(Washington, D.C. - Jonathan Wilson, WAMU) Thirty two-year old Kathleen Caggiano says she loved to travel…she had flown dozens of times without a worry. But in 2008 she was flying into Reagan National Airport from Dayton, Ohio. She says the flight was full – but she’d been on crowded planes before.
“I do remember, there was a guy next to me and he kept bumping into me with his elbow," she says. "I thought 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 started closing in…and I just had this sensation of, ‘I have to get off the plane now.’ Of course, I realized, I couldn’t – I’m thousands of feet up in the air. But I’ve never had that feeling of ‘Get me out, NOW,'" she says.
Fear of Flying vs. Claustrophobia
There’s little reliable data on how many people suffer from a fear of flying. A USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll from 2006 found that 9 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.
“This one woman said to me, you know what, if that plane exploded or had a crash – at least that would be a way to get out of that plane. And that really drove it home to me.”
Kathleen Caggiano – who fell into the claustrophobic group – avoided airplanes for about two years after her 2008 episode.
“My dad and stepmom retired to Naples Florida, and that was hard for me because I ended up driving. And 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 in Pennsylvania.
“I was literally – had my car packed, I was at the tunnel, and I couldn’t do it. I got off a the last exit and went home. I told my family I was sick and not feeling well – that was really hard for me. I really wanted to go and see everyone, and I couldn’t do it.”
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 to find, what will help them get into a natural, effortless kind of breathing – it doesn’t have to be anything fancy,” she says.
Ratner also makes her clients practice sitting facing a wall for extended periods of time, with just a book and glass of water to simulate an in-flight experience.
Overcoming One's Fears
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 on those flights – but they know I’m there. It gives them that feeling of just in case they panic,” Ratner says.
“It’s kind of crazy, my family thought I was nuts,” Caggiano remembers. “They didn’t understand. They’re like, ‘You flew to Chicago, and just came back.’ You fly there and come back the same day.”
Whether it’s nuts or not – Caggiano has slowly been conquering her fears.
Ratner says it’s important for those with fears like Caggiano’s 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 flier 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 three to four flights – even short ones – that year. The repetition – locking it in – is really important. If they let even 6 months go by before they take that second flight – they start to relapse,” she says.
Kathleen Caggiano says she’s still working up the nerve to ride the Metro again – but she does have a vacation planned for February with some friends. They don’t know exactly where they’re going to go – but it’ll be someplace warm – and yes, they will be flying.
“For the first time I’m actually excited to fly again – so I’m excited about that,” she says, “and that’s been a long time coming.”
To hear the radio version of this story, click here.