How Federal Restrictions Force Pilots To Hide Mental Illness
How Federal Restrictions Force Pilots To Hide Mental Illness
Mindful Magazine Article, How A Grounded Pilot Used Meditation To Fly Again
How A Grounded Pilot Used Meditation To Fly Again, Mindful Magazine 3/14/19
Use the following link to read this article about Carl Eisen and his experience with Mindfulness Meditation:
Air Facts Journal article 4/8/2019 From anxiety to mindfulness meditation - a pilot's journey to wellbeing
From anxiety to mindfulness meditation – a pilot’s journey to wellbeing
Use the following link to read this article about Carl Eisen and his experience with Mindfulness Meditation:
Why a “Personal Trainer” is essential for making the most out of meditation practice.
Why a “Personal Trainer” is essential for making the most out of meditation practice.
By: Carl Eisen
Mindfulness teacher George Mumford changed professional sports when he brought meditation practice to the Chicago Bulls, LA Lakers and countless other elite athletes. He was often considered Phil Jackson’s “Secret Weapon” to winning eight NBA championships.
One of George’s students Kobe Bryant says this about his meditation practice: “It’s like having an anchor. If I don’t do it, it’s like I’m constantly chasing the day”. Check out this interview with Phil and Kobe on Mindfulness Meditation.
George came to meditation practice when he hit a low point in his life and nothing else was working for him. He calls this his “Ass On Fire” moment.
Let’s be realistic. Most professional pilots would never consider mindfulness and meditation practice unless they’re in serious need of a solution. I suffered needlessly for years trying to “go it alone” because the thought of asking for help made my stress worse. I reached my AOF point and went out on medical for a year in 2007. We’re expected to be superhuman and when we need help, the public, our own industry and even the FAA turn their backs on us suggesting programs that label us as mentally defective or risk our careers. If your union has a trustworthy and effective Wingman program, you’re in the minority and even these programs are under constant threat.
A recent USA Today poll listed airline pilot as the 3rd most stressful profession right behind active duty military and first responders. Another recent study shows that 13% of airline pilots qualify as being clinically depressed or worse. This is consistent with the general population. There are over 130,000 active airline pilots in the USA right now. If that 13% number is even close, then 17,000 crewmembers are suffering yet only a small fraction of them actually seek help for obvious reasons. This silent epidemic is tragic and the only way we can do something about it is by talking to each other (confidentially) about it! We may be exceptional in many ways, but we are also human. If you’re struggling with stress or other related issues it does not mean you’re weak! Given the right tools, it can be the gateway to personal growth that leaves you light years ahead of the pack in terms of resilience, overall happiness and on task focus.
If a resource like Mindful Aviator had been available to me in 2007, I’m confident that I would have never gone out on medical. Even more important, I would have gotten help sooner and suffered less. The earlier crewmembers identify stress as an issue and seek help, the easier it is to deal with.
Today, a surprising number of crewmembers I encounter have already tried meditation through online recordings and Apps. This is great, but it’s sort of like having books about flying and the keys to a simulator. Without a qualified instructor, you’ll never make it through a checkride or LOE!
Over the past few years, it seems like every magazine stand or grocery store checkout lane features a cover story about Mindfulness. These publications normally feature a thin, beautiful woman (often blonde) in some ridiculous yoga pose that no-one actually uses. This certainly doesn’t appeal to the average airline pilot and misrepresents the practice itself (although it does sell magazines). There’s a downside to all this media hype about meditation and the availability of easy do-it-yourself mindfulness Apps. When meditation becomes difficult (and it will, just like a sim session), there’s no one there to show you how to learn from those challenges and turn them into a valuable experience. Just like an ugly first attempt at a V1 cut, this is how you learn! This is how you take your skills to the next level of understanding! Without a good teacher, the value of these negative experiences can be lost leading people to suffer more or just plain quit out of frustration.
Mindfulness teacher Andy Puddacombe was the primary developer of the Headspace App for meditation. He only became successful online after teaching wealthy, high reliability professionals one-on-one.
Headspace and other Apps like Calm, Insight Timer and so forth are excellent resources. Some pilots prefer these Apps to the recordings I offer, or they use them in conjunction. That’s all good, but I promise you that Andy Puddacombe won’t be available to give you one-on-one instruction when the going gets tough!
