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“Be more organized.”, With Former Air Force Fighter Pilot Tom Bunn

In general, people turn to mindfulness in search of peace. I’d like to introduce the idea that the mind is not necessarily supposed to be at peace. We are multifaceted. Each facet of our personality has interests, desires, and taboos that conflict with those of other facets. If a person lacks the mental programming needed to […]

In general, people turn to mindfulness in search of peace. I’d like to introduce the idea that the mind is not necessarily supposed to be at peace. We are multifaceted. Each facet of our personality has interests, desires, and taboos that conflict with those of other facets. If a person lacks the mental programming needed to activate their calming system, they may be unable to tolerate the feelings caused by inner conflict.


As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Bunn.

He is a licensed therapist, retired airline captain, and ex-USAF fighter pilot. This unusual combination helped him to develop a way to control in-flight panic. His method to control anxiety has been used by over 10,000 fearful fliers. The method has now been applied to elevators, tunnels, bridges, MRIs, and other emotionally challenging situations in his new book Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia.


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?

Igrew up during World War II in a small North Carolina town where several young men were pilots in the Army Air Corps. One flew P-38s. Three flew P-47s. They, as our heroes, sparked my interest in becoming a pilot. I followed their lead, flew fighters in the USAF, and then joined Pan Am. One of the pilots, Captain Truman “Slim” Cummings, started a fear of flying course. He invited me to work with him. I figured anyone afraid of flying was crazy. So, I told Slim, “I don’t want to be around a bunch of crazy people.” He replied, “I’m doing a course at Newark Airport next weekend. Come on over and take a look. I think you’ll be surprised.” And surprised I was! It was a great group of people. All were intelligent and imaginative. That, it turns out, got them in trouble. High intelligence allowed them to think of dozens of things that might go wrong. Vivid imagination allowed them to picture things going wrong as real enough to cause distress. Anxious fliers are great to work with. The whole world gets opened up to them. Being part of that is thoroughly satisfying.

As to becoming a therapist, my mother had severe mental health issues. When other kids were reading comic books, I was reading the books my mother’s psychiatrist gave her, Man Against Himself by Karl Menninger and People In Quandaries by Wendell Johnson. Many who become therapists had the impossible task of curing a family member as a child. Failing at the job sets us on a quest to make up for the failure and produce something that makes the suffering worthwhile.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

As a therapist, you meet people at a uniquely deep level, and often in a life-changing way. But what you learn is confidential. As a USAF fighter pilot, you serve with some of the most talented people in the world. In a squadron of thirty pilots, two had been All-American athletes in college. One became the Air Force Academy Commandant. Another led the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds.

As an airline pilot, you meet interesting people, some of whom are well-known. After operating a flight to L.A. I was about to fly back to New York as a passenger. At the last minute, the comedian, Steven Wright, hurriedly took the seat next to me. Truly, he is my favorite comedian, but crew members have to be considerate about engaging celebrity passengers in conversation. Seeing I was a pilot, he started asking questions about flying. As it turned out, he was uncomfortable in the air, so we spent the trip talking about his concerns. Toward the end of the flight, I asked him how he came up with his material. If you know his humor, it’s very depressed. He said, “It’s my life. My life is awful. Nothing works. Everything that happens to me is depressing. Like, we’re heading back to New York now. Last time I got back to New York, it was late at night and I needed some groceries. There’s a twenty-four-hour store on my street. I went there and the guy was closing the place. I say, ‘I need some groceries.’ He says, ‘Sorry, pal, I’m closed.’ I say, ‘You can’t be closed, It says — right here on the front of your building — open 24 hours.’ The guy says to me, ‘I didn’t say WHICH 24 hours.’ That’s my life,” he said. “Depressing.”

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Most things that can be logically figured out have been figured out. Many advancements are stumbled on or discovered by accident. A creative work culture needs to explore both intentional and unintentional results.

