Slaying the 3 a.m. Dragons

By Cheryl A. Cage
Air Line Pilot,
February 2003, p. 18

Although these suggestions are not earth-shattering, they can make the difference between fighting the 3 a.m. dragons on a nightly basis or slaying them and actually getting a good night’s sleep.

Feeling a bit anxious lately? Worrying about everything from the light bill to world peace? Waking up at 3 a.m. with the worry dragons breathing down your neck?

Allow me to begin by stating the obvious: the past 18 months have been an unprecedented time of worry for the majority of Americans. Airline employees seem to have received a double dose of stress. It can all add up to feeling as though you have lost control of your destiny.

But hold the phone for good news! During my years of consulting with pilots facing adversity (airline bankruptcy, termination, health issues), I have identified four specific steps that can help you prioritize your worries and regain control of your outlook and, ultimately, your destiny.

Big results can come from a little focused effort. Although these suggestions are not earth-shattering, they can make the difference between fighting the 3 a.m. dragons on a nightly basis or slaying them and actually getting a good night’s sleep. Let’s begin.

Make a list of what you can and cannot control

Begin by acknowledging areas of your life you can control and those you cannot. Some suggestions:

CAN control

You have tremendous control over your attitude, fitness, finances, personal decisions, morals, job performance, and your behavior as a partner, a parent, and a friend.

CANNOT control

You have no control over the outcome of the stock market, natural or man-made catastrophes, past decisions (I should have taken that job with ABC Airlines instead of DEF Airlines), or whether someone likes you or shares your opinion about an important issue.

Put this list in your wallet, or tape it to the refrigerator door. Revisit the list whenever you feel yourself fixating on something you cannot control and strive to refocus your energies onto an area you can control.

Hold regular worry sessions

I have noticed that one of the main reasons for the (sometimes incredibly) intensive family stress during difficult times is that families do not take the time to communicate in a structured manner.

Recognizing that we all worry and grieve in different ways is important. Some people need to talk, some people need silence, and some need to get involved with an outside group. None of these ways is wrong—they are simply different. Allowing your partner (and other family members) to worry and grieve in a way that best suits them is vital. (Initially, anyway, but you don’t want anyone sitting in a dark room for more than a day or two!)

But no matter how you worry, or what type of worrier you are sharing your life with, one of the most important steps toward reclaiming control is to express the fears and then gather ideas for weathering the current storm. Toward this goal, you need to plan regular worry sessions.

Set a time for you and your partner to have your first worry session. (If you are single, you should still conduct these sessions. I regularly use this process when I have a business decision only I can make.)

Before your first session, each partner should make a list of primary worries. At the beginning of the first session, exchange lists. After reading each other’s list, take 15 minutes each (no longer, or you will simply be repeating yourself) to clarify your main worries.

After clarification, the next exercise is to merge and prioritize your lists. Once this is done, you will have concrete items upon which to focus, instead of vague feelings of worry and fear. This concrete list offers a blueprint to help you decide on a specific plan of action to begin to minimize or alleviate the merged worries.

For purposes of example, let’s assume you are a married pilot with two children and are currently on furlough. Your initial individual lists may look like this:

Your worry list

• Deciding whether to try to find just any type of interim job or to start developing another long-term skill to make me less dependent on aviation (as in, should I go back to school?)

• Keeping health insurance

• Making mortgage payments

Your partner’s worry list

• Keeping medical insurance

• Making mortgage payments

• Finding child care while working

• Having savings

Combined list

Short-term goals

Make sure that mortgage payments and health insurance payments can be met. Partner A (the nonflying partner who possesses an immediately marketable business skill) will focus on finding a full-time job. Partner B (the pilot) will be in charge of the kids each morning from 9 a.m. to noon while Partner A focuses on his/her job search.

Because we agree that one parent must always be home for child care, Partner B will search for a part-time job. This job should pay at least enough to cover monthly medical insurance payments. Partner B will have afternoons to pursue part-time job opportunities.

We both acknowledge that the most important immediate goal is to find jobs. This might mean taking a job that does not necessarily appeal to us as a long-term career.

Long-term goals

After our short-term goals are met, we will then begin to investigate long-term jobs or opportunities that will make us less dependent on aviation; however, returning to the cockpit is a priority.

We will not worry about our savings account balance until mortgage and medical benefits are secured.

If you don’t review your finances at the first worry session, make sure that you review your finances, together, as soon as possible. (Recently a woman complained to me that she couldn’t get her husband to sit down with her and review their retirement plans; consequently, she was a nervous wreck about their finances.)

Outside of these sessions, try to keep discussions of your worries to a minimum.

Have family gatherings

Setting aside time each week to spend leisure time with your partner and your family is absolutely imperative. During these gatherings, agree not to discuss finances, your job search, etc. Share an activity you all enjoy and agree to keep conversations positive.

Maintain your fitness

Regular exercise seems to offer an ability to handle adversity with greater ease. Whether you take a ˝-hour walk or run 10 miles each morning doesn’t seem to matter. Many individuals find exercise a time of quiet contemplation. Uncovering your best solutions during exercise is not unusual.

In ending, allow me one more obvious observation: the airline industry is cyclical. Although the circumstances surrounding this recent downturn are very different than anything we’ve ever experienced before, one fact remains: we have all faced adversity before and triumphed. There is no reason why we can’t continue our track record of success!

Cheryl Cage is president of Cage Consulting, Inc. Review Cage Consulting’s Job Search Services and Books at or call us at 1-888-899-CAGE.