We’re pilots, which means that we have critical and analytical minds. We use our past experiences (conditioning) to predict and create a safe and certain outcome for ourselves, our ship and our passengers. Professionally, this conditioning is necessary and appropriate.
Unfortunately, this can create a conditioned pattern of thoughts and behaviors based in critical thinking that we begin to apply to everything. In other words, we develop a negatively biased momentum of mind. A mind that is constantly judging, comparing and ruminating about the past in order to create a safe and certain future. Without a pause button or the ability to untangle ourselves from obsessive thinking, we become stuck in our very own (very stressful) “Museum of Negativity” wandering about from exhibit to exhibit in rumination.
Science tells us “neurons that fire together, wire together”. This is a fancy way of saying that the more you engage in a particular pattern of thought, the more likely you are to do it again in the future. Like pouring water on a dirt pile, ruts and channels develop (neural networks). Trying to get the water to go in a different direction once the ruts form will take some effort.
For any of our AOF crewmembers (myself in 2007), this lifetime of negative and critical conditioning is like the Grand Canyon! You’re gonna need to move a lot of dirt, and you’re gonna need help.
Our anxious, ruminative thinking mind believes it can “think” it’s way to a solution. It’s making an intellectual exercise out of trying to solve its’ own problem of stressful negative conditioning. Round and round it goes turning ditches into canyons and the longer it does this, the harder it is to get unstuck. As Albert Einstein said: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them”.
Books, Apps and audio recordings are a great place to get an introduction to mindfulness. Without a good teacher, even mindfulness and meditation tends to becomes yet another intellectual exercise that further reinforces the negative pattern of thinking!
During my first-year practicing mindfulness and meditation, I didn’t have one-on-one time with a teacher. I did however listen to nearly 300 recorded talks. This was extremely valuable, but I also developed some bad habits (over analyzing) that I had to deal with when I finally got a teacher myself. Learn from my mistakes and let me help you streamline your practice so you can get the most out of it in the shortest time.
The work we do is meditation, which actually rewires neural networks (fills in the ruts). The result is mindfulness, new conditioning that leaves us less stressed, better able to focus and more resilient in the face of adversity.
No, it won’t turn you into a couch potato or cause you to lose your edge (check out the FAQ section). There’s a reason they teach this to Marine special forces units, but those Marines have a teacher and not just a bunch of audio recordings!
Check out the free short introductory “Ten for 10” audio series I offer on this website or continue to use the Apps and recordings of your choice. If you find value in these, if your stress or other symptoms improve, contact me for a free consultation and I’ll help you make the most of your practice. If you find the Apps and recordings don’t help or you’re interested in trying a different approach, contact me or check out LiftAffect for more options.
A word of caution. In the world of mindfulness and meditation teachers, it’s the wild west out there. It’s become so popular and lucrative that people with no experience can go to a weekend course and pronounce themselves expert teachers with a bogus certificate to prove it. Finding a qualified teacher (that you can relate to) can be really challenging, and the wrong instructor can do more harm than good.
I’ve been practicing since 2008. I’ve studied with some of the most widely recognized teachers in the world. Having jump-seat privileges helped!
In 2016 I completed the UCLA Training in Mindfulness Facilitation program (TMF) and hold professional level status in the International Mindfulness Teachers Association (IMTA) and more. I’m also a 15000+ hour Airbus captain with over 30 years airline experience.
For more on my qualifications and history check out my Bio in the About section of this website.
AOF or not, if you want the most out of this valuable and worthwhile practice then you’re gonna want a teacher.
Contact me for a free consultation, it’s a great place to start.
What is Mindfulness & Meditation
By: Carl Eisen
Meditation is not relaxation and it’s not about zoning out. It’s the equivalent of weight lifting for our mind – doing repeated “curls” to train ourselves to pay “attention with intention” to our present moment (direct) experience. Over time, skills like concentration and focus improve. Our awareness shifts to what’s actually happening instead of being dragged around by a mind that’s obsessing about the past and future. The science of meditation shows that it can change the actual structure of the brain, having a direct impact on how we experience our own life. Meditation is something we do.
