Our most important resource for mental wellness involves relationships. Few of us have ideal relationships. So what can we do? You don’t need a perfect relationship Just find one moment when being with another person caused your guard to let down. When that happens, you are getting full activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. If you don’t remember your guard letting down, just remember being with a person who is completely safe to be with. Apply their face, voice, and touch/body language to the situations you find challenging. Think of it as like a jar of peanut butter; you can spread it on as many crackers as you want to.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Bunn. Tom a retired pilot and licensed therapist, flew the U.S. Air Force’s first supersonic jet fighter, the F-100. After the Air Force, he joined Pan Am and was a volunteer instructor in the airline’s fear of flying program. He founded SOAR Inc. to develop and deliver more effective ways of helping passengers control anxiety and panic when flying.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
AtPan Am, one of our pilots, Captain Truman Cummings, started a fear of flying program. He asked me to work with him on it. I couldn’t understand why anyone would be afraid to fly, and told him I wasn’t interested in being around a bunch of crazy people. He told me if I would come to one of his courses I would be surprised. I was. Every fearful flier in his course was intelligent and imaginative. Later I found out why. A person has to be intelligent to think of hundreds of things that could go wrong, and highly imaginative to make each of them real enough to release enough stress hormones to cause panic.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
The most interesting thing was finding out that the biggest fear most anxious fliers have is — not that their plane will crash — but that they will have a panic attack. At 30,000 feet there is no way out to get relief. If they panic, they have to endure unbelievable feelings of distress until the plane is back on the ground. It was also interesting to find that fear of panic when flying isn’t so different from fear of panic in an elevator, on a bridge, in a tunnel, or a MRI. Even it a fearful flier is convinced that flying is safe physically, they still don’t feel safe because of panic. Realizing how psychological the problem is, I went to grad school, got licensed as a therapist, and went through one institute after another looking for a solution. To my surprise, there was no solution.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
At first, I thought Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) would be a solution. CBT did help clients whose panic came on slowly enough that they had time to intervene with a strategy to stop the attack. But CBT didn’t help clients whose panic came “out of the blue” without warning or came on too fast for them to apply an anti-panic strategy. It quickly became obvious that if something was going to panic for stop these clients, it would have to work automatically. It took years, but fortunately, I found a way to do just that. Now, over 10,000 clients who couldn’t fly have the whole world open to them.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
In a supervision session, Dr Ralph Klein, M.D., Clinical Director of the Masterson Institute told me, “We are creatures of relationship.” Based on what I had been taught in grad school, it seemed that the clients I was working with needed to disentangle themselves from the relationships they were in. Ralph had a different view. He told me about a video taken in a Romanian orphanage where children had little human contact. An infant, not yet able to crawl, worked its way across a rug until it reached a stained spot. Hungry for relationship in some form, the infant put its cheek on it.
As it turns out, ALL our ability to quickly calm down comes from another person. It can be someone who is with us physically or it can be someone who is with us psychologically, which is to say, someone we have had enough of a relationship with to build their calming influence inside. Research Stephen Porges, Ph.D. broke the code on how human calming works. When we are with other people, we send and receive signals unconsciously. If the signals we receive indicate that the other person is not a threat to us in any way — physically or emotionally — if we process the signals properly — remember, this is all unconscious — the signals activate our calming system (the parasympathetic nervous system). Our heart rate slows. Our breathing rate slows. We totally relax. But, mind you, we don’t totally relax intentionally. It happens to us involuntarily as the result of the signals they are sending.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
We get advice everywhere about how to reduce stress that too often revs us up. It is as if psychology has forgotten we have a system that can calm us down. I say “as if” because it hasn’t been forgotten. It was just that, until Stephen Porges broke the code, we didn’t know how to activate the calming system. What Porges learned in his research is the most important discovery in psychology in years — maybe ever — because everything in mental health depends on emotional regulation. Sure, we can try to control things that upset up. But there are limits to our control. Sure we can meditate and temporarily escape upsetting things that we cannot control. But that is escape or avoidance. We don’t have to escape or avoid stress that revs us up (the sympathetic nervous system). We can override stress. We can activate the system that calms us down in spite of stress.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I think you are still asking a question based on the idea that the only answer to stress is to reduce it with a better work culture. I’m sure you will get a lot of suggestions along those lines. So I want to point to the answer that is different and far more effective. If you’ve reduced stress as much as you can, why not increase your resilience to stress. Sure, as a pilot, we can fly our airliners around storms as much as possible. But that isn’t always possible, so the wing HAS to be resilient. The wing HAS to be able to flex so the stress of storms, when unavoidable, does nothing to harm it.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
1. We need to come to grips with the fact that what we achieve is, in some way, is due to relationship. We are, as Dr. Klein put it, creatures of relationship.
