- Now more than ever, air travel has become an anxious mindscape.
- Airlines profit from creating customer anxiety.
- There are tactics you can employ to preserve your mental well-being in transit.
The airport is an unruly place. It’s opposite world. People who otherwise rarely move are seen sprinting to Cinnabon. High fashion is Birkenstocks and yoga pants. Happy hour starts at 7:00 am. Stepping over sleeping adults in fetal positions is expected. And all purchases are made within a 400% inflationary market.
The Boarding Process: Humanity Has Left the Building
In few other affairs is your life status so publicly displayed than during the airline boarding process. This is by design. Airlines publicly grade us by airport megaphone. It’s a grandstand to reward or humble customers based on how much money those individuals have we spend with them. The airline credo? “If you want to travel humanely, you’re going to pay.”
All airlines do the same thing: They move people from one place to another via the troposphere. The way in which they begin their process, however, can greatly vary, with the differences most evident during onboarding.
As soon as the gate attendant blows into a hot mic, people leap to their feet into pole position, blocking all pathways to the jetway ready to blitz the ticket scanner. There are notable reasons we act like stressed Billy goats during the boarding process, including the following:
- Mob Mentality. A study found that as few as five people can influence a crowd of 100 to follow suit.1 At the gate we leave our common sense to follow these Pied Pipers to a closed, retractable belt barrier 12 feet away, where we wait for the next gate announcement.
- Competition. We want to be the first on and the first off the plane. It's why people jockey for the airplane aisle as soon as the seatbelt sign dings off. God forbid if a senior citizen or toddler tries to disembark first. It often becomes every passenger for him/herself, as if airports and planes are vacuums of courtesies.
Impatience. People crowd the gate under the illusion that it will get them to their destination faster. A superior use of time would be to find nearby space and do some birthing squats and jumping jacks to avoid the onset of DVT.
Baggage space. Planes almost always have enough overhead bin space for every passenger. In fact, newer planes have increased bin space.2 Yet people will still drop their bags on unsuspecting heads.
California-based clinical psychologist Tom McDonagh says, “There has been a measurable uptick in clients who divulge anxiety about travel. Oftentimes clients will express worrisome thoughts about what could go wrong on their flight." These types of cognitive distortions are "future tripping" thoughts. "Get into the habit of seeing anxious thoughts as a symptom, and not reality, to help alleviate your stress," adds McDonagh.
Why Can’t the Airlines Lose My Emotional Baggage?
The airlines employ the art of anxiety seed-planting so you’ll pay a little more to check your bags or opt for earlier boarding. In their defense, airline margins are small and they depend on such fees to remain profitable. In 2021, airlines in the U.S. made an estimated $4.3 billion in baggage fees alone. The scariest thing about flying today are those fees. Which begs the question: "Is that a bag you’re checking, or a griefcase?"
To maximize profits, airlines create the illusion of grossly limited bin space, while continuing to splice boarding groups into ever-thinner stratifications. Consider the many tiers of the boarding processes to understand the psychological game you’ve entered. United boards in six groups, American has nine, and Delta has 10. You board according to your value to the airline.
I ride “basic economy” — the airborne proletariat class. We roll onto the jet bridge like the end credits of a sad movie. Airline personnel avoid making eye contact with us, knowing we barely chipped in for gas. Our shame is palpable. In the future, airlines could operate under any array of boarding and seating procedures, such as including bleachers or removing the seats and tethering each of us to a standing pole. But rest easy, Marco Polo, there are strategies to quell your travel angst.
10 Tactics to Less Stressful, if Not Stress-Free Travel
- Counter the murmuring lies of anxiety. "Some people are struggling intensely with 'contamination anxiety.' They're worried about catching Covid on a plane," McDonagh says. "We try to help these clients by discussing possibility versus probability. When it comes to fear, we often overassume but just because something is possible, does not mean it's probable."
- Practice makes progress. Build up your safe-risk tolerance prior to travel day to develop resiliency for the unfamiliar. Think overnight or weekend daytrip, not Burning Man. The goal is to not make your upcoming trip the first big, new experience since Covid and Zoom.
- Bring a “bug-out” bag. Include all the travel-soothing accoutrements you need for your mental and physical well-being. These might include books, electronics, snacks, medications, that silly neck pillow, and the contact information of those in your support circle.
- Consider avoiding caffeine and alcohol. Both can leave you feeling dehydrated in a desiccating fuselage. Moreover, they can both increase anxiety. Anxiety kicks in with caffeine, booze, and no control over the window shade.
Normalize feeling abnormal. Remind yourself that it is 100% normal to have worries or stress related to travel. While this skill might seem overly simplistic, it’s incredibly powerful. Telling yourself, “It makes sense that I feel this way given the situation,” is often the reassurance your brain needs. Normalize and nama-stay who you are.
Name it to tame it. Labeling emotions is a proven way to reduce their intensity. This process uses your prefrontal cortex, which brings your more reasonable, thoughtful self back online. It can downregulate the anxiety center of the brain that contributes to stress. Do this by asking yourself, “At this moment, how am I feeling given this situation?” Talking to yourself is a sign of higher intelligence — especially when referring to yourself in the third person.3 But use a sock puppet if you want to make a statement.
Breathing. An effective way to flip from fight-or-flight response to the rest-and-digest state is by doing the physiological sigh.4 Take a short inhale through your nose, pause for a moment, and then inhale through your nose again. Then slowly exhale through your mouth. It’s a process our bodies do naturally when soothing from an emotional experience. Imagine a young child or politician at the end of a crying fit and you can see the double intake that naturally happens. Take 5-10 physiological sighs as needed.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR). Muscle tension contributes to stress. To reduce muscle tension, intentionally constrict your muscles for 30-60 seconds. This constriction causes the muscle to be less tense after the constriction period. Try to focus on one muscle group at a time while seated, such as your feet/lower legs and work your way up the body. Flying Frankie says relax.
Acceptance. Acceptance does not mean approval. Simply acknowledge things as they are in the moment. Boarding delays, limited leg space, and lavatory lines will likely be part of the experience. Acceptance removes unnecessary suffering. Acceptance challenge accepted!
Don’t fall asleep before the snack cart reaches your row.
If anyone is Christmas shopping for me, I’m a size “window seat.”
University of Leeds. 2008, February 16. Sheep In Human Clothing: Scientists Reveal Our Flock Mentality. ScienceDaily
McCartney, Scott - "Travelers, Welcome to the Revolution in Overhead Bin Size," The Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2021
Kross, E., Bruehlman-Senecal, E., Park, J., Burson, A., Dougherty, A., Shablack, H., Bremner, R., Moser, J., & Ayduk, O. (2014). Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: How you do it matters. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(2), 304–324
Ramirez J. M. (2014). The integrative role of the sigh in psychology, physiology, pathology, and neurobiology. Progress in brain research, 209, 91–129.