CNBC today reports that Virgin Atlantic is launching an iPhone “panic button” app that will assuage the 33 percent of passengers who, they say, suffer from fear of flying.
“Our first iPhone app will bring the benefits of our successful Flying Without Fear course to millions of people around the world who are now using mobile technology to make their lives better,” Richard Branson, president of Virgin Atlantic, said in a statement. “The app will put many travelers at ease and enable them to prepare for their first Virgin Atlantic flight.”
The airline developed the app with Mental Workout, a company developing software to help people resolve issues and increase mental performance.
As I discuss in Chapter 5 of Extreme Fear, panic attacks are a pernicious manifestation of the brain’s fear response. They can be overwhelming and extremely disruptive to a sufferer’s life. So my first reaction was to be skeptical about the idea that they can be conquered as easily as loading an electronic doo-dad onto your cell phone. In fact, name of the app’s developer, Mental Workout, sounds suspiciously like the “Brain Gym” program so effectively (and entertainingly) demolished by Ben Goldacre in his book Bad Science.
It could be that my reaction is too hasty. After all, the vicious cycle that causes panic attacks is itself a result of conscious focus on a person’s symptoms of anxiety. If a little electronic distraction can take your mind off your pounding heart, tingling fingers, and heaving chest, then perhaps it will do some good. What’s more, breathing exercises, described as a component of the “panic button” app, have also been shown to have a soothing effect.
On the other hand…
There’s evidence that just having a “panic button” might aggravate psychological distress in some people. Recently, Vaughn at MindHacks recalled a study from1964, in which subjects were put in a sensory deprivation chamber.
One group was met by researchers in white coats, given a medical examination and told to press a ‘panic button’ if they wanted out. The other was met by researchers in causal clothes, weren’t given medical checks, and told to knock on the window if they wanted the experiment to stop. The actual sensory deprivation part was the same, but the group with the panic button reported many more hallucinations, likely owing to ‘demand characteristics’, or, in other words, their expectations of what might happen. We also know that an increase in anxiety also increases the likelihood of hallucinations, and having a ‘panic button’ during an experiment, I suspect, is likely put most people a little more on edge.
For a certain number of people, their awareness that they’re carrying a panic button might be enough to trigger the self-reinforcing spiral of a panic attack. Perhaps Virgin should study the anxiety-soothing effects of a good backrub?