For years, I tried to stop in-flight panic using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). There were a few clients CBT worked for, those whose panic developed gradually. They could be taught to notice tension as it started building up, to distract themselves from anxiety-producing thoughts, and to relax. But for clients whose panic developed rapidly, this method was a total failure. These clients needed something that worked automatically. I tried training them to automatically shift thoughts of flying to the memory of some non-flying activity, preferably something intense. For example, one client redirected her anxiety-producing thoughts of flying to her memory of running a marathon. An amateur tennis player client redirected flying thoughts to a triumphant moment when he served an ace playing against ex-pro Harold Solomon, whose nickname was “Human Backboard.” When a client chose to shift from thoughts of flying to thoughts of nursing her baby. I thought to myself that it might backfire and cause her to fear that she would never see her baby again. But I went along with her. After her flight, she reported perfect results. I tried it with other mothers who had nursed a baby. They — every one of them — got perfect results. Searching for the reason, I found that nursing causes the release of oxytocin, a hormone that inhibits the release of stress hormones. Shifting flying thoughts to nursing completely shut the fear system down! I had stumbled on a way to control panic. We merely needed to link the situation that induces panic to a memory of the situation that produces oxytocin. Fortunately, there are several situations that produce oxytocin: holding a newborn child, sexual foreplay and afterglow, interacting with a pet, and a long hug.

In another unexpected result, when thoughts of flying were connected to getting engaged or to saying wedding vows, panic was controlled. It wasn’t clear why. Research later showed that moments of complete acceptance fully activate our calming system, the parasympathetic nervous system. When fully activated, the parasympathetic nervous system completely overrides the effects of stress hormones. These unexpected results led to techniques that are five to six times more effective at controlling panic than CBT.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller. I was in therapy but wasn’t getting anywhere. When I complained about it to a therapist friend she said, “Read Alice Miller.” I did. It was like an explosion, an emotional explosion I couldn’t contain. It set the work with my therapist on a fast track.

Miller wrote that some children have an unusual ability to shape their behavior in a way that keeps an emotionally fragile parent from coming apart. This job consumes what should be childhood. The parent-child relationship is turned upside down. This is common in people who become therapists.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?

In general, people turn to mindfulness in search of peace. I’d like to introduce the idea that the mind is not necessarily supposed to be at peace. The most eye-opening psychological essay I’ve ever read was written by psychoanalyst Charles Brenner, MD. He said psychotherapy does not cure conflict. We are multifaceted. Each facet of our personality has interests, desires, and taboos that conflict with those of other facets. If a person lacks the mental programming needed to activate their calming system, they may be unable to tolerate the feelings caused by inner conflict. If so, our “defenses” come into play. To avoid conflict, defenses allow only one facet to be mentally active at a time. Good therapy expands mindfulness so that all facets of the personality are active simultaneously. Though this causes conflict, it allows conflicting aims to be played out mindfully, rather than repressed and causing illness, or acted out and causing tragedy. Healthy meditation fosters this development. Unhealthy meditation arrests this development by focusing on a repetitious task, such as repeating a mantra. Unhealthy meditation allows only temporary peace by limiting mindfulness.

The mindfulness I recommend is like watching fish swim by in an aquarium. Sit for a time with the courage to allow any thought or feeling whatsoever to come into awareness, to pass through awareness untouched by judgment, and to pass on out of awareness.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?

The major long-term benefit is peaceful co-existence of the various facets of the self. The sort term, because of increased awareness of conflict, true mindfulness is anything but peaceful. Looking for a specific benefit — such as peace of mind — is the opposite of mindfulness.

Looking for a certain benefit or meditative achievement causes censorship. The troubling content needs to come into awareness so it can be accepted. But goals keep it from coming into awareness at all. It helps to say to hell with benefits and have the courage to let whatever happen. After all, it’s just your mind. Nothing in your mind is real.

