The ‘Cat with Nine Lives’ syndrome

‘Many of my patients are experienced frequent fliers who develop a phobia of flying after spending decades hopping on and off shuttles, and who have previously found air travel no different to any other travel mode like a bus, train or boat.

They tend to cite something I call ‘the cat with nine lives’ syndrome. They frequently describe how the fears of something terrible happening to the plane have gradually started creeping up on them as they got older. After so many years of ‘getting away with it,’ they now feel that their luck is bound to be starting to run out. It’s particularly common  after the birth of a first child. Suddenly your life takes on an additional importance given your baby’s total dependence on you.

A way of making this more understandable is to consider how, when you are young, many of us feel that death is something that only happens to older people (even though intellectually you know this is not the case). With youth often comes a feeling of being invincible. As we get older, each day brings us that bit closer to the inevitable end of our lives, and for most of us, there’s a wish to put that day off for as long as possible. Hence the feeling that each flight is using up one more of their allotted “nine lives”. And so the more they fly – the worse their anxiety gets.

I teach these experienced fliers how to manage their anxiety and to deal with the reality of the fact that the longer you live, the closer statistically you get to the end of your life. We work out ways of how to cope with this, without having it ruin the time the person has left to live.

In my practice over the last 30 years, I have developed a two-session treatment programme built on the principles of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), and using a variety of elements to help hundreds of sufferers. The abiding principles are first to understand each person’s fears.

Once I understand the individual client, I can teach them techniques based on CBT to challenge their thought processes and show them how to change their behaviour. The second part of the therapy always includes a real scheduled flight to an international destination – two take offs, two landings, and all the stresses of what could go wrong. I accompany up to four people at a time, helping to ensure that they carry out their exercises effectively.

Elaine Iljon Foreman

Elaine Iljon Foreman is a Consultant Chartered Clinical Psychologist specialising in the treatment of fear of flying and other anxiety-related disorders. www.freedomtofly.co.uk

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