Gaspar de La Serna
Physician · Psychotherapist · European consultant in EMDR · Member of the European EMDR Association

When something lacks logic, the logic is in the subconscious

The number of fatal air accidents per million flights annually has been declining gradually since the 1970s until coming close to zero since the beginning of the present century. In fact, in 2017 not a single death was recorded in any part of the world on jet aircraft flying regular passenger routes.

It is true that 2018 has seen one or two very notable accidents, as has happened in some previous years, but this does not change the statistical reality that the annual rate of air fatalities per million flights this year will also be close to zero.

The fear of flying, from a rational, statistical point of view, makes no sense. When something lacks logic, the reason is in the subconscious.

The hidden reasons for the fear of flying

The real causes of the fear of flying never cease to amaze me. And if they surprise me it is because, truly, they have nothing to do with the aircraft themselves, with the experience of bad flights, or with the news of air disasters which are seen repeatedly in the media.

All these apparent causes can act as triggers of the real causes hidden in the subconscious mind of each subject. Sometimes they remain dormant, even for decades, allowing the passenger to fly normally until a subsequent event, perhaps of little consequence to others, activates them. No two causes are alike, because they depend on entirely different personal experiences, and the only common link is that they ended up causing a fear of flying.

In the majority of cases, the story is so surprising that it occurred to me that they could be retold, like mini detective novels, revealing the mystery that lay hidden behind them. I’m sure that reading them will be appealing and entertaining. However, it was not a matter of being entertaining that led me to write the book that I present here, but rather to help those with a fear of flying to discover the origins of their distress, and how to resolve it, whether the issue is one of simple discomfort or authentic dread.

Knowing the events that gave rise to the phobia does not make it disappear

Discovering the events that led to the phobia does not in itself make the phobia go away. Sometimes the patient knows perfectly well the originating event and has spoken about it repeatedly to close friends and family, without the intensity of the distress reducing. It is necessary to deactivate the relevant memory or memories so that they no longer limit the subject. This is accomplished by working with the subconscious through a psychotherapeutic approach that I’ll subsequently describe. After this work, the patient, newly liberated, will be able to fly and enjoy their journey right to the end.

I know that all this may sound a little strange. Thus, I offer here some simple reflections which I hope might help us to understand the problem.

Will they take the flight? - Book “Fear of flying. You couldn't imagine the causes.”
Will they take the flight?

The fear of flying is acquired

The flight phobia is acquired. No one is born with it, just as no one is born with a fear of trapping their fingers in a door. It is the experiences that we live through which teach and condition us, for better or for worse. From the point of view of safety, it is enough that we learn not to trap our fingers in doors; but, if what we have learned is a fear of flying, our experience has done us a bad favor because no means of transport, including walking, is as safe as taking a flight.

However, this incontrovertible fact, one which is indeed known by many of those who have the problem, has in no way led to their fear going away. This means that something beyond the purely rational is influencing things. This is very clearly the case in patients for whom planes cause such anxiety that they cannot fly, despite having no fear of dying, or that the plane will fall from the sky or explode in the air, and who do not suffer from claustrophobia.

A mere “dip” in the air can make some people look up momentarily, annoyed at having lost their place in their book, before returning to the page, totally unconcerned; the same movement of the plane might be cheered by a group of youngsters on a high school trip, excitedly crying outing for more “dips”. However, yet another person may cling in terror to the armrest of their seat, promising themselves that if they do survive, they will never take another plane in their life. Wherein lies the difference? Why do people react in such different, even opposite, ways to the same experience? This is the key to the fear flying.

The key to flight phobia

For someone to refuse to fly following an incident that has not affected others similarly, some experience from their past life must have left them sensitized, conditioned. Normally, the subject has no idea as to which experiences these have been, yet they remain stored in the memory. We need to look for the originating memory or memories, deactivate them, and the fear of flying will disappear.

Technical, rational safety is of little use

Let us think about what we might supposed is the most frequent cause of a fear of flying: distrust in technology and the people charged with ensuring that everything works correctly, from engineers to meteorologists, maintenance mechanics, pilots… If the clear statistics about the incidence of accidents in different means of transport are not enough to provide a subject with a sufficient sense of security, this is because, at some point in life, they have learned that they cannot trust, that whatever the statistics say, danger exists and it will affect them. Such a person has learned to be suspicious, and in circumstances in which he or she has to rely on unknown technology, they simply do not have any trust. For this reason, courses for aerophobics have been available for years to help people get over their fear of flying. On such courses explanations are given of the aerodynamic principles that make it impossible for a plane to fall from the sky, as well as technical details of all kinds, from whether the plane’s wings can fall off to what happens if an on-board computer malfunctions, and including human aspects such as the training of the pilots, etc. If the subject, armed with all this information, feels (yes, feels; thinking is something else) that flying is safe enough, then the problem will have disappeared. However, in many cases it is not like this, because the feeling of insecurity acquired in life goes beyond any reasonable technical explanation and usually affects other areas of the individual’s life as well.

