Cultivating a different attitude

Our DPSN theme for April is “attitude”.  Attitude is defined as a “settled way of thinking or feeling about something”, a point of view, frame of mind, way of thinking, reaction or stance towards something.  This month we asked our bloggers to reflect on the concept of attitude and how it relates to their lives. We’d like to hear your thoughts too, so let us know in the comments below, or jump over to our Facebook page to join the conversation.

Early last year I talked about my newly developed anxiety around flying.  In an effort to help me manage the problem better, later in the year I attended a “Flying without fear” course held out at Auckland Airport.  Today I thought I’d share a few of the things that I learned in the hopes that it might help other people with a fear of flying.

The course contained a lot of information – some of it I already knew, some I knew about but had forgotten, and some was entirely new (and very helpful).

Some of things I already knew were the things that make me, and many other people, anxious flyers.  That is, that we tend to be control freaks and perfectionists who don’t like passing responsibility over to others (which we have to do when flying).  We are also, as a general group, bad “passive relaxers” – we like doing active things in our down time and keeping busy (and flying naturally involves a lot of waiting and downtime).  So no surprises really as to how these kinds of personality factors can contribute to the problem.

Something that I knew about but had forgotten, that I think was an important part of the development of my problem with flying, was the effect of cumulative stress on emotional resilience – our ability to cope with distressing or difficult situations.  

I don’t think I had really given enough credit to the amount of stress I had been under in the two or three years prior to my first “bad” flight.  I had been put through the ringer during the years of my intensive psychology training, then graduated, changed jobs three times, and travelled overseas more times in one year than I had in the five years previously.  Although these were not all bad things – most of them were great in fact – they did add a certain amount of stress that had been building up over time (especially since I’m pretty bad at unwinding in general).

So you take all that, and then add in a flight that’s a bit stressful (mine was a 15-hour long-haul to Canada that I worried about for months prior).  The combination of getting anxious and being in a novel environment (ie: on the plane) means that you associate all of that stress and anxiety with the new and different thing that you don’t usually do – rather than taking into consideration  all the other things that would have contributed to a lowering of your resilience at that time.

So it was a good reminder, that helped me to be more understanding and more forgiving towards myself for struggling with flying.

After discovering what makes us anxious flyers, we learned more about how to better manage our anxiety.  That is, psychological skills and strategies that many people find helpful – breathing exercises, relaxing our posture, progressive muscle relaxation exercises, imaginal exposure, and so on.  All of these I knew about already and teach to other people in my work, use regularly, and find very helpful.

We also talked about our negative thoughts in relation to flying, and working to challenge and change these as much as possible.  Rather than flying being a thing that you dread, we were coached to remember how exciting travelling is – after all, you’re getting on that plane because you want to get to a destination (and often go on a vacation).  And to try as much as possible to take the opportunity and time spent in transit to unwind and relax into your trip.

So I’m working hard to change my attitude towards flying.  To stop viewing it as something that will always be distressing (because it’s not) and remind myself that I can, and have, coped with many flights in my lifetime.

The final part, and the information that was entirely new to me, was about the physics and engineering side of flying, including how and why planes stay up in the air, the safety redundancies that exist, and how thoroughly pilots are trained.  I found this part to be the most helpful. After all, it’s hard to challenge your automatic anxious thought of, “What’s that??” when you hear a certain noise or feel a certain sensation, if you don’t actually understand what it is and know what to think to reassure yourself.

So for me, improving my knowledge around aviation has made the most difference in terms of my fear.  I feel much more empowered that flying is something I can cope with, armed with a greater understanding of what I’m experiencing (including why we can’t just fall to the ground!) and I’m working to continue cultivating a more positive attitude towards flying overall.

At the end, we took a “graduation flight” to Wellington and back, using everything we learned, and I’m pleased to say this was a really positive experience.

By the time this blog is posted I’ll be off on an intrepid adventure around Vietnam – involving 6 flights in total, and I’ll make sure to let you know how it went!

So what do you think?  Is there a time in your life where changing your attitude towards something has made a positive difference?  Let us know in the comments below – we’d love you to share your experience!

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