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Flying Stress Soars After Terrorist Attacks

Survey finds 21% rise among passengers, but not because of terrorism

WEDNESDAY, March 27, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Not surprisingly, air travelers find flying to be much more stressful in the post-9/11 world.

The first survey to compare attitudes of people before and after 9/11 has found that 81 percent of passengers now view flying as somewhat, moderately or severely stressful. By contrast, 60 percent of people surveyed last May through July had those feelings.

"It seems normal that there would be a jump in anxiety since 9/11," says Marvin Aronson, a psychotherapist in New York City who specializes in the fear of flying. "I've flown a couple of times myself since then, and it's a nuisance."

In this study, researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle surveyed passengers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, first in May through July 2001 and then in January to February 2002. A total of 1,900 people (968 before Sept. 11 and 925 after the attacks) completed and returned the survey forms.

Not only were more people stressed out by flying, but they were stressed out by different things.

"Flight delays were the main hassle before 9/11," says Jonathan Bricker, a UW doctoral candidate who conducted the survey. "Now people are more accepting of that. The shift has been from comfort to both comfort and one's own personal security."

Even though travelers are now less upset by late flights and planes that sit at the gate or tarmac, the biggest issue seems to be the "hurry-up-and-wait" problems as well as hassles related to security. Females appeared to be slightly more concerned than males, whereas the genders had fairly equal stress levels before Sept. 11.

Fewer than 2 percent of travelers surveyed said that concerns about terrorism were their main anxiety.

Had the study been conducted in October or November, the results might have been starkly different, says David Carbonell, director of the Anxiety Treatment Center in Chicago. Carbonell runs about six programs for fearful flyers each year. Between Sept. 11 and January 2002 he did zero.

"Our experience was nobody called for fear-of-flying help within that time period," Carbonell says. "A lot more people were afraid and decided it was OK to be afraid. There wasn't anything to challenge or treat. It was very striking."

Carbonell's colleagues around the country reported a similar trend.

When people did start coming back in January, Carbonell says, "it was as if Sept. 11 hadn't happened. People were not concerned with terrorism." Instead, clients reported the usual gamut of anxieties, the most common of which was a sort of claustrophobia.

"There's a distinction between fear and phobia," Aronson says. "These people in the survey are more fearful, which is a realistic appraisal that there are problems, but phobic fliers are afraid of things most people have never even thought about. That population has not been particularly changed by these events."

Certainly some individuals were traumatized by the events of Sept. 11. Most of these people probably weren't represented in the survey because they're still not flying, Carbonell says.

Carbonell has also experienced an increase in the number of flight attendants who have sought help with him privately.

"Working up there carries with it all kinds of responsibilities and a sense of responsibility passengers don't have to cope with," he says. "When I work with people who are afraid of flying, basically it's because they're finding it hard to be a passenger, which is to just sit around and wait."

The findings were presented March 23 at a meeting of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America in Austin, Tex.

What To Do

If you're afraid to fly, Bricker suggests finding a fear-of-flying program, particularly one that uses cognitive/behavioral principles. These programs help you to change your thought patterns and, usually, also gradually expose you to the situations you're afraid of.

Check out the Anxiety Disorders Association of America to find a therapist. Also, the National Institute on Mental Health has a page on the mental effects of the Sept. 11 attacks.

SOURCES: Jonathan Bricker, doctoral candidate, clinical psychology, University of Washington, Seattle; David Carbonell, Ph.D., director, Anxiety Treatment Center, Chicago; Marvin L. Aronson, Ph.D., psychotherapist in private practice, New York; University of Washington press release
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