The disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines flight last week has sparked fresh fear in those with a phobia of flying. The Boeing 777 is thought to have crashed somewhere over the South China Sea.
A number of explanations have been given for the whereabouts of the Malaysia Airlines flight. Reports cited two passengers aboard with fake passports, leading to suspicions of terrorism. It is also possible the flight went underwater east of Malaysia in the South China Sea or that it turned around and is floating somewhere in the Andaman Sea west of Malaysia.
Those with an extreme fear of flying are told to avoid news reports such as the Malaysia Airlines flight coverage, but many with the fear of flying cannot seem to look away. The fiery images and graphic details reinforce the phobia. Jospeh Wolpe, a South African psychiatrist, believed the fear of flying emerges from a “sensitizing event.”
Experiencing intense turbulence or being present for a terrorist attack are categorized as sensitizing events. The phobia of flying, called Pteromerhanophobia, is thought by many to surface after a traumatizing event. Still other health professionals believe the fear can be nestled in a person who has never set foot on a plane.
According to Steven Porges, a professor of psychology at the University at Illinois, argues the fear of flying is caused by unhealthy emotional management. One may not feel the spark of phobia until stepping onto a plane like the Boeing 777 Malaysia Airlines flight that disappeared. Porges theorized three stages of response to fear.
The first stage is the Immobilization System, or the ability to “play dead,” which humans share with other mammals. When an animal immobilizes, their heart rate and breathing slow so drastically they truly appear to be dead. Humans do not usually have such a dramatic response, unless a feeling of total helplessness overcomes them.
The second stage, according to Porges, is the Mobilization System. This is the “fight or flight” response which releases stress hormones and flows blood quickly to the hands (for fighting) and the thighs (for flight). Until an action is taken, the hormones will continue to flow, and for humans, that feeling is experienced as fear.
Humans, unlike animals, can overcome both these stages with Porges’ third stage, the Social Engagement System. This allows us to evaluate a situation and determine the safest possible action. This may include pairing up with people we find trustworthy or preparing a plan of action (or inaction) alone.
Allan Schore, a neuropsychology researcher, is in accord with Porges’ emotional stages. He argues infants under the age of two must experience a sense of the third emotional management stage with their mother. If the child and parent do not cohesively manage the infant’s stress, the child will have difficulty managing it as an adult.
Schore’s research suggests the fear of flying is not from a sensitizing event, but from an early absence of stress management. The fear of flying, according to Schore, could be present before even boarding an aircraft. Whether it stems from development issues or isolated events, the recent disappearance of the Malaysia Airlines flight has sparked new interest in the science behind the phobia of flying.
By Erin P. Friar