The vacation I recently took with the family was wonderful, all except the turbulence on the plane.  I learned a great deal from that 10 minutes. Recently, I have been thinking about it as a metaphor.  During the bumpiness, one of my children thought it was fun until he saw the fear others had for the unexpected lurching. One of my children was immediately interested in why the plane was bumping around, until he noticed the fright on everyone else. Upon recognition of how others interpreted the experience, they both became frightened.

Those around us were gripping their chairs tightly, groaning, holding each other’s hands, closing their eyes and breathing deeply. These cues to my children suggested that something was wrong. Initially, my smiling along with my youngest, to match his laughs and giggles, only lasted so long in the face of the external cues of fear. I switched my tactic, I went with my older child’s questions of etiology and started explaining where turbulence comes from, a more intellectual reframe. This intervention only lasted long enough for them to glance around and see other peoples’ responses before they both no longer cared why, but instead wanted to know when….it would be over.

We determine threat by sensory cues around us, combined with our memory and emotion. We attempt to interpret how serious the threat is by using perception. Without a memory of turbulence, both of my children only had what they saw, tasted, touched, smelled, and heard combined with feelings.  My experience on the other hand, involved memories of early childhood trips on planes which sometimes involved turbulence.

I realized that I had scaffolding and history which allowed me to create a plan. A luxury I did not have the first time I experienced turbulence. When it was new to me, it was deeply frightening, due to the  dropping sensation in my stomach and the way others on the plane reacted. I still remember that moment even though I was quite young.  Since then, when flying, I have known turbulence was a possibility as I board every flight.  I know that turbulence exists and so, my limbic system is not shocked by the possibility but rather shocked by the occurrence. I know turbulence is a possibility and I know many on the plane with me will react with fear and disturbance. I can plan for this using my cognition, before it happens, which regulates me while it is happening, which keeps me calm enough to move through it and process it more rapidly.

This metaphor translates to a lot of life’s challenges. Once we lose a loved one, we know the pain of deep grief and loss. We are never shocked again that life is not guaranteed. The possibility of losing someone remains with us forever. We can live our life sharing our love more often and more readily so we don’t experience guilt and shame over forgetting we are all mortal. The same is true for turbulence.  Once we have experienced it, we know it can happen at any moment while in the air on a plane and can build care plans around this possibility. When we know the possibility of stress, we can avoid some of the negative implications of shock and move right toward applying our coping strategies.

In the end, for my children, other sensory experiences helped them stay available enough to my reassurance to stay calm and to persevere. I reminded them to breathe and focus on the clouds outside and on my hands holding theirs. I reminded them to count backwards from 10, like we do in our family, when we are having big feelings. I reminded them to look at my face and see that I was not scared. I told them over and over again that I was with them, that I loved them, and it would be over soon. We all need these reminders when we are going through a stressor for the first time.

There are critically important steps of making meaning out of life’s hardships and airline turbulence can be a good place to learn/practice.

  1. Create a plan for how to evaluate whether you are individually feeling stress.  Devise a way to notice personal cues so that you can determine how stressful a situation is for you.
  2. Develop a plan for what to do at different levels of stress to remain in a threshold of stress.  Remaining with enough anxiety to be motivated to solve it, but not too much that you feel frozen by it is perfect.  
  3. Be as present through challenges and difficulties as possible by utilizing grounding/centering/mindfulness strategies, so you can fully realize what you need to know/learn.
  4. If you are having difficulty staying present, ask someone else for help to talk you through it so you can learn yourself and your abilities.
  5. Review/reflect on adversity/challenges to learn what worked and what didn’t.  Remember adversity as opportunities for growth rather than pain.

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