Nervous flyer? Here are 12 mindful tips for a more relaxing flight
Listen to boring music (but remove headphones during turbulence), and other top tips
In the event of turbulence, sit calmly with both feet planted firmly on the floor, hands on your knees, head upright. Remove your headphones, put away your book, and focus on your breath. Photograph: iStock
Travel is exciting but the experience of travelling can be stressful. Modern air travel is particularly frustrating. Common negative effects include irritation, emotionality, anxiety and jet-lag. Fifteen per cent of men are more likely to cry at a movie on an airplane than at home. The altered oxygen levels in airplane cabins also affect memory and concentration, making air travel significantly more stressful than any of us would wish.
I have often wondered if lessons from mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism could help with some of these problems? Help us cope better in the air? What follows is a guide to addressing some of these travel challenges, drawn from a year of daily meditation outlined in my book, The Doctor Who Sat For A Year, combining traditional medical advice with additional psychological techniques to help you get through airports and flights without too much psychological damage.
In order to minimise the negative effects of travel, there is much psychological sense in the usual travel advice: plan trips with care, especially when travelling with children; spend extra money and time if they ease transitions in the journey (leaving plenty of time for meals, rest and connections); bring twice as much money as you think you need, and half as much luggage.
If you are flying, you must also prepare yourself for the inevitable psychological turbulence of modern air travel. Mindfulness and acceptance can help greatly. Here are 12 mindful tips for a more relaxing flight.
1. You must accept a certain loss of control both at airports and in the air. Accept the facts that you will queue up many times at the airport; the queues will be unfair; and people will get away with boorish, unsocial behaviour. This is inevitable. You cannot change it; you do not run the airport and you cannot re-design human nature.
2. If there are more than two lines at check-in or security, you are statistically unlikely to be in the fastest one. If there are 10 lines, there’s just a 10 per cent chance you’re in the fastest one. There’s a 90 per cent chance that you’re not. And yet we feel annoyed if any one line is faster than ours. Do not fight this apparent injustice. Accept it. Changing lines is futile: if there are more than two lines, you’re statistically unlikely to switch to the fastest one. You can’t beat the numbers on this (or on anything). Breathe.
3. Proceed mindfully through the airport. Do not wear headphones during transitions from car to check-in area, security to shopping, boarding area to airplane. Move with awareness and connection: this is a journey, not a dream, so stay connected with your surroundings.
4. The usual travel advice is to stay well hydrated and visit the bathroom whenever you can. This advice applies when travelling by foot, bicycle, car, bus, train, camel or hot air balloon, but needs adjustment for airports, which are basically vast networks of bathrooms joined together by shops and runways. So, when in airports, be sure to stay well hydrated but maybe only visit the bathroom on arrival at the airport, in response to interim need (see how it goes), and immediately prior to boarding. (This advice does not apply to Ranchi airport in northern India where you should use any bathroom you can find and be deeply thankful that you found one at all.)
5. At the boarding gate, do not stand in line waiting to board the airplane. Stay seated in the boarding area until most people have boarded. The positives of this strategy (sitting down, quietude, control) greatly exceed the negatives (standing up, possibly having your cabin baggage placed in the hold).
6. On the airplane, take time to settle into your seat, organise your reading or listening material with care, and pack away your belongings tidily.
7. Relax. Your logical brain knows that travelling by airplane is overwhelmingly safer than travelling by car. Your emotional side might not respond to this logic but it will respond to a calm mind and a settled physical demeanour. We make ourselves anxious by acting anxious. Again, breathe.
8. If you get especially anxious while flying, listening to mindless music is an excellent idea. The perfect airplane song is probably “Ooh Ooh Baby” from Britney Spears’s justly neglected 2007 album Blackout. The chorus is especially undemanding: the word “baby” is repeated 23 times. Compared to this, Taylor Swift’s lyrics are Dostoyevskian. “Teeth” by Lady Gaga is a new contender for best mindless airplane song ever but I still think Britney shades it.
9. In the event of turbulence, sit calmly with both feet planted firmly on the floor, hands on your knees, head upright. Remove your headphones, put away your book, and focus on your breath. Use the experience as an exercise in yielding control. Acknowledge and embrace the powerlessness: it is paradoxically liberating. Like all forms of liberty, it can be scary. But while you cannot control the turbulence in the slightest, you can control your reaction to it. Reflect explicitly on your lack of agency and simply abide. Link your anxiety with the turbulence and then feel both pass, like an unwanted thought in meditation or an unwanted emotion in life. They all pass.
10. When the airplane lands, stand up immediately only if you desperately need to stretch your legs. Otherwise, there is absolutely no point spending 20 minutes standing in a weird, cramped position waiting to “de-plane”. You will just become restless and agitated while everyone takes their bags down, doubles back for their coats, and organises children off the plane. Stand up only when you can disembark. Again, the positives of this strategy (sitting down, quietude, control) greatly exceed the negatives (standing up, agitating yourself, getting irritated).
11. Once off the airplane, visit the first bathroom you encounter, or possibly the second if the line is too long in the first. Never wait for the third: it is being cleaned.
12. Finally: stay calm, fly like Buddha and remember to enjoy your flight. You’ll do it all again on the way home.
Brendan Kelly is Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin and author of The Doctor Who Sat For A Year, published by Gill.