Mindfulness is the quality of awareness we bring to our present moment experience. It is a less critical, nonjudgmental shift in the way we relate to things including our own thinking. This quality of awareness leaves us less conflicted with things as they actually are, and better able to handle or cope with experiences that would otherwise destabilize us. With mindfulness we become more resilient and better able to pay attention on purpose. Mindfulness is something we are.
To explore this subject in a very entertaining way, I suggest reading the bestselling book by the news anchor Dan Harris titled 10% Happier. He follows a path similar to mine, approaching the subject with skepticism and reluctance to “buy in” to any touchy-feely stuff.
For more answers, check out the FAQS section of our website.
Are there stressors I haven’t considered?
By: Carl Eisen
Obviously if you’re going through a difficult period in a relationship, issues with family or friends, dealing with trauma, company problems and so forth then the source of stress might be obvious. Frequently, the cause of stress, anxiety or depression can be elusive or misunderstood.
Many pilots don’t get enough sleep. Frequently, the sleep they do get isn’t good quality or deeply restorative. When it comes to circadian rhythm, crewmember schedules range from generally unpleasant to extremely unhealthy. We all tolerate these disruptions to our body clock differently, but I think it’s safe to say that all of us suffer from sleep deficit to some degree.
The effects of disruptive sleep cycles are well documented and (to put it mildly), stressful. Whether that alone is enough to send us down the path to anxiety or depression depends on the individual and circumstances.
Inadequate sleep has negative impact on our mind and body, disrupting our immune system, impacting our ability to properly metabolize food, clouding our judgment and so forth.
As my Mindfulness teacher explains, many people need sleep more than they need Meditation.
One source of anxiety can actually be our maladaptive strategies around stress itself. We don’t like feeling anxious so we distract ourselves. This is a short-term solution that only leads to stress getting worse over time. As I mention in another article, avoidance is a strategy that works about as well as turning up the volume on a car stereo to avoid listening to a screaming wheel bearing.
Poor diet and a lack of exercise can cause anxiety. Over the counter and prescription sleep aids, particularly when they’re used regularly. Depleted vitamin D reserves, especially for people who don’t spend time outside in the sun. Excessive alcohol use. A history of trauma or other unresolved emotional issues. Part of my anxiety stemmed from an ugly divorce my parents went through when I was 5 years old.
Spend some time reflecting on what’s actually going on in your life right now, and things from the past that might be re-emerging. If you’re still not sure, consider getting a thorough physical with complete bloodwork to eliminate possible physical causes.
If you feel you’ve considered all possible sources of stress and still aren’t sure about the cause, perhaps you should talk to someone about it. Confidential help is available through peer support groups, private consultation and more. Feel free to Contact me if you have questions about your options.
Pilots, Antidepressants and Pain Management.
By: Carl Eisen
The use of antidepressants is a very sensitive and complicated issue when it comes to airline pilots. It’s natural to retreat into fixed views about the pharmaceutical option being absolutely great or positively terrible. Truth is, it’s complicated and requires an honest and in-depth analysis, on an individual basis, by a mental health care professional. Preferably, one who has extensive knowledge and experience with pilots and FAA regulations.
Do not, under any circumstances self-medicate! If you have been doing so, it isn’t the end of the world. Contact Matt McNeil at LiftAffect immediately www.liftaffect.com and be completely honest with him. He can be trusted for confidential, professional help. He’s not only a clinical mental health professional, he’s an airline pilot.
We’ve all heard about the regulations being changed to allow pilots to fly while using antidepressants. Here is a paragraph from the FAA website on the issue.
The FAA has determined that airmen or FAA Air Traffic Control Specialists (FAA ATCS) requesting medical certificates while being treated with one of four specific selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be considered. The Authorization decision is made on a case-by-case basis. The Examiner may not issue.
For anyone interested in more information, here’s a link to that website:
In my case, when I went out on medical for a year in 2007 I was prescribed a low dose of SSRI antidepressant medication. In hindsight, I probably could have done fine without it.
Location used to make a big difference when it came to treatment, and I don’t live anywhere near a mental health professional that deals specifically with pilots. Today, this is somewhat irrelevant because treatment can be done over the internet, something Matt McNeil has done with hundreds of crew members over the years.
