What General Grant Can Teach Pilots About Anxiety

By Rod Machado

When Bob stepped into his Cessna 172 on a recent Sunday morning, he had no idea how difficult it would be to apply power for takeoff. No, his airplane was fine. His anxiety level wasn’t. He sat poised for departure but couldn’t prevail against the dread he felt at the thought of flying alone. This was the fifth time he’d attempted to fly solo, and it looked like it would be the last. A week later, I received Bob’s call asking for help.

Bob (not his real name) had 63 hours of flight time and needed one more solo flight to meet the requirements for the private pilot rating. Earlier in his training, he soloed without hesitation. While he could comfortably fly with his instructor on board, now he was unable to fly alone. Worse yet, his newly formed anxiety had no lineage. No single “scary” event defined or even hinted at being the cause of his newly-formed disposition. He had not been spanked by a spin or tumbled by turbulence.

Unfortunately, these orphan anxieties are often the most intractable of problems to solve. When fear and worry have a distinct origin, we know where to search for an antidote. Frequently, a small amount of additional training that educates or desensitizes students to the disturbing phenomena eliminates the problem.

For pilots in Bob's situation, additional training seldom works since these pilots have nary a clue about why they’re anxious and immobilized in the first place. Theirs is existential anxiety—a generalized fear of something that sublimates into every thought they have about flying an airplane.

After many years of helping aviators deal with similar afflictions, it became apparent that many pilots are experiencing anxiety “about” their anxiety. No, this malady certainly doesn’t rise to the level of a serious mental disorder. Instead, it’s a not-uncommon reaction by mentally healthy pilots who are uncertain about how they’ll react if they experience anxiety when flying alone. These individuals fear losing control of themselves in an airplane during a cascade of fight, flight or freeze emotions.

Years ago, a famous (non-pilot) radio personality confessed that being on board a commercial airliner during a crash would certainly frighten him. However, he also admitted to being more worried about losing control of his emotions (think “panic”) as the airplane goes down. Our radio personality fears the experience of experiencing anxiety more than crash itself. Yes, this is a level of abstraction, but it does help explain Bob’s condition.

Thinking abstractly about an event (rather than the event itself) is not at all foreign to the way our mind works. Novelist Gore Vidal described a similar type of abstraction when he wrote about how we remember physical pain. Vidal suggested that when we attempt to recollect a personal event involving physical pain, we don’t remember the actual pain. Instead, we remember “remembering” the pain (an abstraction). Regarding anxiety and abstraction, when some people experience anxiety, they might not be responding to an actual anxiety-causing event—an event whose cause might be unknown to them. Instead, they are responding to their anticipation at feeling anxiety.

At this point, if you feel as if you are enrolled in a graduate French philosophy class, don’t worry. You’re not. That’s why no one will ask you to prove that the chair in which you’re sitting doesn’t exist. If someone does, then immediately say, “What chair?” and fall to the floor. If you make a good "thump," I can almost guarantee you’ll receive an “A” in the class (if retroactive enrollment is allowed, of course). The point here is that attempting to solve a pilot’s anxiety only by looking for its common cause (i.e., engine failure, stall and spins, turbulence, etc.) might not solve the problem. If it doesn’t, then it’s possible that the pilot is responding to anxiety about feeling anxiety. How might we help this pilot overcome this disposition? Perhaps a well-known general from American history can help us here.

During the early days of the Civil War, General U.S. Grant (then a colonel), confessed to feeling battlefield anxiety as he led his regiment against Col. Harris in Missouri. In his memoirs, Grant wrote about seeing a lot in battle during the Mexican War but never while in command. This experience, however, was new to him. As he pursued Harris, he admitted feeling as if his heart were stuck in his throat. Then something unique happened. Grant approached the campsite where Col. Harris had been camped a few days before. At that point, Grant said:

"It occurred to me that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him. This was a view of the question I had never taken before, but it was one I never forgot."

After that event, Grant said he never again experienced trepidation when confronting the enemy. Clearly, the good General wasn’t afraid of fighting—he had experience in that area. It was his view of the question (i.e., the way he experienced his anxiety) that lodged his heart in his throat. In other words, it was his anxiety about feeling anxiety that roused him.

My approach was to help Bob find a different view of the question regarding the source of his discomfort at flying solo. That’s right. When it became clear that there was no “single event” that scared or frightened him, the only other choice was to deal with how he thought about his anxiety.

If you can dig deep enough (or are simply patient enough to listen), you’ll often find that pilots with Bob’s disposition frequently fear losing control of themselves (panicking) in an airplane. After listening to Bob for a while, it became clear that he desperately wanted to fly solo but dreaded the idea of being airborne and being unable to resist the urge to panic.

As you’ve heard many times, identifying the problem is the first step toward finding a solution. Bob didn’t need remedial training to overcome his anxiety (a misidentification of the problem in this instance). He only needed a new way of viewing the question: Why do I feel anxious about flying solo?

So I asked Bob to describe the last time he lost control of himself and panicked in a new and novel situation (i.e., a different “view of the question”). If he said that, during the previous week, he stumbled into a cave full of bats, panicked, and now fights crime in blue spandex tights, I would have referred him to Marvel Comics for deprogramming. He didn’t say that. Instead, he responded by saying that he had no history of panicking or losing control in new and novel situations. This response helped him make a more accurate assessment of his personal self-control.

Ultimately, it was Bob’s anxiety at the thought of "experiencing anxiety" that immobilized him. He feared losing control of himself should be become anxious in the cockpit; but, he never bothered to ask himself how likely such a thing was to happen. Once he did, he felt more at ease in the cockpit. Much like General Grant’s revelation, a single thought—a different view of the question—completely changes the way Bob experienced his environment.

Perhaps President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s said it best in first inaugural address when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

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