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FOX Medical Team

Emory study helps overcome fear of flying

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Memorial Day weekend – the unofficial start of summer – is just days away. Thousands of Georgians are planning to fly somewhere, which is great, unless flying panics you.

Fear of flying is something Margaret Keneman has struggled with for years, but she's getting help through a study at the Emory School of Medicine.

Margaret Keneman is a frequent flyer and, too often, a panicked one.

"I always get on the plane, but it's just miserable, miserable," said Keneman.

The fear got so bad that the 29-year old Emory graduate teaching assistant said that she had to drink to fly.

"To be totally honest, ever since I turned 21, I would just have cocktails on the plane.  Drink before the flight," Keneman said.

And arriving at her destination hungover was getting old.

"It's like I'm an adult, I can't just get drunk on flights and it's not professional," Keneman said.

Margaret tried Xanax and white-knuckling flights sober.
"So I would just sit there be miserable and talk to people. I would get up as soon as we took off and talk to the flight attendants, which they've seen before," Keneman said.

Emory psychologist Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, the director of the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at the Emory University School of Medicine, knows how crippling fear of flying can be.
"I have many people who just won't do it.  They've never gone to the family vacation on the west coast. They don't go to the family weddings and gatherings," Rothbaum said.

Rothbaum has helped hundreds of patients like Margaret get back into the air with virtual reality exposure therapy, which shows them how to confront their fears -- and learn to cope -- by taking a series of virtual plane trips in the controlled safety of their therapist's office.

After eight simulated flights, Margaret has learned how to calm herself.
"That's not something I could ever do in the airport or on an airplane because I'm just in panic mode as soon as I get to the airport, as soon as I get on the plane," Keneman said.

But sometimes virtual reality doesn't last, and after a while, nervous fliers find themselves grounded all over again. That's called "return to fear."  So Emory researchers are tweaking their treatment with a new study.

Before they take off, Margaret and the other virtual flyers are given a cue, or a trigger designed to jumpstart their amygdala -- our brain's "fear center."

Researchers think that by priming the brain to pay attention, they can make virtual reality exposure therapy work better and last longer.

Margaret said she's doing better and hopes to soon be back in the sky, fear free.
Emory School of Medicine is looking for volunteers for this study. If you have a fear of flying, but have flown before, and if you're willing to come in for eight weekly treatments, you may be a candidate. 

For more information on the fear of flying study, call 404-712-8300 or email Ms. Robin Gross at regross@emory.edu.

If you're an anxious flyer and you've found something that helps, leave a comment on Beth Galvin's Facebook page!

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