For the general population, the frequent initial response to a request for treatment results in “prescribe first and ask questions later”. Not necessarily a great course of action for a pilot.
This isn’t to say that a pharmaceutical approach is always wrong. It’s just complicated and requires a professional diagnosis by a pilot specific mental health professional.
For any crew member considering the use of antidepressants, I strongly suggest reading the book Anatomy of an Epidemic. Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America by Robert Whitaker.
One of the reasons I feel confident about claiming that (in hindsight) I probably didn’t need antidepressants is this. A lot of the anxiety I was suffering with related to my fear of asking for help, being “exposed” as weak, or losing my livelihood as a pilot. Once I understood that confidential help was available, that I wouldn’t be exposed as weak and that I definitely would not lose my job, my stress level dropped significantly.
In other words, the fear of having the “difficult conversation” about anxiety and stress was a significant source of (you guessed it), my anxiety and stress!
I have a local mindfulness meditation group in my home town. With the help of their own doctors and regular meditation practice, I’ve seen people wean themselves off antidepressants and other medications with very positive results. One person had been on psychiatric meds for over 30 years!
Mindfulness practice was really made popular and gained respect in the medical community when a researcher (and Zen practitioner) named Jon Kabat Zinn decided to try and use a secularized portion of Buddhist meditation to help people who were suffering from chronic pain. It was the late 1970’s and the people he worked with were no longer responding to conventional medical and pharmaceutical treatments for pain management. To make a long story short, it worked and that was the beginning of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness Based Pain Management (MBPM) movement. This is particularly relevant today with the over prescribing and abuse of pain management drugs reaching epidemic proportions.
Pain medication, opioids in particular are highly addictive and extremely difficult to quit. After prolonged use or years of addiction, far too many people who go through rehab end up relapsing. The end result for many is overdose and death.
Mindfulness and meditation practice by itself is not an intervention for addiction. However, it can be a tremendous tool for preventing relapse and there are very successful intervention programs that use Mindfulness practice such as Refuge Recovery. https://refugerecovery.org/
In 2016, I completed the UCLA Training in Mindfulness Facilitation (TMF) program. In 2017, I completed a UCSD Mindfulness-Based Professional Training Institute program in Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP). That program has already paid for itself based on the results I had with one person in particular.
One of my local group members has been a close friend for over 20 years. He’s a Fortune 500 Company Vice President (retired) and a commercial rated pilot. Ten years-ago his life nearly ended. Here is a quote from him that’s also in our Testimonials section.
After a massive heart attack and the car accident that followed left me with multiple inoperable back/neck injuries and chronic pain, I was being prescribed ever increasing doses of opioid drugs. Carl tried to get me to start meditating for years but the “aging hippy voice” guided meditations didn’t work for me. I reached a point where the drugs were destroying my stomach and were no longer helping with the pain. At the same time, Carl had just finished his first “Pilot Specific” program and invited me to be a Beta test subject. With Carl’s help, the MP3 recordings, a daily meditation practice and a stubborn Irish will, I weaned myself off the massive doses of drugs and haven’t looked back. In spite of the constant pain, I’m happier and more joyful than ever. Thank you for saving my life (again)!
That was over a year ago, he’s still going strong and has never gone back to the pain meds.
MBRP and MBPM programs are very specific to each individual and require one-on-one consultation. However, they all start with the same basic Mindfulness practice I offer in our Free Instruction short series, and our longer Training Courses.
So, if you’re struggling with a decision about prescription meds or dealing with pain management issues, let’s have the difficult conversation! Feel free to Contact me if you have questions about your options.
Being OK with things as they are.
By: Carl Eisen
Let’s explore the value of being less conflicted with things as they actually are. Your child hates getting shots. You make the mistake of telling her she’ll get a shot in the morning. A very unpleasant and sleepless night ensues. In the doctor’s office, it takes three people to hold her while the shot is given. She’s so distracted, she doesn’t even realize when the shot is administered, and continues this display for some time after.
The problem isn’t the shot. The problem is how she relates to getting the shot. Throughout the ordeal, the suffering experienced by the child has nothing to do with the actual experience. The thought of getting the shot is unpleasant. This creates a story in the child’s mind about how awful the experience will be in the future. She then ramps up her emotions (particularly fear) as if she is actually experiencing the horrible (exaggerated) event in the present moment. She does this over and over again becoming so entangled in the story and emotions that she can’t separate it from the actual present moment experience. In other words, she becomes the story. As the wise and compassionate parent, we can see and understand what the child is doing to herself, but no amount of explaining seems to help.
