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Mindset On The Storm

Mindset On The Storm

Or how to deal with fear in difficult situations

I recently flew on a plane through Europe, from Malaga to Warsaw. The weather went crazy that day, and the flight was delayed due to a storm. It started like in Hitchcock’s movie: “A good film should start with an earthquake and be followed by rising tension.” Only this time it was not an earthquake but the take-off of an aeroplane, which seemed about to be blown off its flight path. I firmly grasped the passenger seat before me to survive the takeoff.

Spain has not seen such rainfall for 160 years. In Malaga, the biggest problem was the wind – 50 accidents were reported (Wyborcza Newspaper). Half an hour after our take-off, the airport was closed, and flights were redirected to Sevilla. The remainder of our flight did not look good either due to the raging cyclone Zacharias.

Many people could not bear the stress during this journey, and some could not keep their food down.

It is good to have context experience

Many years ago, I was afraid of my first flight – I was working on getting rid of this phobia using the NLP method. Effective treatment of phobias is also possible through frequent exposure to the stressor (Myers). The more often you fly, the less you stress. Also, I’ve had some previous, though not as intense, experiences with turbulences.

Measuring stress with 2 Garmin Venu models revealed a “low stress” result for me (but stress anyway), and a “high stress” result for my travel companion, Ania. Ania has less experience with flights than me.

During this flight, I began to wonder why some of us handle extreme situations better than others. It is about the level of anxiety and coping with it. I began to take notice of my thoughts and pay attention to what Ania was saying.

We all create mental strategies

In the past, I used to listen to what the crew said to each other and how they reacted – I tried to catch signs of normality, but I ended up catching disturbing signs.

I found a similar strategy with Ania: “I listen to what the flight attendants say and how they behave.”, “Why did she switch on this signal? “Why did the lights go out?” In a nutshell, Ania’s mental strategy in that situation was to focus on and look for elements that were inconsistent with what the situation should look like.

What strategies have I built during that time to maintain relative mental balance:

• I started repeating, in my mind, that the only really dangerous moments during air travel are the encounters with Earth, i.e. the take-off and landing. The mantra started to work when we were already high in the clouds.

• Then I tried to look at the situation from a broad perspective: I imagined the Earth and all the planes in the air at that moment – they wouldn’t fall like that. I also guessed that the thoughts occupying the pilot’s mind were completely different from the thoughts of the terrified passengers on his plane. I don’t know how to fly an aeroplane, but I imagined that the pilot’s thoughts were something like: “There’s a strong wind, so I need to position the plane slightly from leeward.” The global view of the situation helped.

• Then I began to notice all the flight attendants bustling and cleaning up after the passengers in torsions. I began to feel sorry for them and admire them – how important, responsible, and difficult their job was. I and my travel companion met the eyes of one of them – he said: “Difficult flight!” By the way, appropriate eye contact with another person can bring us into a state of balance (Porges – Polyvagal Theory). Maintaining balance through eye contact can be trained – it is the basis of “Relational Presence – being mindful during public speaking” workshops. A skill that helps in public speaking turned out to be also helpful in that highly stressful situation.

• Finally, almost completely calm, I started filling out Remainder on my phone with the tasks that I have to do in the near future after landing in Poland.

Mental toughness is a set of mental strategies 

As a child, I was an extremely anxious boy, and at one point, I was even diagnosed with vegetative neurosis. 

The conclusion is that mental toughness is not a personality trait but a set of mental strategies for returning to mental balance in stressful situations – it is a matter of mindset and flexibility.

On this occasion, I am reminded of the results of the research on the ways of thinking of healthy octogenarians. It was conducted many years ago by Jaap Hollander, the creator of MindSonar, along with Robert Dilts. Do you know what thought patterns healthy old people had? A) Matching (looking at what is good and correct, in other words, looking at the bright side of the situation). B) Focusing on the future (they have plans for the future and know that they have to work hard for it). C) Focusing on people (people are everywhere in their thinking) (Hollander, Dilts).

Now, let’s take a look at the 4-point strategy I employed to deal with a stressful situation on a flight and find similarities with the mindset of healthy octogenarians. I see common features.

A trivial statement comes to my mind: The two risky moments in life are birth and death – like the take-off and landing of an aeroplane. And between them, there is an empty space that we can fill, either with fear or with striving for mental balance. It may be a cliche, but somehow it is liberating.

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