How to Keep Calm During Extreme Turbulence

A bumpy flight may remind us of danger. You're safe. But how can you feel safe?

Posted Jan 07, 2020

In turbulence, movements of your plane can lead you to believe you are in danger. Movements you are not used to can trigger the release of stress hormones which, in turn, cause feelings you can easily interpret as signaling danger. In spite of these feelings, there is no danger at all to anyone wearing a seat belt. Nevertheless, turbulence remains an emotional issue.

1. If There's Going to Be Turbulence, Why Don't They Cancel the Flight?

Somewhere on the planet, it is raining. It may be where you are. It may be elsewhere. It's the same with turbulence. Turbulence is constantly being produced by jet stream activity, thunderstorm activity, and the sun heating the earth. Anytime you fly, there may be turbulence somewhere on your route.

  • Airlines don't know whether there is going to be turbulence or how bad it will be.
  • This is because forecasts only predict where conditions that may produce turbulence may—or may not—exist.
  • Since turbulence is not a safety issue for the plane or for passengers, provided they wear their seat belt, there is no reason to cancel a flight.

Yes, some passengers feel afraid when experiencing turbulence, but fear does not mean danger.

2. If there is no danger, then why are all these people getting hurt in turbulence?

Though turbulence injuries are unfortunate, they are somewhat self-inflicted. The only passengers hurt in turbulence are those who noncompliant. Seat belts are supposed to be worn whenever seated, whether the seat belt sign is on or not. 

Did you ever hear of a pilot being injured in turbulence? No, because pilots wear their seat belts. Instead of fearing injury, prevent injury. Wear your seat belt.

The media make a big thing of it when passengers are injured. The media rarely point out that the injured were noncompliant with the seat belt rule. The actual number of people injured during turbulence may surprise you. Nine passengers were injured in 2017. Twenty-nine the year before. And 11 the year before that. All were noncompliant with instructions to wear their seat belt when seated whether the seat belt sign is illuminated or not.

3. Why Does It Feel as If the Plane Is Going Down?

Nature programmed the amygdala to react to unexpected downward motion. It instantly releases stress hormones. Feelings caused by the stress hormones grab our attention. Though the amygdala reacts to downward motions when flying in turbulence, the plane is not falling. Something else is going on.

In turbulence, the plane moves up, down, up, down, up, down, up, down. Because downward motions release stress hormones and upward motions do not, we notice the downs but not the ups. This gives us the impression that the plane going down . . . down . . . down . . . down.

4. Why Turbulence Seems Dangerous

Every release of stress hormones in turbulence produces alarm. In a person who has built-in automatic alarm down-regulation, alarm is quickly reduced to curiosity about what is going on. Alarm disappears quickly. It doesn't seem meaningful.

The experience is entirely different in a person who does not have automatic down-regulation: Alarm is not attenuated. The feeling of alarm continues until the stress hormones that cause the fear dissipate. As the turbulence continues, stress hormone release continues, and alarm continues. Rising stress hormone levels flood the person with feelings experienced when in danger, such as a pounding heartbeat, difficulty breathing, sweating, and tension.

5. All the Ingredients for a Panic Attack

The plane feels as if it is going down . . . down . . . down. The passenger believes there is danger. He or she has no control over the situation and no means of escape. That's a perfect recipe for panic.

6. Flying Is Safe, but It Doesn't Feel Safe. What Can I Do?

Understand turbulence. 

7. Visualize What's Holding The Plane Up

When you see a plane in the sky, you can't see anything holding it up. It helps to know what keeps it up there. 

8. Understand That the Plane Only Feels as If It Is Going Down

In your car, when driving on a bumpy road, look at the car ahead of you. How much up-and-down motion do you see? Little if any. The reason you in a car—or you in an airplane—are moved around in your seat is impulse. Consider croquet.

Part of the game is "sending" your opponent's ball. Place your foot on your ball with it touching your opponent's ball and smack your ball with your mallet. Your opponent's ball goes zipping away, but your ball remains under control under your foot. Let's say your mallet is moving 50 MPH when it hits your ball. Initially your ball starts moving at 50 MPH as well, but your foot controls it, so it moves at that speed for only a fraction of an inch. Your opponent's ball is not controlled, however, and when your ball is initially moving 50 MPH, it imparts that speed to the opponent's ball it is touching.

In turbulence, an upward bump may impart an upward speed to 10 MPH to the plane. But the upward speed quickly is reduced to zero. This means the plane moves upward at 10 MPH for only a fraction of an inch. if you are wearing a seat belt, you are like your ball when its movement is controlled by your foot. In the plane, your upward movement is controlled by the seat belt. You might move upward at 10 MPH when the plane bumps in turbulence but the seat belt brings that 10 MPH speed to zero in a fraction of an inch. Passengers not wearing a seat belt are like the opponent's ball which is not controlled. When the plane imparts a 10 MPH upward motion to them, there is no seat belt to quickly bring that speed to zero.

9. Train Your Mind to Not React When the Plane Moves

This is done by repeating a 20-minute exercise daily for about a week. The exercise is taught in my book SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying and in all the SOAR Courses.

10. Build In Automatic Alarm Down-Regulation

This is an excerpt from my book Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia.

The Three-Button Exercise

This is the exercise to use if you notice you are stressed about something. Think of a person with whom you feel able to lower your guard. The signals that cause your guard to let down are transmitted by the person’s face, voice, and touch. I want you to imagine buttons you can press to calm yourself.

  • Imagine your friend has placed on her forehead a sticker with a picture of a button with a 1 on it. Another sticker, showing button number 2, is pasted on her chin. A third sticker, with button number 3, is pasted on the back of her hand.
  • Now imagine feeling alarmed.
  • Imagine putting your finger on the button 1 sticker and then releasing it. Her face comes clearly to mind. You see the softness in the 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 her greet you in a special way. You may notice that the quality of her voice calms you deep inside.
  • Imagine touching the button 3 sticker on the back of her hand. When you release the button, your friend lifts that hand and gives you a reassuring touch or a hug—whatever gesture is appropriate in your relationship with this person. You may notice a calming stillness coming over you.

To establish automatic attenuation, or alarm down-regulation, intentionally remember feeling afraid, then press button 1. Remember the feeling again; press button 2. Bring the feeling to mind again; press button 3. If you practice this daily, soon you will be able to automatically activate your calming parasympathetic nervous system any time you wish.