“I turn on the radio, I switch on the tv, I click on News 24 … just another devastating report regarding the precarious future of our airlines and aviation industry adding to my uncertainty and anxiety. There’s anger and frustration too! Family and friends call offering support and checking to see if I’m ok and what my plans are. I see the worry in my partner’s eyes. I can’t pretend that this tightening feeling around my throat again, the vague headache, the sinking feeling in my stomach and tension in my shoulders and neck muscles aren’t there. I am short-fused, I sleep restlessly, my mind’s preoccupied and I am tired all the time. But I pretend that I’m fine … I can’t afford not to be”.
A 2013 article about safety amongst Italian military pilots talks about the need for mindfulness in high-risk, safety critical environments, such as airlines. Why is the military talking about ‘mindfulness’ you may ask? As we all know, safety is the name of our game. The reason they were raising the point of mindfulness is because to be safe in our operation, we need to have each other’s back in order to manage error. Not only do we have to monitor one another, but we also have to look out for each other – threat and error management at a more personal level, if you will. The organisation also needs to be mindful of the personal safety and wellbeing of its employees.
As the human in the Human Factors you are of critical importance
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The situation in South African aviation has been hard to deal with mentally and emotionally for quite some time, and especially in the last few months during the pandemic. Airlines and other operators are facing liquidation, restructuring, redundancies, and those that are flying, are offering greatly reduced salaries.
Under normal operations we received regular reminders asking each of us to be mindful of safety, and communications showing awareness of the stresses under which we are operating – but for some airlines even these communications have stopped. It feels as though each of us is hunkered down, battle weary and just trying to survive a situation that seems to be in a constantly deteriorating cycle. As the times become harder, more challenging, more uncertain and definitely more difficult to manage, we need to become significantly more mindful of our wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around us.
As pilots we are trained to handle turbulence, to strap in tight, monitor the thrust, speed and attitude. Well, maybe there are similarities between turbulence and handling our own wellbeing and mental health in times of sustained stress and huge uncertainty.
Change is unsettling. It upsets our sense of normality.
Change can cause us to feel like we are on an emotional rollercoaster.
Coping with change is similar to coping with grief and loss. Progress is seldom linear and cannot be short-circuited.
The curve looks like this:
|HEALTHY WAYS OF RESPONDING TO CHANGE|
|With VUCA in mind, it is worth exploring some strategies for caring for ourselves and our families, and our fellow colleagues:
· Change is the only constant. Focus on what you can change.
· Be emotionally intelligent. Emotions are like a messenger performing a function. Notice and identify what you are feeling. At an appropriate time, allow yourself to experience the emotion and then choose healthy ways to respond. Suppressing or blocking emotions can cause havoc, as they begin to control your thoughts and behaviour. A volcano can build up inside until something small triggers a huge reaction and you explode or implode. Imploding results in feelings of burn out, hopelessness and other depressive symptoms.
· Identify how you have dealt with stressful and anxiety-provoking situations successfully. Which internal or external resources have carried you in
|those times? Which additional resources and healthy coping mechanisms are available to you now? Resources are like tent poles: a tent supported on two poles during a storm is likely to collapse. The greater the number of poles, the greater the chance it remains standing and survives the storm.
· Consciously focus on what you can control and change.
· Practice healthy coping mechanisms ESPECIALLY when you don’t feel like it.
o Practice belly breathing
o Fill your emotional tank: make your family relationships and support network a priority so that they sustain you in these tough times.
o Focus on positive self-talk to help keep things in perspective and a healthy sense of self.
· Prioritise your sleep. Without sufficient sleep your physical and psychological sense of well-being suffers.
COMMON SYMPTOMS OF STRESS
Here are just some common symptoms of stress that we may be ignoring or even thinking there is something weird going on for us: normal symptoms in highly stressful circumstances:
Feeling overwhelmed (like you are losing control and need to take control)
Difficulty quietening your mind
Feeling bad about yourself
Lonely, more than normal
Chest pain and rapid heartbeat
Lowered immune system
Loss of sexual desire
Cold/sweaty hands and feet
Clenched jaw and grinding teeth
Forgetfulness and disorganised
Inability to focus
Being pessimistic or seeing only the negative side
|Changes in appetite
Procrastinating and avoiding responsibilities
Increased use of alcohol, or cigarettes
Unusually nervous behaviour, such as nail biting, fidgeting and pacing
COMMON SYMPTOMS OF ANXIETY
|§ Excessive fear
§ Excessive worry
§ Restlessness, or feeling tense, irritable, edgy
§ Loss of interest or pleasure in activities you used to enjoy
§ Fluctuating mood
|· Panic attacks
· Excessive sweating
· Hot and cold flushes
· Racing heart
· Tightening chest
· Quick breathing
· Excess sleepiness, insomnia, or restless sleep
· Changes in appetite
|· Obsessive thinking
· Impaired concentration and attention
· Forgetfulness and memory loss
· Repeatedly going over thoughts
|· Avoidance of situations that make you feel anxious
· Social isolation
· Excessive crying
· Slowness in activity
UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN STRESS AND ANXIETY
Stress is a response to a threat in a situation or feeling under pressure. Anxiety could be seen as a reaction to the stress and excessive worry that stays with us. If stress is chronic, we end up in a vicious cycle of negativity and exhaustion. This may lead to depressive symptoms. When we are experiencing stress, anxiety and/or depression we tend to cut down on some of the very necessary coping mechanisms and resort to less helpful strategies, such as:
- We withdraw from others. Social connectivity releases oxytocin which triggers the release of serotonin, which on its turn activates the ‘reward circuitry’ resulting in a happy feeling. Sometimes just expressing emotions to others you feel safe with, can provide great relief from stress and anxiety.
- We tend to eat food which contains more sugar and fat. Pay attention to nutrition and drinking sufficient water.
- We cut down on exercise which help reduce the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Exercise stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.
- We struggle to sleep which adversely affects concentration and energy levels and perpetuates the depression habit spiral.
- We consume more alcohol which affects REM sleep, impairs concentration and creates various other secondary problems including the risk of not being fit to fly. Alcohol temporarily decreases stress and anxiety while the stressor remains at its strength and becomes more stressful.
Reference: Catino, M., & Patriotta, G. (2013). Learning from Errors: Cognition, Emotions and Safety Culture in the Italian Air Force. Organization Studies, 437-467
Fisher, John, 2012, Process of Personal Transition, Available from: http://www.businessballs.com/personalchangeprocess.htm
Family and friends, especially those going through similar experiences, can provide great comfort. In addition, Mayday-SA is here to help. You can contact us on 012-333-6000 and ask for Mayday, or find other relevant and related articles on our website www.mayday-sa.org.za. You can also follow us on Facebook.