The concept of who you are is protected by psychological defenses. Psychological defenses, when in use, are completely invisible to us. If we become aware we are using a defense we simultaneously become aware of what the defense was hiding. In other words, awareness of a defense stops it from working. So experiment with mindfulness. Play around with it. Once in a while, a psychological defense will let something slip through (that’s what mindfulness is about) and you will have a tumble that scrapes your identity’s knee or elbow. Experience the pain. Get back at it. Return to letting whatever in. Going from mindfulness that covertly censors to mindfulness that is uncensored takes time and may require the help from a coach or a therapist.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness and serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.

The most serious emergency a pilot may face is an engine fire during takeoff. To be prepared for this emergency, pilots receive training in a flight simulator. They repeat the engine fire procedure until they can perform it automatically. When there is an engine fire, a red light is illuminated on the instrument panel and a loud bell rings. The first step in the procedure is to press the button that silences the bell. If the bell were allowed to continue making noise, the pilots wouldn’t be able to work together on the problem. Similarly, we are supposed to have a mental program that silences alarm as soon as we become aware there is a problem.

Our parasympathetic nervous system is supposed to automatically downregulate us from feeling alarmed to feeling interested in what is going on. The upheavals and uncertainties alarm us. But, as soon as we are mindful of the issue, downregulation from alarm to interest is essential if we are to be able to think clearly.

Some of us are fortunate enough to have this mental programming and some of us don’t. People who have automatic downregulation don’t know they have it. They just handle emergencies well. Stress, for them, is momentary. They don’t have panic attacks, and they can’t understand why anyone does.

If a person does not have automatic downregulation, when upheavals and uncertainties alarm them, they stay alarmed until the stress hormones just burn off. Meanwhile, they can’t think clearly. If the upheavals and uncertainties that alarmed them in the first place again come to mind, the process repeats. They are again alarmed and stay alarmed until the stress hormones burn off. If the upheavals and uncertainties stay in mind, there is no relief.

A person who doesn’t have automatic downregulation doesn’t know they don’t have it. They just know that when they get upset, they may stay upset. So, they try to stay in control of things so nothing happens that upsets them. When they have no control and no escape, they panic. And, they don’t understand why everyone doesn’t panic.

Until recently little was known about how to activate our calming system. Breathing exercises activate the calming system only mildly. Unable to cause effective calming, psychology has focused on how to avoid getting revved up.

We are in the beginnings of a shift in focus from ways to avoid activating the system that revs us up to how to activate the system that can calm us down. This is the result of work by neurological researcher Stephen Porges who stumbled on a way to powerfully activate the parasympathetic system (remember: most innovations happen by accident). While doing research on the vagus nerve, he unexpectedly discovered that when we are with other people, if they are no threat in any way they unconsciously send signals from their face, voice quality, and body-language/touch that activate our parasympathetic nervous system. When our parasympathetic system is activated, it stimulates our vagus nerve. Then, what Porges calls “vagal braking” takes place. Vagal braking overrides the stress hormones that are revving us up. It slows the heart rate, slows the breathing rate, and relaxes the gut.

Think of being in your car and putting your left foot solidly on the brake pedal. If you pressed on the accelerator pedal to rev the engine up, the car wouldn’t go anywhere. The brake overrides the engine. The same can be true for us. If we can solidly press on our brake pedal, stress hormones have no effect on us. And that is what happens with people who have automatic downregulation. As soon as they feel alarmed, their brake pedal slams on. They often downregulate so quickly that they aren’t even aware that there was a moment of alarm.

Sometimes vagal braking is powerful enough that we involuntarily feel our guard let down. All the stress melts out of us. Learning how to make that happen, I think, is something we all can use right now. Overriding stress does not change what caused the stress. But it does allow us to think more clearly about it. The following excerpt from my book, Panic Free, outlines one of the ways to control stress with vagal braking.

The Three-Button Exercise

This is the exercise to use if you notice you are stressed about something. 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 vagal braking by pressing the buttons any time you wish. But we want to set up calming that works automatically. To establish automatic attenuation, intentionally remember feeling alarmed, and then press button 1. Remember the feeling again; press button 2. Bring the feeling to mind again; press button 3.

