Photo from NBAA
According to the World Health Organization (WHO),an estimated 970 million people struggled with some sort of mental health issue this year. Approximately one in four people will struggle with it throughout their lifetime. The United States alone accounts for the highest population of individuals with mental illnesses and is recorded at just over 50% in 2022. Just like many other people, pilots deal with mental struggles too, but due to the stigma about mental health in aviation, they are less likely to seek support. Airline pilot Reyene O’Shaughnessy explains to Flyingmag how, “pilots believe that being vulnerable, and sharing feelings or struggles, such as anxiety, depression, and chronic stress, would be at best humiliating or embarrassing, and, at worst, the end of their flying career.”
One of the first and most important things taught to pilots is the IMSAFE acronym: Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue, Emotions/Hunger. This is a personal checklist used to identify and mitigate any physiological hazards that could compromise flight safety. Mental health should be included in this checklist and cared for with the same magnitude as the rest of the components. In such a stressful field, it is crucial that pilots not only maintain their physical health but their mental health as well.
Here are 5 ways that pilots can take care of their mental well-being:
1. Recognize early signs of burnout
The WHO describes burnout as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is typical in high-stress jobs, such as those in the aviation industry. Preventing burnout early on by recognizing symptoms or triggers is key to protecting mental health in the long run. Some common symptoms and early signs of burnout include persistent tiredness, loss of enthusiasm, reduced work performance, enhanced anxiety, insomnia, mood swings, and even headaches. If not addressed, burnout can lead to reduced productivity and saps energy, leaving someone feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful which can have a negative domino effect on a person’s life and career. By identifying these symptoms early, evaluating options, and being mindful, the risk of burnout can be decreased.
2. Prioritize sleep
According to John Caldwell, a psychologist at Fatigue Science, “fatigue-related performance problems in aviation have been consistently underestimated and underappreciated, even though decades of research on pilots and other operational personnel has established that fatigue from insufficient sleep significantly degrades basic cognitive performance, psychological mood, and fundamental piloting skills.”
He wrote in Psychological Science that to improve sleep hygiene, actions such as the 321 method can be practiced: Three hours before bed with no alcohol or caffeine, two hours before bed with no more work, and one hour before bed having no screen time – phone, TV and computer.
3. Fueling and hydrating properly
Eating fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats and carbohydrates provides the body with the energy and strength to perform at its best. Eating poorly can lead to a higher risk of diseases and provide minimal energy to the body. Subsequently, staying properly hydrated helps to regulate bodily functions, prevent infections, deliver nutrients, and allow the body to function at its best performance. Just like a plane requires fuel, so does the pilot.
4. Don’t compare your progress to the progress of others
Self-comparison is a destructive behavior that can lead to self-doubt, envy, frustration, low self-esteem and hopelessness that can severely impact mental health. Self-comparison is a normal but toxic human behavior that occurs when others seek to enhance their self-esteem.
One must remember that everyone’s lives move at a different and unique pace. Pilots can get easily sucked into this toxic behavior because there will always be a pilot who has more hours than them, more ratings than them or more experience than them. Instead of using comparison as a way to tear themselves down, they can use it as motivation to continue their progress.
Other ways to minimize self-comparison are to practice gratitude, step back from toxic comparative thoughts, and recognize your accomplishments and how far you’ve come.
5. Hold yourself accountable and seek support when necessary
Accountability is an important part of good mental health and well-being because it’s about taking ownership of your self-development by understanding and working through the things that you have direct control over, and making the conscious decision to do better every day.
By setting goals, maintaining realistic expectations, celebrating wins no matter how small, and having self-compassion, people can enhance their mental well-being. Knowing personal limits and when to reach out for support is crucial as well, whether it be from a family member, friend, or pet.
Although mental struggles can be worked through alone, it does not mean that they have to be worked through alone.