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Poor Word Choice Triggers Anxiety

brain emotional regulation fear mind neuroscience training


Talking with my close friend Kathy recently, I asked about her April family vacation to the Caribbean, especially in light of the fact that she has a strong fear of flying and this was a long flight each way! Both flights were direct, meaning that Kathy had to do some serious self-talk for extended periods of time, both flying to her destination and returning to Minnesota. Both of us are brain science enthusiasts and use neuroscience in our professions in different contexts – me with adults in work environments, and Kathy with teenagers in schools. As I heard her story, it was strikingly clear to both of us that the pilots and flight attendants could benefit from a dose of brain training!


Leaving Minneapolis, the flight was delayed. My friend (with the coaching of her understanding family) talked herself out of growing anxiety using the conceivable possibility that the plane had to wait for other flights to depart until it was their turn. Unfortunately, the flight attendant chose to make an announcement over the PA system after roughly 30 minutes sitting in the hot, germy, cramped coach section, that there had been “a mechanical failure.” Now, consider the brain’s response to this statement if a person already has a high level of anxiety about planes, their safety, the fear of crashing, injury, or dying. Because of our innate ‘negativity bias’ (we assume the worst, derived from an anthropological, biological drive to stay alive!) her poor limbic system is now in overdrive. The attendant could have said, “There is a mechanical problem “ . . . or “issue” AND then followed that with something like, “. . . and it is fixable and currently being resolved.” Even nicer would have been some small offering of reassurance like, “Don’t worry folks, it’ll be just fine.”

The plane was fixed, and passengers never learned what was wrong in the first place, nor were given any evidence that the problem was eliminated. They took off without event.

In air, bumpiness starts. That familiar (and terrifying to Kathy) ‘ding’ of the “Fasten Seatbelts” light sounds, and the pilot now comes on the PA to say, “Folks, we’re having some rough air. Please stay in your seats.” He did NOT share that the rough air is not generally an issue, a problem, or correlated with an increased likelihood of the plane crashing. It is normal, and planes and pilot can handle it. He simply declares the air rough, tells people to hold on (essentially), and was silent until approaching the destination.

At the start of the approach, said pilot returns to the airwaves and exclaims, “There’s some CRAAAAAZY weather up ahead! We may have to circle a bit before landing.” Yes, he even said “crazy” in a crazy way for emphasis. Again, that was it as far as explanation went. So what went through Kathy’s head (and the heads of the other roughly 2 in 10 passengers with some degree of flying phobia)?

Crazy means out of control. Crazy means unpredictable, unmanageable. Will we have enough fuel to last if we have to circle a bit? And on and on and on.

With just a bit of coaching built in to the pilot’s or attendant’s training curriculum about people with flight anxiety, the nature of the brain’s “alarm” system (i.e. limbic system, amygdalae), and the effective use of language in the presence of those with phobias, Kathy could have enjoyed a far more comfortable flight and perhaps even could have coached herself through improving her overall anxiety levels for future flights, with sufficient factual information about the flight, weather patterns, statistics on plane crashes, etc.

Airlines . . . are you listening? And Saturday Night Live . . . this could make a pretty good skit!

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