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Ready for take-off: psychologically healthy flying

It's that time of year when lot's us of will hop on planes and fly away on that annual family holiday and have a well deserved break. For some people, the anticipation of the upcoming holiday is one of both, the excitement of getting away and also dread at having to navigate the process of the airport and the flight. For some passengers, the whole experience leaves them feeling stressed, emotionally drained and dreading having to repeat the whole experience on the way home. Understanding the psychological processes at play before and during the flight can help us feel ready for take-off and resilient to potential stress that we may encounter. 

Potential stress can begin long before we even reach the airport. Leaving the house secure, making arrangements for pets, having to work long hours prior to taking a holiday and the journey to the airport, can leave us vulnerable to feeling tired and stressed when we arrive at the airport. Also, the anticipation of a long-haul flight, keeping children entertained and concerns about turbulence can add to additional stress. Arriving at the airport already in a state of stress can leave us vulnerable and sensitive to additional scenarios that we may encounter at the airport and on the plane. Taking some practical steps whilst arranging to leave home, on the way to the airport and planning for the journey to the airport can leave us feeling more relaxed, less stressed and in a calmer state of mind when we arrive at the airport. 

Whilst at the airport, we may encounter long queues at check-in, flight delays and delays at security which can also cause additional stress. When travelling most of us have expectations about the whole experience which may include having a relatively seamless experience at the airport and getting away on time. When these expectations are not met and we are left dealing with a situation that we would rather not be facing and that is also out of our control, this can cause irritability, stress and feeling hopeless. As a result, we may expend a lot of emotional energy fighting the situation we are in, experiencing the physical symptoms of stress and feeling hopeless to change the result. Should we find ourselves in such a position, acceptance of the situation we are in and acceptance of the reality of our inability to change that, can help us focus on what we can control, our reaction and attitude to the situation we are facing and preservation of our emotional energy and resilience. Acceptance of the uncertainty of travel, flexible adaptation, and management of our stress reaction can help us feel more in control and less stressed should we find ourselves delayed or faced with an unplanned scenario.     

When we board the plane, again we may have expectations about airline, crew and our fellow passengers. When we enter a plane, we enter a contained environment that we share with strangers and again this can cause stress. Passenger reaction can range from asserting their right to space on the plane, being unyielding to accommodate other passengers and being hostile to crew and passengers. Some passengers who are nervous fliers may board the plane already having ingested alcohol or medication to help them feel more relaxed. Different passengers behave differently and also employ different coping mechanisms. Again acceptance of the temporary shared environment, managing expectations of others and crew and also employing healthy coping mechanisms can help manage any potential stress. Healthy coping mechanisms may include using books or music to help us feel relaxed, doing mindfulness exercises whilst onboard and watching our alcohol intake. Doing so can help mitigate any stress we may encounter.

Holidays are a time to break the routine, have a change of environment and engage in some fun activities. Being aware of the potential stress that we encounter prior to the holiday, can leave us ready for take-off and psychologically stronger to get the best out of our time away and come back feeling refreshed and rejuvenated from the break.

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Written by Dr Mark Rackley CPsychol AFBPsS

I have many years experience in working as a Psychologist in both the UK and Ireland. My work involves helping adults, couples and adolescents (age 13 and above) who are dealing with depression, anxiety and other difficulties. I am trained in a variety of psychological therapies, including person-centered therapy, psychodynamic therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy. I wor… Read more

Written by Dr Mark Rackley CPsychol AFBPsS

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