Flying anxiety – Harvard research shows meditation may help

Dr Sara Lazar

Research at Harvard University suggests you can slash your day-to-day anxiety levels by doing meditation.

That’s HUGE news if you suffer flying anxiety. Why?

Because if you cut the amount of general anxiety you carry around, it’s likely you’ll feel less anxious about stepping foot on a plane.

That’s why, when I first tackled my own fear of flying, I spent time each day doing relaxation exercises.

And I still do.

So HOW can meditation make you less anxious?

To find out, I invited Harvard researcher, Dr Sara Lazar, to join me on the Fear of Flying School podcast.

As you’ll hear, she’s used MRI scanners to look inside the brains of people who meditate. And compared them with the brains of folk who don’t.

The results of her research are AMAZING.

As she explains in the interview, once a person starts meditating regularly, the structure of their brain typically changes.

In particular, the areas of the brain that make you feel anxious tend to SHRINK.

That explains why people she’s studied who meditate often say they feel calmer than they did before they tried meditating.

When you listen to this interview, you’ll learn more about her research, including:

  • How meditation reduces anxiety.
  • Why it can change your brain structure.
  • How often you must do it to get results.
  • How Dr Lazar has used it to handle in-flight turbulence.
  • How to try it for yourself.
  • And MUCH more.
Play

Interview transcript

[STARTS]

Tim Benjamin: For many of us with a fear of flying, a vital step in overcoming our phobia, is to reduce the anxiety that we carry around on a day-to-day basis.

The idea here is that the less stressed you feel generally, the less anxious you’re likely to feel about flying.

So, how do you become a more relaxed person?

Well, today, you’re going to learn about research that shows meditation is one of the most powerful tools you can use.

Hi – I’m Tim Benjamin with the Fear of Flying School podcast.

And joining me on the show is Dr Sara Lazar.

Sara’s a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts General Hospital which, in turn, is a part of the Harvard Medical School in Boston.

In recent years, Sara has undertaken a number of research studies into the effects of meditation.

And, amongst other things, she’s been finding out what meditation can do to your anxiety levels.

Sara – welcome.

Dr Sara Lazar: Thank you for having me.

Tim Benjamin: Now, you’re a neuroscientist.

Before we get going, can you just tell me what that involves?

Dr Sara Lazar: Right – well in particular, we’re very interested in using the tool – the MRI – as a tool for analysing brain structure and function.

So the MRI, you can think of the MRI sort of like a giant camera.

And – um – but it’s able to see inside your brain.

It’s a little bit different, though, than – say – an x-ray, because what you can do is – it’s actually sensitive to brain activity.

So as – um – the different parts of your brain become active, as you think about different things, we can actually track which part of your brain is active during any given task.

And so by doing this, we can then – by comparing people doing one task to another – we can identify brain regions that are important for that task.

Tim Benjamin: OK – now you talk about brain regions.

Obviously, your area of focus from a research perspective has been meditation.

Now – the term ‘meditation’ kind of gets bandied around and often can mean all sorts of different things.

Can you just tell me what YOU mean when you talk about the kind of ‘meditation’ you’ve been focusing your research on?

Dr Sara Lazar: Correct.

Right, so we study specifically a Buddhist meditation which is termed ‘vipassana’ or ‘insight’ – um – and sometimes is referred to as ‘mindfulness meditation’ –that’s a phrase that’s been bandied about a lot lately is ‘mindfulness’.

And what that is is – um – I think a lot of people are used to, like, mantra or chanting – you know, when you think about meditation and you think about people sort of sitting in a lotus position with incense burning and what not.

And that’s more of a yoga form of meditation.

So, in the Buddhist form of meditation, there’s NO chanting, there’s NO mantra.

It’s just awareness of the present moment with a non-judging attitude.

And, in particular, often people start off paying attention to the breath.

So, you just sit there.

And as your belly rises and falls with each breath, you just notice the belly expanding and contracting.

Or the chest expanding and contracting.

Some people like to notice just how the breath feels as it passes the nostrils.

And that’s all you do – you just notice it.

And, of course, your mind wanders off – and then you just bring it back.

And the idea is that, as you do that, you start to become much more aware of your thoughts and emotions and thinking patterns.