2. Understand the power of relationship. A benign relationship can help us shed stress like water off a duck’s back. I learned — actually stumbled on — how an anxious flier can override stress through the power of relationship. Since then, I have trained over 10,000 clients to link anxiety-producing situations to a person whose calming effect is transmitted by their face, their voice quality, and their touch/body-language. Research at the University of Arizona showed that thoughts of a loved one has the same calming effect as does the person’s physical presence.
3. Train the mind to neutralize a stressful situation. Break the situation down into smaller pieces (its component parts or the sequence of events that take place in the situation). Link each piece to the memory of a person who is non-judgmental. Link to their face by imagining they are holding a black-and-white snapshot of one piece of the stressful situation by their face. Next, link to the quality of their voice. Imagine the two of you look at the photo together and have a conversation about the subject. And, as you converse, imagine your friend gives you an affectionate hug, or whatever physical touch is appropriate for your relationship. This links one piece of the stressful situation to the calming signals on their face, in their voice, and from their touch. Repeat this with each piece of the stressful situation.
4. Train the mind to inhibit the release of stress hormones. Do the same exercise again, but instead of linking to a calming friend, link to the memory of a time when you produced oxytocin, because when you produce oxytocin, you can’t produce stress hormones. Situations that produce oxytocin are (a.) nursing a baby; (b.) holding a newborn; (c.) for males, sexual afterglow; (d.) for females, good chemistry in sexual foreplay; (e,) interacting with a pet; (f.) a hug for twenty seconds or longer.
5. Use the “Three Button Exercise” to aggressively down-regulate when stress hits.Remember a person with whom you felt your guard let down. The signals that cause your guard to let down are transmitted by the person’s face, their voice, and their touch. I want you to imagine buttons you can press to calm yourself.
• Imagine your friend has pasted a sticker on their forehead bearing a picture of a button with the number 1 on it. Another sticker, showing button number 2, is pasted on their chin. A third sticker, with button number 3, is pasted on the back of their hand.
• Now imagine feeling alarmed.
• Imagine putting your finger on the button 1 sticker on their forehead and then releasing it. Their face comes clearly to mind. You see the softness in their eyes. It feels good.
• Imagine putting your finger on the button 2 sticker. As you release it, the person’s lips begin to move, and you hear them greet you in a special way. You may notice that the quality of their voice calms you deep inside.
• Imagine touching the button 3 sticker on the back of their hand. When you release the button, the person lifts their hand and gives you a reassuring touch or a hug — whatever gesture is appropriate in your relationship with this person. You may notice calming stillness rest on you.
You can activate your calming system, the parasympathetic nervous system, by imaginarily pressing the buttons any time you wish.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
Once again, our most important resource for mental wellness involves relationships. Few of us have ideal relationships. So what can we do? You don’t need a perfect relationship Just find one moment when being with another person caused your guard to let down. When that happens, you are getting full activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. If you don’t remember your guard letting down, just remember being with a person who is completely safe to be with. Apply their face, voice, and touch/body language to the situations you find challenging. Think of it as like a jar of peanut butter; you can spread it on as many crackers as you want to.
How about teens and pre-teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre-teens to optimize their mental wellness?
I would start with the same techniques. They aren’t hard for some teens or pre-teens to learn and apply. If more detailed guidance is needed, my book, Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia will help. Less effective, but much easier to learn is the 5–4–3–2–1 Exercise here.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It would be about getting along with each other. When we are not good at calming down, we may try to control everything (and everyone) to make sure nothing happens that upsets us. If we can develop the skill to calm down, we don’t have to focus so much on control of situations or of other people.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
When I was a college student, I attended a conference at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Walking through the halls with another student, we approached a closed door. An elder gentleman opened the door for us. He was wearing very ordinary clothes. I took him for a janitor. After we passed through the door, the other student said, “Do you know who that was?” I said, “No.” He said, “That was Reinhold Niebuhr.” The man considered the greatest theologian of the 20th century had just opened the door for two young college students. That was a lesson I’ll never forget.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!