I recently got a text message from a friend that read “Can you say something comforting re: flying?” It wasn’t the text itself that was unusual—I knew my friend was en route to Los Angeles that day—but its sender. She was someone who, until about a year ago, wasn’t afraid of flying at all. Someone who, in fact, had served the exact function for me she now wanted me to perform for her: on-demand airplane safety reassurer. I texted my friend a few of the things that usually help calm me: I told her I’d track her flight, that the weather forecast was good, that turbulence alone has never killed anyone. Privately, I wondered if her newfound fear of flying was somehow, in some way, my fault—if by knowing me (and having once lived with me), she had absorbed some of my anxiety by osmosis.
As it turns out, this is not an entirely narcissistic thing to think. A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of human services and psychology at Beacon College, tells me that the fear of flying—like pretty much any emotion—can be contagious. “We all have the capacity to be afraid of anything,” she says. “The thing that causes fear is bad experiences, whether they're vicarious or they're personal.” It makes that sense that even someone who has had no trouble flying for most of her life might develop that fear after an especially turbulent or uncomfortable flight; that they might develop that fear after someone else’s bad flight is less intuitive. Both processes, however, are born of the same brain function—it’s just that indirect experiences are absorbed less readily than direct ones. “Whenever we experience a negative emotion or we see someone freaking out around us, the amygdala, which is responsible for holding all of the things we're afraid of, registers fear responses. So the first time you see somebody freaking out, your amygdala's going to go, ‘I'm just gonna make a little note of this, and we'll remember it for next time,’” says Marsden. “And then every time you have a negative experience, that stamp in your amygdala becomes deeper and more ingrained and even harder for you to overcome.” In other words, if you aren’t afraid of flying, but regularly travel with someone who is, their fear actually can rub off on you.