And, as you do that, you again just notice them, without judging, and just letting them float by.

The same way your breath is floating by.

And, uh, it just helps you become less attached to your thoughts.

And less reactive to what’s going on around you.

Tim Benjamin: Now, you made the reference to Buddhism.

Is this a practise which only works for people who are themselves Buddhists?

I mean, how does this work in a Western context for somebody who’s not interested, for example, in that religious connotation?

Dr Sara Lazar: Right – yes – no – so about 30 years ago, actually almost 35 years ago now, there was a guy named Jon Kabat-Zinn who was practicing in Asia.

And he realized that it might be useful to teach these meditation techniques independently from the Buddhist philosophy.

He really felt like just the practise was useful.

And so he started the first clinical meditation-based program that was completely devoid of any Eastern philosophy.

And so, I guess this program has been going for about 35 years, it’s shown to be HIGHLY effective for reducing stress.

And it’s HIGHLY effective for reducing symptoms associated with many other conditions.

And it’s COMPLETELY, 100% secular.

You know, there’s no Buddhist philosophy, no Buddhist terminology.

It’s just doing exactly what I just told you.

Just sit and watch your breath – paying attention to your thoughts and emotions.

And just noticing it. Just noticing it.

Tim Benjamin: And so what you’re saying is – kind of – anyone can do this.

Dr Sara Lazar: Yes.

Tim Benjamin: In theory, they can do it anywhere.

They don’t need sticks of incense, etc.

Dr Sara Lazar: Exactly.

And there’s absolutely NO religious overtones to it.

I mean, it really is completely – 100% – secular.

Tim Benjamin: And what’s the goal of doing that meditation practise?

Dr Sara Lazar: Right, so in a clinical setting, it’s for reducing stress and clinical symptoms.

And it’s just often as you do it – because often what we find is that the reason why we feel worried and anxious is because our mind starts to race.

Right.

So, I guess in the context of this podcast, it would be about ‘Oh my God I have to fly! Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! What if the plane crashes?’.

Right?

And your mind just goes flying.

And so, can you take a step back from that?

And just observe and say, OK, those are just thoughts.

And, yes, there may be some reality to them, but maybe not, right?

And can you just step away from it and just tune into your body and bodily sensations?

And just observe them without reacting.

Instead of going into the future, about what MIGHT happen, can you stay in the present moment?

So, in the present moment, ‘I’m OK’.

Right.

In the present moment, what do I ACTUALLY feel like in this VERY moment?

So, obviously I may be feeling a little stressed out because I know I’m going to have to go on a flight.

And so, you just notice it.

And see if you can take a deep breath and relax.

But if you can’t relax, that’s OK.

And just noticing it.

And when thoughts go racing by, just notice them.

And just stay in the present moment of what does my body feel like RIGHT NOW.

NOT what it’s going to be like on the plane.

But what it’s going to be like RIGHT NOW – wherever you are.

Tim Benjamin: So, in a sense, it’s about divorcing the thoughts in your head from the feelings in your body?

Dr Sara Lazar: Umm – not necessarily – because you’ll see that they’re related right?

But not BELIEVING your thoughts so much – or just getting PERSPECTIVE on your thoughts.

I think that is the best way to think about it.

Right?

And so, you can’t control what’s going to happen in the future – you can only say what’s happening right now.

It’s not just fear of flying – it’s worry and fear of everything that’s in the future.

Right?

And so the more you can say, OK, we’ll RIGHT NOW, this is how it is.

Right?

So, right now, I’m feeling a certain way.

And it doesn’t matter how you’re feeling.

Maybe you’re calm – maybe you’re not.

But, generally speaking, unless something is happening to you RIGHT NOW, you start to realize that – OK – well right now, I’m OK.

Right?

Don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but right now, I’m OK.

And so that then helps your mind to relax a little bit because, right now, I am OK.

And then, a minute later, you’re still OK.

Right?

And so, even when you’re on the plane, ‘OK – well at the moment, the plane is flying and I’m OK’.

So, it will help you to remain relaxed if you just STAY in the present moment.

And you DON’T worry about what MIGHT happen in the future.