As an adult, we find ourselves stuck in traffic. We’re late for a trip. We begin creating all sorts of awful stories about the future (lose the trip and the paycheck, a talk with the Chief Pilot, fired, etc.) and we start adding numerous emotional responses to these stories. Our anxiety increases and soon we’re getting more stressed and angry. We catastrophize. When we “become” our negative story, are we much different than our child worrying about the shot!
We’ve created a story that is in conflict with things as they actually are. When we do this, rest assured, things as they are will always win!
With mindfulness practice, we become the wise parent for our own inner dialog, engaging the circuitry in our brain that settles down the alarm.
The ability to run “simulations” of possible future outcomes is one of the amazing capacities of the human mind. The knowledge that there might be a tiger behind a particular tree kept the ancient traveler alive or “in the gene pool”.
One of the things that makes us successful pilots is this ability to predict nearly infinite possible outcomes for a flight. Because of our “negative bias”, we can predict many potential problems. Experience and discernment allow us to minimize risks and complete the flight safely in spite of the potential “tigers in the forest.” Unfortunately, discernment can be overridden by emotional responses such as fear and worry. This doesn’t just apply to flying, it applies to every aspect of our lives.
As a pilot facing a possible threat, what’s better? Worry (emotional reactivity, lamentation and drama) or discernment (the ability to think clearly and make wise choices)?
The following quote was attributed to Mark Twain in an April 1934 issue of Reader’s Digest (a similar quote was written by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Adams):
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
When we’re experiencing anxiety, it’s often the result of obsessive ruminating about past and possible future events. Our present moment experience becomes unpleasant as our thoughts and emotions get entangled in stories that may be negative and inaccurate. The same “negative bias” that serves us so well in the cockpit can create problems for us, particularly when we begin adding an emotional component (such as dealing with family, employer, political party etc.). Once we become entangled in this thought process, we lose objectivity. We become the child who doesn’t want the shot and no amount of wise and compassionate advice will help us.
Mindfulness gives us a choice in how we relate to our thinking before we become entangled, stressed or anxious. The general improvement in attitude, experiences of renewed joy and health benefits are simply welcome side effects!
How does Mindfulness Improve Resilience
By: Carl Eisen
A family crisis, relationship problems, furlough, change of equipment, change of domicile, an upgrade, a downgrade, an accident or incident, illness, the list goes on. Any number of things can disrupt our lives leaving us feeling anxious, stressed or sad. Our ability to handle these inevitable life challenges depends on our resilience or our ability to “bounce back”.
Often, our resilience in the face of life’s challenges and setbacks has a lot to do with what’s going on between our ears. Our “self-talk” or inner dialog is that seemingly endless conversation going on in our head. The quality or tone of this discussion is often critical and negative, constantly judging and comparing.
Imagine you had someone sitting next to you for all of your waking hours, narrating out loud the discussion going on in your head. You’d get sick of it pretty quick, perhaps get a restraining order. So much negativity and relentlessly repetitive, self-referential nonsense.
On the one hand our critical and evaluative mind is not just useful, it’s essential for things like flying a jet. Unfortunately, it also creates a very stressful momentum of mind that tends to be critical and judgmental of everything, which isn’t so useful.
A critical and negative momentum of mind keeps our sympathetic nervous system activated. This system relates to fight or flight and activates physical systems that can cause damage when switched on too often, or for too long.
Our parasympathetic nervous system (also known as our rest and digest system) is what we need to activate to recover or become resilient.
When our lack of resilience is a result of “beating ourselves up with relentless negative dialog”, changing our relationship to all this self-talk improves our ability to bounce back and recover.
Mindfulness and meditation practice can teach us to better regulate our stream of self-talk, frequently changing experiences like “worry” to “discernment” or “rumination” to “relaxed determination”. It does so by training us to deliberately activate the appropriate (rest and digest) system.
It isn’t so much that life is problematic, it’s our relationship to challenges as they come up that undermines resilience. If our mind is like an untrained junkyard dog, we’ll be easily destabilized (highly reactive) and life will be more stressful.
