Life According To Lenson
Fear Of Flying: The Emotional Trauma
By Eileen Lenson
Jul 13, 2013 - 10:54:34 AM

Eileen Lenson
UNITED STATES—A considerable number of people died horrific deaths on July 6, 2013.  Six from gunshot wounds in Chicago, 15 in a devastating Canadian train derailment, and dozens were said to have been killed following rioting in Egypt near Tahrir Square.


But the topic dominating the airwaves was the Asiana airline crash landing at the San Francisco airport, which upon impact ripped apart and burst into flames, resulting in the death of three people. 


While the public predictably responded to news of the tragedy with shock and horror, many also speculate what life will be like for the surviving passengers.  Will they experience temporary stress or long term emotional trauma? 


Any traumatic event that occurs outside the range of normal human experiences can have serious, negative consequences.  The results can range from normal anxiety that is time limited, to intense and potentially lengthy psychiatric difficulties, including extreme stress, depression, addiction, and long term grief.


Perception of the traumatic event will, in large part, determine one's emotional outcome. 


Some passengers will develop an intense hypersensitivity to stimuli that remind them of the traumatic event.  The sound of a sputtering motor, the smell of gasoline, an innocent shriek from a nearby playground can result in a flashback of the airplane crash.  The fear and anxiety accompanying these stimuli can be debilitating.


Some survivors will reevaluate their values and priorities. Having cheated death, they will no longer take life for granted. They may devote more time to personal relationships, be more tolerant and understanding of others, and appreciative of what they have.  Some will feel that their lives are better than before the accident because of their renewed focus on living their lives with a deeper meaning.  They may even find the event to be a division between how they view the quality of their lives 'before the crash' and 'after the crash'.


Some will be more confident, seeing that they were able to rely on themselves to escape the airplane and cope with the emotional aftermath.  These empowering feelings will result in their perception of themselves as being resilient and a survivor.  They are likely to face future personal obstacles with a healthy, positive perspective.


Some will recognize their fear, and decide they do not want to surrender to the debilitating consequences of not being able to comfortably use air travel.  They will resolve to face the situation directly, and learn about the various functions and sounds associated with airplanes.  They will address their myths, no matter how silly they may appear, such as worrying about a wing falling off, or gravity pulling them out of the sky.  In addition to working with the facts, they learn improved coping mechanisms, including relaxation techniques, distracting activities, and visualization.


Fear of flying is not new.  There have always been air travelers who have flying related concerns, ranging from motion sickness, fear of heights, claustrophobia, ice on wings, wind shear, medical malfunction, to terrorism.   Now, following the Asiana Airline crash, future air travel passengers are wondering if they need to add pilot inexperience to their list of flying related concerns. 


Despite these catastrophic events and subsequent fears, it is important to know we can have some influence over our lives, even when impacted by a traumatic event.  Our perception of a situation, and the coping mechanisms we use, will influence the swing of the pendulum between a good and bad mental health outcome.  It is empowering to know that while we have no control over some circumstances around us, we can implement control in our response to a calamity. 


Eileen Lenson, MSW, ACSW, Board Certified Coach, is a life and business coach in private practice.  Prior to becoming a life coach, Eileen was a licensed clinical social worker for 20 years.  Eileen has previously worked as a Shock-Trauma social worker, and spoken internationally on this topic.  Over her career, Eileen's writings include the book, Succeeding in Private Practice:  A Business Guide For Psychotherapists (Sage Publishing), contributing author to Grief and Bereavement in Contemporary Society, and writer for multiple magazines and newspapers throughout the country.  For further information, write to her at, or visit her website at, or call her at 949-244-5100.


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