And that kind of improved state of mind, that more RELAXED state of mind – is that experienced ONLY when someone is ACTUALLY meditating?

Or is that something which kind of filters into other periods of their life when they’re not actually – you know – meditating?

Dr Sara Lazar: Both.

Yes – so it’s sort of like exercise.

People who exercise regularly will tell you that they can tell on days they don’t exercise.

Their body just feels different.

They just feel more restless and it’s just – right?

And the same thing with meditation: that, you know, on the mornings when you meditate or the evenings when you meditate, it just REALLY helps clear your mind.

And that it tends to have some spillover to the rest of the day.

So certainly it feels nicest when you’re actually doing it – very calm and relaxed.

But, often it helps you be less reactive during the rest of the day.

Tim Benjamin: Now, I know that you’re a big meditator.

But there are plenty of people out there, including on the ‘traditional’ side, if you like, of the medical establishment who have always been somewhat sceptical about the effects that you’ve been describing.

Which, I guess, is one of the reasons why you were encouraged to apply traditional – you know – the kind of gold standard of research – of clinical research – into the effectiveness of meditation as a practise.

Can you just – sort of – talk to what it was that originally motivated you to do that research work?

Dr Sara Lazar: Right – well as you mentioned, I do meditate, and I must say, when I first started, I was in graduate school.

And at that point, I thought meditation was a bunch of hooey.

Right?

I was pretty sceptical about it.

And I developed a running injury.

And back injury.

And I was told that I should stop running and I should just stretch.

And I happened to see an ad for a yoga class that promised to develop strength and flexibility and what not.

And so I thought – OK – this is a way I can just stretch and stay in shape.

And so I started doing yoga – PURELY as a form of physical therapy.

But, after about a month, I started realising that there was WAY more to this.

And I had done a TON of exercise, I’d done a ton of stretching – you know – for years.

You know – I’d been running for 15 years at that point – 10 or 15 years at that point.

And, you know, I used to do lots of stretching before and after running.

And, you know, so clearly there was a lot more to this yoga than just stretching.

And so, I just got really curious as to what’s going on.

I wanted to understand it from a neuroscience perspective.

You know – here it is, I’m doing something that’s like stretching – but it’s not.

So how could it possibly be different?

Because it was having just REALLY profound effects on my mood, on my ability to handle difficult situations, on – you know – just EVERYTHING.

It just really had a profound effect.

So that’s really what drove me.

Tim Benjamin: So that was yoga.

How did that lead into meditation?

Dr Sara Lazar: Right – so just some of the yoga teachers have a little bit of meditation at the end.

And I really started liking the meditation at the end of the class more than the yoga [laughs].

And also, um, round that time I also was pregnant with my first son, of course.

And while I was pregnant – you know – they suggested not doing yoga.

And so, it was just harder to do yoga after he was born as well, so I sort of switched over to meditation at that point.

Tim Benjamin: So, with meditation now a part of your kind of – ah – one of your core interests, how did that, in turn, feed into your initial research?

Dr Sara Lazar: Right – so my first big question was: could we see a difference in the brain when you’re lying there doing nothing and when you meditate?

Right?

Because it seems like it’s a pretty sharp transition.

And then, also, I was very interested because when you meditate, you DO feel more relaxed.

And there had been quite a bit of data showing that when you start to meditate, pretty quickly, you get changes in cortisol and heart rate and breathing rate – and these sorts of things.

And so, I was just curious – OK – well what are the neural mechanisms?

Could we see the switch in the brain that was driving this VERY precise – you know – change in heart rate and breathing rate?

Um – and we’re still working on that question, actually.

There’s – we ran into a lot of technical difficulties with that.

But, in the meantime, we also started looking at the structure of the brain.

So, actually like: how much grey matter there was in different parts of the brain.

Around that time, some people had done a study – actually in London – with taxi drivers showing that relative novice taxi drivers had a different shape of – in their brain – in the area that’s important for location, and mapping and knowing where you are in space – than people who had been driving taxis for a long, long time.

So, novices were different than long-term people – long-term taxi drivers.

And then some other people showed, similarly, with some other like professional musicians versus amateur musicians.

People who spoke two languages versus people who only spoke one language.

