughts.
NOTE: This example is setting out to establish a helpful way of understanding thinking, but there is a lot more to be said. It does not suggest that we should be able to control our thoughts; many programmes of thoughts simply become habits that are hard to see through and change. Thinking is too complex and rapid to be controlled. 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. However, Two People on a Plane suggests that it might be helpful to start by understanding anxiety as a natural psychological process and by paying more attention to the detail of our here-and-now thoughts.