Taking the laboratory to the skies: Ambulatory assessment of self-report, autonomic, and respiratory responses in flying phobia


Address reprint request to: Dr. Frank Wilhelm, VAPAHCS/Stanford University, Psychiatry (116A3), 3801 Miranda Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94304. E-mail: fwilhelm@stanford.edu.


We evaluated the feasibility of recording multiple physiological anxiety measures during a flight and how well they could distinguish flight phobics from controls. Benefits of baseline adjustment and transformation for all variables and adjustment of heart rate by ventilation to give additional heart rate were calculated. Effect size, one measure of the power to discriminate groups, was between 1.1 and 1.7 for heart rate measures. Although respiratory rate and minute ventilation, indicators of hyperventilation, did not differ between groups, phobics paused more during inspiration than did controls. Phobics also showed more skin conductance fluctuations and less respiratory sinus arrhythmia. Self-reported anxiety was a more powerful discriminator than physiological measures, a result that may be partially explained by how phobics were selected. These results indicate that monitoring of multiple physiological systems outside the laboratory is practical and informative. Physiological measures of psychological importance can be quantified accurately in a noisy, changing, unsupervised ambulatory setting.