That the amount of grey matter seemed to be related to proficiency.

Or with years of experience.

And so, at that point, we were looking at long-term meditators versus controls.

And so I said ‘Hmm – I wonder, do these long-term meditators have different grey matter than the controls?’.

And – lo and behold – they DID.

They had several brain regions – very important brain regions – where they had more grey matter.

Tim Benjamin: Now – can I just hold you on that point.

When you say ‘grey matter’, what specifically are you referring to?

Dr Sara Lazar: Right – so in your brain you’ve got ‘grey matter’ and ‘white matter’.

White matter is mostly just wiring.

And it’s just connecting one part of the brain to the other part of the brain.

The GREY matter is where the activity actually happens.

Like that’s where all the neural computations are actually happening.

And where, you know, stuff is actually happening.

And so having more grey matter means there is more computational power in those regions.

Tim Benjamin: And, in terms of people who meditate, you found what, precisely, about grey matter?

Dr Sara Lazar: Right, so more grey matter in an area called the ‘insular’.

And that’s very important for being aware of what’s going on inside of you.

Also an important part of the brain that’s important for the interaction between thoughts and emotions.

And also in some sensory areas.

Um – and again that was long-term practitioners versus controls.

And so, there’s a lot of – people saying – sceptics saying ‘well, you know, meditators – they’re just different, right? Maybe their brains were like that before they started meditating. Right? Maybe it’s because its because they have a vegetarian diet or something like that’.

So, then after that study we did another study where we took people who had NEVER EVER practised before.

And we scanned them BEFORE and AFTER this eight week clinical meditation program – right – to see – and we could show that they reduced their stress.

And we found several brain regions changing.

And – um – the first study only looked at the surface of the brain.

And the second study we actually also looked BELOW the surface of the brain.

And one of the regions we looked at was the amygdala – it’s like THE stress center of the brain, right?

And THE fear center of the brain.

And what we found was that it actually got SMALLER.

And that the change in stress was related to the change in the amygdala.

So that it suggests there was an actual REASON why they were feeling less stressed – that they were actually – that the brain was changing.

And that that change in the brain was leading to a reduction in stress.

Tim Benjamin: So, just to be clear, you saw two things.

Both a REDUCTION in the size of the amygdala.

But ALSO the people who’s brains you were scanning were reporting that they felt less stressed.

Dr Sara Lazar: Yes.

And so that change in the amygdala is a part of the reason why they feel less stressed during the rest of the day.

And not just while they’re actually meditating.

Tim Benjamin: Now, when we talk about feeling less stressed – and if we talk specifically – well I guess about that study or any other research that you’ve done – people say they felt less stressed.

How much LESS stress did they feel?

Was is it 5%?

Was it 50%?

What was it?

Dr Sara Lazar: Well, it varied, right?

Some people actually reported a little MORE stress because we actually did that study right when – you know – in 2008 when everything – you know – people were losing their jobs and the economy was crashing and everything.

And, so, there was actually a RANGE of changes.

So, you know, so some people had slight INCREASES in stress.

Some people had small DECREASES in stress.

Some people had large decreases in stress.

But what was important was that the change in the amygdala correlated with the change in stress.

So, the MORE stress reduction they recorded, the BIGGER the change in their amygdala was.

Tim Benjamin: What kind of meditation did the people who participated in your research do?

Dr Sara Lazar: 40 minutes a day – well they were told 40 minutes a day – 7 days a week.

But – again – people being people – there was a WIDE variety of compliance.

Some people actually did that.

Some people just practised once a week in class.

Most people practised – I think – it averaged out to 30 minutes a day.

You know – because some people only – you know – practised 40 minutes but only 2 or 3 times a week.

Some people practised variable amounts of time every day.

So it averaged out to 30 minutes a day.

Tim Benjamin: So, given the research work that you’ve done – I mean – is there still more research work to be done?

Or is this now a kind of open and closed case – the case that meditation has a positive impact on reducing anxiety levels?

Dr Sara Lazar: Right – no there is still a lot more to be done.

So, I mentioned the amygdala – but there were also other brain regions that also changed.

And, so we want to learn more about what those other regions are doing.

