Coping with Stress: Considerations for Airline Pilots Facing Challenging Times

Health Watch

By F/O Marion “Sonny” Ruff (PSA)

Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to everyday experiences. Everyone deals with occasional family and financial issues or other confrontations that can make your blood pressure rise. In fact, stress is the body’s way of protecting you, helping you stay focused and alert in critical decision-making situations.

As airline pilots, we also cope with irregular schedules, traveling through multiple time zones, extended periods away from home, and other obstacles that automatically come with the job. More recently, we’ve been forced to confront the coronavirus pandemic, its effect on the aviation industry, and the recently announced furloughs and corresponding downgrades and other changes that go with them. Needless to say, airline pilots have a lot on their minds right now.

The first step in controlling stress is to recognize the symptoms. Those who suffer from this condition often exhibit feelings of irritability, fatigue, and a sense of being overwhelmed. They often tend to withdraw from casual conversations and keep to themselves. Stress can cause physical ailments like headaches, neck or back pain, a rapid heartbeat, and difficulty falling and staying asleep.

Managing stress can be as simple as routinely exercising, eating right, watching your alcohol intake, being well rested, and spending time with your friends and family. These steps can foster a healthy lifestyle and help you confront routine stress head on. In fact, just talking to someone about the challenges you’re dealing with can have a surprisingly therapeutic effect.

Meditation is another available tool. Mindfulness exercises can help you be more aware of what’s happening around you and allow you to better control your reactions to your environment.

While the human body may be designed to manage small amounts of stress, we aren’t equipped to cope with long-term, chronic stress. For pilots, exposure to such stress can result in cockpit performance issues. Our ability to communicate effectively can be compromised, and we may feel distracted or disengaged from the important tasks at hand.

Aside from health implications, chronic stress can lead to anxiety and depression. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another concern. PTSD is triggered by a disturbing event that we either experience or witness. Symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, intense anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the incident. Cases of PTSD require immediate attention and warrant their own special protocol.

Remember that a good first step for pilots to consider before preparing to fly is to review the FAA’s IMSAFE acronym to assess personal well-being. The “S” in IMSAFE stands for the stress that can affect your judgment or performance. If you feel overwhelmed and are having trouble concentrating because of the challenges in your life, reach out to ALPA’s Pilot Peer Support (PPS) program. A component of the union’s Air Safety Organization Pilot Assistance structure, PPS provides a network of pilot volunteers who are available 24/7 to listen and offer confidential, nonjudgmental support to ALPA members in both the United States and Canada (see “Elevating ALPA’s Pilot Peer Support Program”).

If your airline doesn’t have its own pilot support program, call PPS at 309-PPS-ALPA (309-777-2572) or visit the PPS webpage for more information. This is a great opportunity to have a confidential conversation with someone who understands your job and the challenges you face.

Keep in mind that some typical stress symptoms can be signs of other health problems. The doctor you visit for routine checkups or your aviation medical examiner can evaluate your physical well-being and rule out these conditions. If stress is to blame for what you’re physically experiencing, PPS can also help guide you to a professional counselor who can work with you.

ALPA has other programs to help you get back to your “A” game through its Pilot Assistance structure and other national committees. Remember that stress is a natural part of life. What matters most is how you handle it. Talk to a pilot peer and get to the root of what’s bothering you. You’ll be glad you did.

Editor’s note: F/O Marion “Sonny” Ruff has a doctorate in nursing practice and is dual certified in emergency and family medicine. While he continues to practice these skills, he’s also an ALPA Pilot Peer Support instructor.

This article was originally published in the September 2020 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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