Why We Cry On Planes, According To Science

Welcome to the 'blub club.'

Crying on planes is surprisingly common. It’s such a thing, in fact, that Virgin Atlantic added a “tear jerker” warning to films in 2011, after a survey found people were in prime emotional position for a breakdown during flights.

The Guardian reports that in the survey (which was conducted on Virgin Atlantic’s Facebook page), “41% of men said they had buried themselves in blankets to disguise their tears from other passengers” while women “were more likely to pretend they had something in their eye.”

“Overall, a 55% said they had experienced heightened emotions while flying, with travellers from Wolverhampton the most likely to join the ‘mile high blub club.”‘

If you, too, are a part of this club, and you too have ever wondered why you are prone to bawling your eyes out at 40,000ft, today is your lucky day. Science might have the answer.

That’s right: your at altitude crying sessions could be explained by physiology.

There are numerous reasons, but let’s start off with biology. Namely: dehydration. You see, dry air affects more than just your taste buds. Dehydration (caused by high altitude and cabin pressure, which reduce oxygen in the cabin) is linked with both mood disturbances and fatigue. Both these states can make you more liable to break down at the drop of a hat (or a sad moment in Toy Story 3).

Physical discomfort can also add to this – the stress of worrying about developing stress fractures in your knees due to your battery cage like conditions, or the irritation caused by the person behind you kicking your seat can also undermine your usual stoic facade.

Speaking of stress, Jodi De Luca, a Colorado-based psychologist who studies the impact of high altitudes on emotions, told Time in 2018: “We have little control over our environment while we are travelling by plane.”

“Although we may not be consciously aware of our emotional vulnerability, our emotional brain is working overtime.”

Jodi De Luca

Sleep deprivation is another culprit: when you are flying long haul, often this means you are either returning from somewhere (and so already jet lagged) or on your way somewhere, having had your usual sleep routine disrupted by something like an early morning flight.

As we all know, sleep deprivation can leave you on edge. This, coupled with the fact that long haul flights often mean you are either leaving family and friends behind, or are on your way to see them, means you are more liable to cry.

Add feeling lonely (if you’re travelling alone) and insecure (you’re in an unfamiliar environment) to the mix and you are in a prime position to turn on the waterworks.

Regarding loneliness: an article on crying on planes by The Atlantic makes the claim that crying in air often follows a specific set of triggers. And loneliness is one of them.

The article cites a study published in 2000 by Ad Vingerhoets – one of the world’s leading experts in crying.

According to The Atlantic, Vingerhoets’ team found that, among study participants, feelings of “separation” or “rejection” were overwhelmingly what made people cry, more so than “pain and injury” and “criticism.” They also found that of those who answered “rejection,” the most common subcategory selected was “loneliness.”

“The prototypical situations that induce crying are always related to loss or separation, and/or powerlessness,” the study found. Sound familiar?

Studies have also been done on grief, and how people often avoid grieving until they are alone and driving, because there are no distractions and they have the time and freedom for emotional processing and relief.

The Atlantic article suggests the same thing happens “when you finally sit down in your seat on an airplane.”

The idea being? After the hustle and bustle of life, or the emotional rollercoaster of seeing friends and family overseas (or the anticipation of organising your trip to go and see them), you’ve finally reached a moment of peace and relaxation, which could have been days, weeks, months or even years in the making.

What better to do than to have a big old cry?

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