MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we're talking about health and wellness. We've talked a lot thus far about physical health. Well, this next story is about mental health, specifically phobias. Some people's phobias involve a fear of heights or crowds, maybe spiders. But the phobia with which many of us are most familiar, one all sorts of people struggle with during the holiday travel season, is a fear of flying. And that's the topic of our regular transportation segment, "From A To B."
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Jonathan Wilson takes us inside this aversion to airborne travel and explores why some fearful flyers find the problem spreads to other parts of their lives.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
32-year-old Kathleen Caggiano says she loved to travel. She'd flown dozens of times without a worry. But in 2008, she was flying into Regan National Airport from Dayton, Ohio.
MR. JONATHAN WILSON
The flight was full, but she'd been on crowded planes before.
MS. KATHLEEN CAGGIANO
I do remember there was a guy next to me and he kept kind of bumping into me with his elbow. But I thought at first he was just trying to get settled in his seat, but then throughout the flight, he kept doing that.
Caggiano says about 30 minutes before the landing, something in her cracked. At first, it felt like an allergic reaction.
My throat starting closing in and I had just the sensation of, I have to get off the plane now. Of course, I realized I couldn't, you know. I'm thousands of feet up in the air, but I've never had that feeling of like, get me out now.
There's little reliable data on how many people suffer from a fear of flying. A USA Today CNN gala poll from 2006 found that nine percent of American adults count themselves as very afraid of flying. But the number of people for whom the fears are serious enough to count as a phobia may be much lower. Clinical social worker, Jean Ratner, who specializes in patients with travel anxieties, says for about half of the fearful flyers, she's seen the problem has little to do with worrying about a crash or a terrorist attack. The issue is claustrophobia or a fear of being trapped in a small space.
Ratner remembers one client who made her realize that not all flying fears are the same.
DR. JEAN RATNER
This one woman said to me, "You know what, if that plane exploded or had a crash at least that would be a way I could get out of that plane."
Kathleen Caggiano, who feel into the claustrophobic group, avoided airplanes for about two years after her 2008 episode.
My dad and stepmom have retired to Naples, Fla. and so that was hard for me because I ended up driving from D.C. all the way down to Florida. It was 16, 18 hours. It was ridiculous.
And the fear spread. Riding the metro became too much for her and even driving became a problem when it came to the Fort McHenry tunnel on I-95 North. Caggiano says she knew she needed to get help after calling off a trip to visit family Pennsylvania.
I was literally had my car packed, I was at the tunnel and I couldn't do it and I got off at the last exit and went home and I told my family I was sick and not feeling well and that was really hard for me because I wanted to go. I wanted to see everyone and I just, I couldn't do.
Ratner says increasing isolation from family and friends is common for travel claustrophobics who aren't getting help. She says many of her clients in the D.C. area are successful professionals who are fearful of getting promoted at work if it means they'll have to travel more. But she says there is plenty of reason for hope, even if it feels as if the fear is insurmountable. For many people, stopping a panic attack before it starts is all about breathing.
Ratner says many people start holding their breath as they start to panic.
With each person, I try and find what will help them get into a natural, effortless kind of breathing. It doesn't have to be anything fancy.
She also makes her clients practice sitting facing a wall for extended periods of time with just a book and a glass of water to simulate an in-flight experience. When they're ready, Ratner even accompanies clients on short flights. Caggiano, who counts herself as a success story, has now flown with Ratner twice.
I have found typically they don't need me very much on those flights, but they know I'm there. It gives them that feeling of, just in case they panic.
You know, it's kind of crazy actually. My family thought I was nuts. They didn't understand. They're, like, you flew to Chicago but you just came back. You fly there and you come back the same day.
Whether it's nuts or not, Caggiano has slowly been conquering her fears. Ratner says it's important for people like Caggiano to practice their coping skills. Whether it's breathing or visualization exercises as they go about their daily lives. And she says even if a fearful flyer feels he or she has conquered the fear of being trapped in an airplane cabin, the battle isn't likely to go away forever.
Most people really need to take at least three or four flights, even short ones, that year. If they let more than even six months go by before they take that second flight they start to relapse.
Caggiano says she's still working up the nerve to ride the metro again. But she recently conquered the Fort McHenry tunnel and she does have a vacation planned for February with some friends. They don't know exactly where they're going to go, but it will be someplace warm and, yes, they will be flying.
For the first time, I'm actually excited to fly again. Yes, so I'm very excited about that and that's been a long time coming.
I'm Jonathan Wilson.
To learn some of Jean Ratner's tips on preparing for long tarmac delays during the winter season, head to our website, metroconnection.org. And we want to know, have you ever had issues with travel-related phobias? If so, what have you done to cope? Let us know by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook. That's facebook.com/metroconnection.org.
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