If you think having a flying phobia is someone else's problem, think again. Not only are one in three people afraid of flying but, for many sufferers, the phobia seems to have crept into their lives unnoticed so that, one day, after years of carefree travel, even the shortest flight becomes a terrifying experience. The 'here-we-go' atmosphere on most outward-bound aeroplanes - knocking back the free drinks and chatting incessantly - is often no more than a mask worn to disguise the dread of air travel.
For one sufferer, what began as a vague anxiety developed into a dramatic and debilitating phobia over the course of a few weeks. British designer Henry Marshall found himself stranded in New York for two months, unable to board a return flight to the UK. During this stressful period, Marshall visited a well-known hypnotherapist in New York. "He put me into a light trance and talked me through a hypothetical flight scenario. We discussed my fear of death as well as my childhood phobias and so on. The overall idea was that I taught myself how to recognise the signs of panic and anxiety as they arise, thereby negating their effect." However, the therapy didn't work, and Marshall feels that, for people like himself who have a cynical view of the whole practice, the result would be the same. "I just didn't buy it," he said. Desperately, Marshall signed up for a hands-on course run by La Guardia airport. The day-long course was spent learning the mechanics of flight, as well as breathing techniques that help combat rising panic. Participants were encouraged to familiarise themselves with a static aeroplane, so that sitting in a metal tube wouldn't seem to be such a strange thing to be doing.
Meanwhile, Marshall 's phobia had found other outlets, and soon he was afraid to cross bridges or use elevators. Finally, his mother flew to the US and escorted him onto a flight home. "There was a very intense two-week period leading up to the flight. I was on Valium and Beta Blockers. I eventually got on the plane. The pills ensured that I was completely gaga all the way back to the UK. "
Back in London, Marshall sought help from Elaine Foreman, who runs Freedom to Fly. "We had two one-to-one therapy sessions and then took a flight together," he said. "We arrived at the airport an hour or so in advance so that we could have coffee, chat and buy some duty free. The idea was to 'normalise' the experience." They were on a charter flight to Amsterdam. On the plane, Marshall started to panic. "I was really nervous during take-off. Foreman made me move backwards and forwards in my chair in a sort of dance. Then we sang Old MacDonald Had a Farm. So there I was, singing and waving my hands in the air, surrounded by the usual reprobates who were off for a weekend in Amsterdam. Actually," he added, "I think I fitted in quite well."
Marshall boarded the return flight, still escorted, but without any apprehension. Two years on, he still flies regularly. "I'd say Elaine cured me. When I understood the reasoning behind my fear of flying, I managed to straighten out the other phobias. It was quite empowering. My work is so stressful that a flight has now become a valued moment of tranquillity."
Dr Eileen O'Brien, a research fellow in psychiatry, outlined the theory behind most practices that aim to dispel phobias. "Phobias need to be 'exposed'. For example, with a fear of spiders, the sufferer must get close to the object of their anxiety. This means reading about them, looking at photos of them, and finally coming into physical contact with them. The thing with anxiety is to remember that it always goes down eventually. People think that it will increase until they have a massive heart attack, but this isn't true." While Dr O'Brien recommends courses that are run by an airline, she stresses that getting over a phobia can take several weeks - not just a day. Many courses offer 'top-up' sessions for this reason.
Contact Elaine Foreman at Freedom to Fly, 21a Dean Road, London NW2 5AB. Tel 020 8459 3428. www.free2fly.dial.pipex.com
Note: Henry Marshall isn't the subject's real name.