I have treated a patient, an engineer by profession, whose case I describe in the book, who is accustomed to working on turbines identical to those used on airplanes. He had also studied on his own every detail of the potential dangers, in an attempt to dispel his phobia through learning enough to confirm his own prior belief that flying is indeed safe. He came to the conclusion that flying was very safe indeed. Such a rational understanding of safety, however, was of no use to him. For this reason, on courses for flight phobics it is also common to learn techniques of self-control and relaxation. Unfortunately, these are difficult to acquire and to master, and at the key moment most flight phobics are incapable of putting them into practice because fear, in that instant, overcomes reason and the ability to rein in their fear enough to effect relaxation.

EMDR therapy allows us to deactivate the originating experiences. The subject will fly again without distress

Another patient of mine, returning from a holiday trip, realized that she was pregnant. She spent the entire duration of the long-haul flight full of anguish and fear in the certainty that the baby was not her husband’s but rather the result of a recent extra-marital relationship. She would have to confess it to everyone: her husband, her family… The marriage would crumble. From that moment, aircraft and anxiety were one and the same thing for her. Her pregnancy, which she discovered during the flight by chance, could have become known to her in a coffee shop or anywhere else, but because it occurred in the passenger cabin of a plane, where she was obliged to remain for hours, her emotional discomfort was linked to airplanes.

Explaining technical details of engines, radars, the rest periods of air traffic controllers, or any other aspect of flying to this type of patient is pointless. Maybe if they take tranquilizers or learn to relax they can travel a little better, but it seems to lack much sense to turn to this treatment of mere symptoms, and in any case it is in general insufficient. The appropriate approach would be to break the nexus that their neural circuits have established between a troubling memory and flying, an objective which is possible by working with the memories involved using EMDR as a psychotherapeutic approach, which allows for a reprocessing of these memories, deactivating them and desensitizing the patient to them so that he or she will be able to fly again without feeling any distress.

People suffering from a fear of flying often have other fears and limitations: to diseases, darkness, criminals, surgical interventions, finding themselves without water to drink, storms, elevators, speaking in public, plus a long list of others, all specific to each individual subject. In contrast to the courses that airlines traditionally offer to overcome a fear of flying, EMDR also has the advantage of simultaneously eradicating all of a patient’s other specific fears and limitations, by deactivating the root experiences that originated them.

The bookFear of Flying. You Couldn’t Imagine the Causes

In my book Fear of Flying. You Couldn’t Imagine the Causes, besides understanding through real cases how the human mind works and how the phobia is acquired, you will also learn about the psychotherapeutic process known as EMDR, discovered by the American psychologist Francine Shapiro, which is a fundamental pillar in my clinical practice. Through your reading you will come to realize that many other psychological conditions, apart from phobias, have the same structure in our neural networks and can be detected in the same way, and deactivated, resulting in the patient being cured. They will thus stop taking drugs to control their symptoms because, quite simply, these will have disappeared.

I believe that this book can serve as a very useful tool to prepare patients who will be treated for aerophobia by other practitioners of EMDR. Knowledge of the process will make working with the therapist more direct and fluid, and hence the focus will be far simpler.

How to find an accredited EMDR psychotherapist

If you want to find a psychotherapist appropriately trained in EMDR, you can search by going to the links of the websites of the following English speaking countries: Australia, Canada, South Africa, UK & Ireland, U.S.A.

The Author
  • Physician
  • Psychotherapist
  • European consultant in EMDR
  • Member of the European EMDR Association

The human mind has always fascinated him. As a young man, he studied medicine as a means of investigating how to achieve maximum performance from the insufficiently exploited capacities of the human brain. To this end, while working as a rural physician, he was also a part-time researcher attached to the Department of Neurophysiology at the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

After a few years, having realized that in the quarter of a century ahead one could only hope for such basic discoveries that they would not allow him to attain his goals here, he turned to the far more practical study of atherosclerosis, the process in the arteries that gives rise to heart attacks. He spoke at conferences of The Spanish Arteriosclerosis Society, publishing single-authored articles in its magazine and in other journals of global impact.

Then, in his work as a family doctor, fate led him, in the space of just a few weeks, to treat two girls, little more than teenagers, who had both tried to commit suicide. The setting was a rural one, with no psychologists or psychiatrists available, and the girls’ parents, who were farmers, could not in those days afford to travel to the city for therapy. It was the trigger for him to return once more to a consideration of the brain, of the mind; and since then, more than twenty-five years ago, he has immersed himself in this area of study. After having worked for many years with cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy as his preferred method, his current approach is based essentially on EMDR, a psychotherapeutic approach that allows one to work with the subconscious, and he has now attained the kind of goals than he had never imagined possible.


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