Also – not that it’s relevant to this podcast – but there’s also been shown that meditation helps enhance attention.

And cognition.

And we have a new paper showing that it actually SLOWS the rate of brain decline.

And intelligence.

And so we’re very interested in that as well.

But even within the frame of anxiety, the question is: OK – is it JUST stress or is it – what about particular types of anxiety?

So, fear of flying.

Or, some people have social phobia.

Um – spider phobia.

These sorts of things.

So, there’s still a lot to do – PTSD.

There’s many, many, many different conditions – specific conditions – and so it’ll be interesting to see HOW it’s working in these different conditions.

Um – it’s also EXTREMELY useful for depression – so understanding that.

And so, the question you asked about how much you actually have to practise: that’s a question that keeps coming up over and over again.

And that really has not been properly addressed yet.

That’s something we very much want to do.

Tim Benjamin: Sara – we’ve talked about meditation as a tool for GENERALLY reducing one’s anxiety levels – which is kind of interesting.

But does it have a role to play when a person is actually IN the situation that they fear?

For example, they’re on a plane that’s going through turbulence.

Dr Sara Lazar: No research on that as far as I know.

But I can tell you anecdotally from my own experience that it was incredibly useful.

I don’t generally have a fear of flying.

But, there was one flight I was on that had LARGE amounts of turbulence.

I mean – just non-stop bumping and high winds and – you know – I think everyone on the plane was white-knuckled.

And – um – so I just really used the meditation practice as much as I could and just tried to stay in the present moment.

And – you know – stay ‘in tune’ and just meditate.

And it was tremendously beneficial – for me at least.

Tim Benjamin: How did you stay focused with the plane bumping all over the place?

Dr Sara Lazar: [Laughs] Well, you notice thoughts and the emotions.

Like, ‘Oh my God – what is THAT? Oh my God!!!’

And, so I’m trying to say ‘OK – well – right now I’m OK’.

And just staying –noticing what you actually feel like.

So, what is your body actually feeling like?

What do your arms actually feel like?

What does the back of the chair feel like against the back of your body?

You know – just really staying in the present moment – what the senses are that are happening.

What’s happening with the senses, right?

And so, if you can REALLY stay in the sensory experience of RIGHT NOW, it helps you from spinning out of control about what MIGHT happen in the future.

Tim Benjamin: So, for somebody who’s listening to this, based on the research work you’ve done, if they were to take up meditation practise as a way of dealing with their fear of flying, are there any tips that you could give?

I mean – for example – does it make any difference as to how often or for how long – they meditate?

Dr Sara Lazar: So, what’s generally recommended is 40 minutes a day – 7 days a week.

Which is a TALL order.

And, we don’t really know yet.

This is ALWAYS the question you get.

Like, how much do I actually have to practise?

It’s suggested that you DO practise 40 minutes a day – at least 2 or 3 times a week.

And that – on the other days – you practise for at least 5 or 10 minutes.

You know – but again – people vary a LOT.

And – again – it’s sort of like exercise.

The more you do, the more you’re going to benefit.

You know – within reason.

And that a little bit every day is beneficial.

Tim Benjamin: A final question for you, Sara.

If somebody’s listening to this and they’ve found what you’ve had to say interesting, what would you suggest they should do next?

Dr Sara Lazar: I think trying to find a local meditation center.

Again, I’m partial to ‘mindfulness’ – or ‘insight’ – meditation.

But, if the only thing local is some other – like Zen or TM or something like that – then give it a try.

If you have the option of finding multiple centers, I’d say try a few and see which one you like best.

And what teachers you like best.

And – uh – just TRY it.

Give it a week or two and just see if it’s right for you or not.

Some people really like one form of meditation over another.

Some people really LIKE chanting.

And so they might like chanting meditation preferable to breath meditation.

Other people really DON’T like chanting and they really prefer the breath meditation.

So, I’d say find something that you like – and a teacher that you like – and just try it.

Tim Benjamin: Sarah – this has been a really interesting conversation.

Thank you very much for joining me.

And thanks very much for your time.

Dr Sara Lazar: Thank you.

[INTERVIEW ENDS]

Your thoughts

Are you generally more anxious than you’d like to be? Does it affect how you feel about flying? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

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