From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

1. We can take over to give them a breather.

2. We can give useful advice.

3. We can help them be more organized.

4. We can distract them temporarily from stressors.

5. We can signal them that they are safe with us, physically and emotionally. This support activates their parasympathetic nervous system. This form of support is important because a person who is repeatedly calmed by unconscious signals from your face, voice quality, and body-language/touch may become a calmer person by internalizing the calming effect of your presence.

What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?

State with this book. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. It opens, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

To be more mindful, we need to live in the real world, and to allow the mind to do its job. To be more serene? We need to think about what serenity is and question whether serenity should be uppermost in one’s mind. If serenity requires a disconnect, it could be the opposite of mindfulness. Would serenity require a life free of thoughts and events that trigger the release of stress hormones? Retreat to a monastic life might lead to serenity, but to become isolated to avoid stress triggers is agoraphobic. The farther one goes in the search to be free of stress, the more suffering uncontrollable stressors cause. Agoraphobics are anything but serene. I think there is a better answer than to seek more control or more retreat. As I see it, the answer is to train the mind to neutralize the effects of stress hormones via the calming system nature gave us, the parasympathetic nervous system. Though the sympathetic nervous system that revs us up is mature at birth, the parasympathetic that calms us down — though it exists at birth — has no “mental software” to self-activate it. Thus caregivers calm the young child.

The child’s need and the caregiver’s response are recorded in what attachment theorist John Bowlby called an “internal working model of relationship.” In time, recall of being responded to activates the parasympathetic system, and calming takes place even though no caregiver is present. An internal working model formed by a responsive relationship can provide healthy serenity throughout a person’s lifespan.

So, as I see it, a person who lacks the good internal working models of relationships that cause the parasympathetic nervous system to override stress may make a terrible mistake and, by seeking serenity, become agoraphobic. So let’s take yet another look at this.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote what became known as “The Serenity Prayer.” The following is the commonly found version adopted by AA.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.

Researcher Fred R. Shapiro of the Yale Law School traced down what appears to be the original version.

Father, give us courage to change what must be altered,
serenity to accept what cannot be helped,
and the insight to know the one from the other.

Shapiro says the placement of courage before serenity “seems fitting for a theologian whose life embodied courage on many levels.”

I think we need to be very careful when we look for serenity. The closest we can come to mentally healthy serenity is to calm ourselves enough to accommodate what we can’t change about the world we live in. And, if Niebuhr is right, part of serenity is having the courage to change what needs to be changed.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

My favorite life lesson is not a quote, but something that took place when I was in college and attended a conference at Union Theological Seminary. I was walking through one of the passageways with another attendee.

As we approached the closed double-door, an elderly man dressed in nondescript clothes opened the door for us. I took him to be a janitor. After we passed through the door, the person I was with said, “Do you know who that was?” I said, “No.” He said, “That was Reinhold Niebuhr.” The world’s greatest theologians had opened a door for two undergraduates.

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. 🙂

If would be a movement that would increase awareness that as the child’s brain develops, it retains memories of the caregiver’s face, voice, and touch. If a caregiver responds consistently, the child comes to expect the response. The child expects to see the face, hear the voice, and feel the touch. Expectation activates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms the child before the caregiver arrives.

What happens next is important. If the child’s caregiver follows through as expected, the expectation is reinforced, and an automatic downregulation program begins forming in unconscious procedural memory. The downregulation program has four steps. First, hyperarousal causes a wish for the caregiver. Second, because the caregiver is dependable, the caregiver is expected to appear. Third, the child imagines the caregiver’s face, voice, and touch. Fourth, imagination activates the parasympathetic nervous system.

If these steps are established in the child’s unconscious procedural memory, hyperarousal will automatically be down-regulated to interest throughout the lifespan. It will allow clear thinking under stress. Panic will not become a problem.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

My websites are https://www.fearofflying.com and https://www.panicfree.net

I blog on Psychology Today at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/experts/tom-bunn-lcsw

Every Wednesday from 10 until 11 PM I host a Zoom session. Info is at https://www.fearofflying.com/talkread/chat.shtml

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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