I grew up in the 1970s, a time when air travel was still a luxury for most people, and ‘the jet-set’ was still a meaningful demographic group.
Because air travel was still something of a novelty, people were fascinated by it, and in particular by the occasional dramatic accidents that happened.
Hollywood fed this gory fascination with a series of airplane disaster movies – Airport 1975, then Airport ’76, Airport ’77 – and they were a big hit.
The dramatic device of something going wrong on a plane remained popular for many years. Whether a movie, drama, or even comedy, something bad almost always happened when a character got on a plane.
In my impressionable mind, an association was being built: plane → crash. Over and over again in different scenes: Plane → crash. Plane → crash. Plane → crash.
Earlier in my life some genuinely catastrophic things had happened – I lost my father at 5 months old and was subjected to a series of unpleasant medical interventions for a pituitary condition. As a result I ended up with a mind that very easily goes to the most catastrophic possible outcome in any situation.
With all the recurring images of disaster in my head, I became very fearful of flying. I would start getting anxious a day or two ahead of the flight and then peak during the take off. One flight to the US was an 8 hour panic attack.
Logically I knew it was extremely unlikely anything would go wrong but another part of me had been brainwashed to think “Plane → crash”.
Funny thing was, I always got on the plane. I refused to let my fear stop me from having a holiday or going on an expenses-paid business trip. But the price I paid in stress was wearing.
After a while I got tired of the anxiety and thought I’d do something about it. I needed to change the “Plane → Crash” story in my head. I read books that explained in great detail why flying is safe (eg no plane has ever been brought down by turbulence in the history of aviation).
But I still needed to brainwash myself with a new story about flying – one that goes “Plane takes off, flies to destination, and lands”. So I drove to the airport and went to the observation deck. And there amongst the geeks listening to air traffic control on shortwave radio, I sat and watched planes land. For 2 hours. Plane → land. Plane → land. Plane → land. Over and over again. It was deliciously boring.
Finally I was beginning to get it. Not just in the logical part of my brain, which already knew it, but somewhere deeper – planes land. So this is normal.
Three weeks ago I took the longest flight of my life – 11,000 miles from London to Sydney. I’ve flown to all sorts of places but had always dreaded the day I’d fly to Australia.
And it was fine. I still get a little tense on takeoff but after that I’m calm. And if ever I do get nervous, I remind myself of the intended end to the story – landing, going to my hotel and taking a swim in the pool. And every time that story comes true, it gets embedded a little more.
I rewrote the story that wasn’t serving me. What story in your head is due for a rewrite? Is is about something you tell yourself is dangerous or risky? Is it something more subtle like, ‘People from my background never have it easy’? Or perhaps, ‘It’s normal not to enjoy your work’?
What story do you want to replace it with?
Then… do everything you can to surround yourself with the story you want to come true.