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Managing Mental Health in the Not-So-Friendly Skies

Flight Attendant

By Anna McKenzie

In the months since mainstream air travel resumed after COVID-19 lockdowns, flight attendants and pilots have encountered an unexpected source of turbulence. Unruly passengers have engaged in physical fights, screaming matches, harassment, inappropriate conduct, and even dangerous behavior, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Some are angry over mask rules; others seem to be suffering from mental distress. Flight staff members are dealing with their own fears and anxiety due to COVID; for some, the added stress and even harm from disorderly passengers has caused mental health issues and addiction. As a result, managing mental health has become a much more important skill in the workplace, especially in the not-so-friendly skies.

Flight staff members are dealing with their own fears and anxiety due to COVID; for some, the added stress and even harm from disorderly passengers has caused mental health issues and addiction.

Mental Health Management in the COVID (and Post-COVID) Era

Upon its insurgence, COVID-19 grounded flights and threw the airline industry into a state of limbo. Many flight attendants and pilots could do nothing but wait. Job uncertainty and safety concerns precipitated a spike in depression and anxiety among flight staff, according to PsyPost.org. When air travel began to increase again, concerns abounded. Mask mandates were instated as a defense against a rapidly-mutating disease that spreads through respiratory droplets, especially in close quarters. Noncompliance has resulted in costly delays. Though vaccines are being distributed, anti-vaccination movements have hampered the widespread inoculation that would make air travel safer. All the while, flight attendants and pilots have been asked to suspend their own fears in order to resume work aboard daily flights.

Fear of disease and death, fear of the death of loved ones, uncertainty about the future, and a loss of freedom and mobility have all contributed to mental health distress for people around the world. During the silence of lockdowns and quarantine, many were unable to express their emotions over COVID’s repercussions. Inevitably, the intense mental health strain has caused some to suffer complete mental health breakdowns. Angry outbursts, violent behavior, increased use of alcohol and drugs, and psychotic episodes have been more frequent in the days since life has returned to “normal.”

Incidents aboard airline flights have been in the spotlight, especially since dozens of passengers are witnesses, and almost all are carrying smartphones with video capabilities. These incidents draw attention to the dire need for mental health management, a subject thrown into high relief during COVID, and now worth continued discussion as case numbers begin to decrease. What should it look like, especially since negative circumstances may not be escapable? What coping skills do we need to develop to maintain a healthy mental state?

How Stress and Addiction Are Related to Mental Health

Mental health management begins with stress management. We consider stress a common part of our lives, but its constant or increased presence can erode our mental health, says Mayo Clinic experts. While we can’t always excuse ourselves from situations that cause us stress, we can learn how to detect stress and mitigate its impact on our physiological and psychosocial well-being.

PilotsWhen we feel threatened, our brains respond by signaling the release of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline in our bodies. These hormones help us respond faster and focus so that we can escape the threat. This heightened response is designed to help us, but if the switch stays “on,” we will begin to feel burned-out. Exhaustion will impair our thinking. Hypervigilance will hamper our sleep patterns. Suppressed emotions related to fear will turn into anxiety. Our reasoning skills and emotional balance will begin to suffer. Even our physical health will begin to deteriorate in the wake of pervasive stress.

What’s the remedy? Some turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the sharpness of stress and the painful thoughts and feelings that accompany it. Flight staff may be increasingly vulnerable to addiction due to the stress of their work. But substance abuse, though seen as a short-term fix, can quickly devolve into a long-term problem. Instead, we must choose healthy ways to respond to stress.

Managing Mental Health in the Workplace

Here are a few healthy ways to manage your mental health in the workplace, at 35,000 feet, and at home:

  • Practice mindfulness

In a mindful state, you can choose to accept your emotions as signals that alert you to important thoughts you need to deal with. You can also decide to release your emotions instead of continuing to dwell on them.

  • Breathing exercises and gratitude

Many of us take very shallow breaths when we’re feeling stressed, limiting the oxygen that’s reaching our already overtaxed brains. So, take deep, regular breaths and think of things that you enjoy and appreciate.

  • Use music and movement

Music and movement can help us channel our emotions in healthy ways. We can feel the energy in our bodies without feeling constrained by that energy. Listening to your favorite songs or walking can measurably reduce your stress level.

  • Distract

When all else fails, sometimes a strategic distraction is needed. Talk to someone. Work a crossword puzzle. Start reading a book. Sometimes a well-appointed distraction can derail and disempower negative thinking spirals.

Help for Addiction and Mental Health Issues

If you’ve been suffering from addiction and mental health issues, don’t wait any longer to get the assistance you need in order to heal. COVID-19 has caused high levels of stress among the general population worldwide, and some professions (like airline workers) have taken the brunt of the mental health effects. At The Meadows Texas, we employ research-backed methods and evidence-based treatments to help people achieve and maintain recovery. If you have been struggling, please get in touch with our team today. We would love to help you start your journey to health and healing.