Where Should a Phobic Person Sit?…in a car, on an airplane, or in church?

by | Mar 13, 2016 | Phobia, Psychotherapy

Start off with this idea: certain fears are reasonable, others are exaggerated. In both cases it is a sensible strategy to confront those fears. When a fear is justified, confronting it may suggest some way of lessening the risk. Someone who is afraid of developing cancer can ward it off to some extent by undergoing certain tests, like colonoscopy. When the fear is irrational, confronting it repeatedly will show the risk to be minimal or nonexistent. By definition, phobias have this character.

Phobic persons, most of whom suffer from panic disorder, have a distorted view of time and space. They feel trapped in places where others do not, not only in airplanes, where such a feeling might seem understandable, but also waiting on line, sitting in church or in a restaurant, or traveling in a car across a bridge. They think that once trapped in such a place, they may suffer a panic attack and lose control of themselves with the result that they will do something embarrassing, such as throwing up or falling to the floor, or dangerous, such as driving off the bridge or into a crowd. If they confront these situations systematically—let’s say dealing with a bridge phobia by repeatedly going on bridges—they will ultimately get over the phobia. Someone initially afraid of bridges will end up comfortable on bridges. There are two problems, however. Because it takes a while for this fear to diminish, even on repeated exposure, the phobic person may think he/she will never recover. And secondly, upon initially entering upon a bridge, their anxiety will worsen. They may, indeed, experience a panic attack. Consequently, it is difficult for them to follow through with repeated exposure. However, they will not, in fact, lose control. In the final analysis, what they need to learn in order to get better once and for all is not to be afraid of the panic attack.

Still, the panic attack tends to recur in certain stereotyped circumstances, and in confronting the fear of the panic attack, it becomes necessary to confront those circumstances. If a phobic person is afraid of traveling on an airplane, that is what he or she must do. If they are afraid of sitting in church or in a classroom, or in a restaurant, that is what they must do. That is the strategy. Tactics are more complicated. The general practice phobics should follow is the following:

  1. Confront the phobic situation a little at a time, with a helper, perhaps.
  2. Do as much as you think you can. Go into the phobic situation as far as you can. Stay as long as you can.
  3. In order to get better, you must do enough during practice sessions to become anxious.
  4. Ideally, you should, during the course of multiple practice sessions, get panicky at least a few times.
  5. Over time, you should do more and more, even if only just a little more.
  6. If a particular task seems to be too difficult, do as much of that task as you can manage.

Therefore, where should you sit when you are in a phobic situation? As much as is possible, you should sit in that place that makes you most uncomfortable. If sitting in that place is too painful, sit somewhere that is less painful, but tolerable. But, as soon as you can, progress to the harder place.

Some examples:

If you are so uncomfortable in restaurants that you have not been in one in years, start off by sitting in a booth. Sooner or later—as soon as possible—progress to sitting in the middle of the restaurant.

Similarly, you can start off in a theater or in church by sitting in an aisle seat; but the next time sit one seat further into the row and then, further still, until you are sitting finally, in the middle of the row. You need to learn that you will not suddenly be overcome by the need to leave (even if you have chosen to leave in the past.)

Because of the fear of loss of control, some phobics are afraid of driving. They feel uncomfortable behind the wheel. They are afraid of causing an accident. Others, precisely because they need to be in control, are afraid of being a passenger. (In this case, they are afraid that the driver may not stop the car when they wish.) Ultimately, those who are afraid of driving the car need to drive, and those afraid of being stuck in the passenger seat have to choose to sit there.

Fear of Flying.

Inevitably, phobics will choose to sit on an aisle seat if they can, “just in case.” They feel less trapped sitting there. If they have not flown in a long time, they can reasonably start flying again by doing whatever makes them feel most comfortable, including sitting in an aisle seat. But, in the long run, they must sit in window seats in order to really have the experience of flying in a plane. They need to look out the window in order to see that they are flying.

Usually, the fear of flying goes away after a half-dozen flights; but sometimes it does not. In those few cases that someone flies regularly and yet reports that he/she is still uncomfortable on planes, that person has not been sitting on a window seat.

In order to be cured, (such a thing can happen,) it is necessary for the previously phobic person to sit anywhere and do anything that others can do without being afraid of becoming suddenly rendered helpless. Usually, by that time, that individual has become panicky in a phobic situation (entered into purposely) on eight or ten occasions, without leaving. The fear of the panic attack has vanished along with the fear of being trapped in the phobic situation. (c) Fredric Neuman