Ep. 74: Capt. Tom Bunn — How to Use Human Connection to Conquer Fear and Panic


My guest this week is Captain Tom Bunn, a former airline pilot who is now a psychotherapist. Tom specializes in treating panic, which he got into through helping people with a fear of flying. Now he’s written a book, Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia (affiliate link), which describes a way to use human connection to stop the panic response.

This was a really interesting book and a fascinating conversation. You’ll discover in this episode how oxytocin can stop panic from developing, and how to engage the parasympathetic nervous system to put the brakes on a runaway fear reaction. Other things we talked about included:

  • Why panic is so distressing
  • What is missing from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for some individuals with panic
  • How Tom developed his treatment approach for panic
  • The types of memories that can trigger oxytocin release
  • Stephen Porges’s research on the social engagement system and Polyvagal Theory
  • The important of the quality of another person’s voice in activating the calming response (see this previous episode with YogaVoice creator Mark Moliterno)
  • How Tom transitioned from being a pilot to being a therapist
  • Why knowing the safety facts doesn’t eliminate fear of flying
  • The limitations of relying on what is conscious when treating panic
  • The importance of quieting the hyperarousal “alarm” in order to deal effectively with panic
  • Linking panic-related situations to memories of social engagement to activate the calming system
  • The imperative of practicing the techniques Tom recommends
  • The function of a “safety person” in panic disorder
  • The importance of picking the right person to provide the appropriate calming response
  • The limits of control in panic
  • The problem with emotional reasoning (that feeling unsafe means you’re in danger)
  • “Psychic equivalence”: not being able to distinguish between one’s fears and reality
  • The kind of meditation that can be most useful in managing panic
  • Training the brain such that fear triggers calming rather than more arousal

Toward the end of the episode I noted the overlap between Tom’s approach and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), developed by Dr. Steven Hayes. Here’s more background on what ACT is and how it works.

Here is Tom’s first book: SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying (affiliate link)

If you suffer from panic attacks and claustrophobia in tight spaces, there’s a lot to take from this episode. Please share it with someone you care about if they’re dealing with panic and could benefit from the information.

Tom Bunn, LCSW, is the author of SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying, and Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia. These books are the result of his many years addressing flight panic in his role as an airline pilot.

He is also a licensed therapist, regular contributor to Psychology Today, and a former U.S. Air Force captain who flew the Air Force’s first supersonic jet fighter, the F-100. Visit him online at http://www.panicfree.net.

Find Tom online at his website, and visit his treatment website where you can sign up to participate in a free live chat every Wednesday at 9:00 pm Eastern time.

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