Resources

Why does turbulence happen?

  • Turbulence is caused by irregular movement of air caused by atmospheric conditions, weather patterns, other aircraft, and thermal currents. It can lead to changes in altitude, speed, and direction of an aircraft. Turbulence is normal and in 99.9% of cases not dangerous, but it can cause discomfort and insecurity. Airlines typically avoid areas known for turbulence and may adjust flight paths or altitudes to minimize it. Turbulence can cause damage to aircraft and injury to passengers and crew in rare cases.

How safe am I really?

  • Turbulence is a common and normal part of flying and most of the time, it is not dangerous. It can cause discomfort for passengers, but modern aircraft are built to withstand all the turbulence you will encounter.

How much can a wing bend before it breaks?

  • Plane manufacturers are required to do frequent destruction tests on all parts of the aircraft including the wings. In the latest tests – all common commercial planes were able to withstand a wing bending over 25 feet. For context – In light turbulence a wing might bend less than a foot, in moderate 1-3 feet, and in high turbulence 1-5 feet. Turbulence will never cause the wing to bend nearly enough to cause a failure.

What are all of these strange sounds?

  • During a flight, there are several sounds that may seem unusual but all of them are perfectly normal. There are 5 sources of noise on an airplane:
  1. Engine noise: The sound of the engines can change as the plane ascends and descends, which is normal.
  2. Wing flaps: The sound of the flaps extending or retracting as the plane takes off or lands is also normal.
  3. Landing gear: The sound of the landing gear being raised or lowered can also be heard during the flight.
  4. Pressurization: The sound of the pressurization system adjusting the cabin pressure can be heard as the plane ascends and descends.
  5. Turbulence: The sound of the plane shaking and rattling due to turbulence can be startling, but it is normal and not a cause for concern.
  • It is important to remember that most of these sounds are normal and are not a cause for concern. However, if you are ever in doubt, it is always best to ask a flight attendant for clarification.

When should I worry?

  • There is an important distinction between productive worrying and unproductive worrying. Unproductive worrying happens when we worry about things in the future, things we can’t control, or things we just don’t know. So for example – if you are worried about a little turbulence because it might get worse in the future – that is not very productive because you don’t know the future. Productive worrying would be if you were worried about light turbulence because you think it may make you throw up – in that case you can take steps to help yourself like take anti-nausea meds, get a bag ready, etc. Your productive worry can help you take action.
  • In the case of flying there are only two triggers you have to worry about:
  1. If you experience weightlessness for more than 5 seconds at a time. This will mean the fight is declining faster than normal. If this happens please ask a flight attendant what’s happening.
  2. If flight attendants are racing around the cabin telling you to brace for impact. Again, this is highly unlikely but we find it helpful to remind ourselves that if the professionals are not worries – we should not be. 

Exercises

Use these to help calm yourself down while you are on the flight.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation:

  1. Start by tensing and then relaxing each muscle group, one at a time, starting from your feet and working your way up to your head.

  2. Tense each muscle group for 5-10 seconds, then release and notice the sensation of relaxation.

  3. Pay attention to how each muscle group feels as you tense and then relax it.

  4. Take deep breaths and focus on your body’s sensations of relaxation.

 

Visualization

  1. Close your eyes and picture a peaceful scene, such as a beach or a forest. Or try to picture a very positive memory you have from childhood.

  2. Imagine yourself in this scene, using all your senses to fully immerse yourself in the experience.

  3. Focus on the details of the scene and let your mind become fully engaged in the visualization.

  4. Take slow, deep breaths and let the peaceful scene calm your mind and body.


Tips

  1. Turbulence is a normal part of flying, just like bumps on a road trip.

  2. Planes are built to handle turbulence and are designed to keep you safe.

  3. Focus on your breathing and take deep, slow breaths to calm your mind and body.

  4. Try to distract yourself by reading, listening to music, or watching a movie.

  5. Use grounding techniques, such as squeezing a stress ball or focusing on the feeling of your feet on the ground.

  6. Say this out loud 5 times: “I am safe” and “I am in control of my thoughts”.

  7. Focus on the present moment and try not to worry about what might happen in the future.

  8. Talk to a flight attendant or fellow passenger for support and reassurance.

Productive thinking

The purpose of this is to help bring your anxiety down by 25-50%.

  1. Start by identifying the situation or trigger that led to the anxiety (in this case, it could be the turbulence during the flight).

  2. Write down your thoughts and beliefs about the situation, including any automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) that may come up, such as “I’m going to die” or “I can’t handle this”.

  3. Next, rate your level of anxiety or distress on a scale from 0 to 100.

  4. Identify any emotions they are feeling as a result of the situation, such as fear, panic, or helplessness. Write 3 down.

  5. Identify any evidence that supports or contradicts their automatic negative thoughts, and to come up with more balanced, realistic thoughts. For example – if you have the thought “I am going to die” try to objectively assess the thought – try to find evidence it is true and evidence it is false. Then try to reframe the thought into something more realistic like: “I am unlikely going to die on this plane but I really don’t like the bumps since they make me uncomfortable and think bad things may happen in the future”

  6. Now rate your level of anxiety or distress again, now that you have challenged your negative thoughts.


Remember to be supportive and non-judgmental throughout the process, and to focus on identifying and challenging negative thoughts in a constructive and compassionate way.