When I’m flying at 35,000 feet, and the plane starts to jerk, then shutter, then shift in space, side to side, I have a routine I go through to prevent myself from sliding down into the pit of reflexive, animal terror.
I stop and take note of what’s happening.
I smile, barking a laugh if I need to, sometimes startling the people sitting next to me.
And I marvel at how remarkable the whole situation is.
Hundreds of people flying incredibly high above the planet. The technology and know-how required is immense. The wings themselves are made up of many shifting pieces, all of which work in tandem with other flaps and air-flippers around the vehicle, the entire ginormous mass held up by innovation and ingenuity and infrastructure.
It’s typically this last point that pulls me from whatever downward spiral I might otherwise experience. Rather than focusing on the horrible down-swing my day could take, I fixate on the minutiae that I don’t always take the time to appreciate.
I allow myself to intellectually deep-dive into as many specifics as I can remember, and expound upon that. To think about how many individual concepts had to be theorized and tested, iterated and technologized, for that one plane to be there, in the air, taking me to where I was going.
How many work-hours and resources went not just into that one vessel, but the equipment and vehicles the ground-crew used? Who developed, and over what span of time, the language and code-system used by the airport staff, and the pilots in the cockpit, and expressed via letters and numbers and graphics on the walls and tail fins and runways?
Being capable of awe, of drifting into an appreciative, thoughtful state whenever you feel like it, is a really excellent skill to hone. It’s important not just for your visit to the Grand Canyon or the Guggenheim, but also for moments when you need something to be amazed by as a diversion.
It’s not easy to distract yourself from impulsive fear, but it’s possible. You have to allow the part of your brain that makes you human (which thinks in elaborate, non-tangible concepts) supersede the part that thinks there might be tigers hiding in the overhead baggage compartment.
This process isn’t only useful in dangerous or frightening situations.
When experiencing something you’d like to remember, when seeing something new and amazing, when feeling your mood drop for some reason, pulling you into a negative funk — stop, smile, marvel. It accomplishes the same thing for a different reason: you decide how you’d like to respond to what’s happening around you and what kind of experience you’d like to have, rather than succumbing to boredom or pessimism or sadness.
The smile is a key part of this process for me. I find that I’m far more capable of wrangling the reins away from my lizard-brain when I confuse it for a moment, responding with a dark sort of humor when something goes wrong, rather than with the usual heart-sinking, helpless despondency.
And stopping, noticing, recognizing what you’re doing, what route your brain is taking, is core to the whole thing working. By doing this, you’re able to slowly make changes to your response patterns over time. It’s not always going to make sense to laugh when something goes wrong, but 99% of the time it will make a lot more sense and be a lot more pleasant than the alternatives.
This is a skill that one develops over time, but I think you’ll find, if you give it an honest shot, it will probably help at least a little when next you find yourself coping with the angst-trio of a turbulent plane, overhead-compartment tigers, and the myriad difficulties and discomforts associated with modern airline travel.