There’s value in training that dog to sit, stay and behave or to pause before reacting on autopilot. That doesn’t mean the dog stops barking, it just learns discernment or when to bark and what to bark at.
Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who survived several Nazi prison camps talks about the space between stimulus and response.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
Assess My Stress
By: Carl Eisen
If your stress level is high or you’ve taken the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS) test and scored higher than you expected, you may decide to take action and talk to someone about it. Who to talk to?
If your airline has a Peer Support Program (PSP), this may be a good place to start. Trust and confidentiality is a huge deal for crewmembers and for good reason. One shortcoming of PSP’s is the qualification or training of the pilot volunteer. Pilots are typically not trained mental health professionals and there can be a “referral point” issue leaving open the potential for actual problems to go undiagnosed.
Employee Assistance Programs or EAP’s are something many companies point to and claim as a reason for not bothering to have a PSP. Fact is, pilots simply don’t use them because of the trust and confidentiality issue.
There is an independent company run by Matt McNeil (a pilot and clinical mental health professional) called LiftAffect. Matt’s website is a wonderful resource and he can be reached easily for a confidential consultation. If you don’t trust the options available at your airline, I strongly suggest contacting him. www.liftaffect.com
You’re welcome to contact me for a free consultation but I’m only trained/certified as a Mindfulness Meditation Teacher and Critical Incident Response Program (CIRP/CISM) volunteer. If you’re really suffering psychologically with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Depression or other issues I’ll be happy to refer you to Matt or other licensed clinical mental health professional.
If you’re simply stressing more than you’d like or you want to improve resilience, focus and attention, give meditation a try. Help yourself to our free introductory program under the Free Instruction link on our home page. If you’ve tried my free meditation program and find your symptoms actually get worse, contact me and we’ll try something different.
Stress around Training
By: Carl Eisen
I’ve spoken to countless crewmembers who have tremendous anxiety around recurrent training and checkrides. For pilots, training events can become a particularly strong “destabilizing” force on our wellbeing. I personally know several crewmembers who went out on medical (claiming assorted reasons) because of stress around training events.
For some of us, that heightened sense of “urgency” around checkrides can provide a healthy motivation to study. For others, it’s “deer in the headlights” time.
The challenge is finding balance, and understanding our relationship to that inevitable training induced stress.
Anxiety around training is a huge issue for pilots, far too complex and nuanced to cover adequately here. It’s a subject we explore in more depth in our Mindfulness Based Situational Awareness (MBSA) programs.
For those looking (at the last minute) for Mindfulness and Meditation to be some kind of magic bullet that instantly removes stress, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Mindfulness practices can be a big help around training, if you’ve been practicing for a while. Expecting an instant miracle is a bit like starting to brush your teeth after you’ve discovered a cavity.
This isn’t to say that basic Meditation practice is no help at all as a last-minute stress reducer. Basic breathing exercises and the ability to “check in” are covered in the first few episodes of our free introductory series of short guided talks and meditations. With no Meditation experience at all, simply taking a moment to get out of your busy head and into the sensation of breath in the body can shift you out of your sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight or freeze) and into your para-sympathetic nervous system (rest and recover mode).
Try this simple exercise and see what happens. Sit comfortably upright in a chair. Close your eyes (if you like) and bring your attention to the sensation of the breath going in and out of your nose. Breathe in through your nose to a slow count of four. Pause, holding your breath for a second four count, then let out your breath through your mouth. Purse your lips and make a whoosh sound like you were blowing out a candle to a slow count of eight. Pay attention to the sensation of the exhale in your body, particularly your chest and belly. Repeat this three times.
Notice how you feel.
Pilots and Stress
By: Carl Eisen
Stress is a normal part of life. Often, the physical experience of stress is our mind/body system trying to warn us (like a caution and warning system in a jet) that something needs our attention. Persistent stress is really unhealthy releasing cortisol into our system, keeping us in a state of hypervigilance, causing cardiovascular problems, inflammation and so on. Not to mention that it’s simply unpleasant!
A recent USA Today article put Airline Pilot as number three on a list of the top five stressful professions, right behind active military personnel and first responders. Mindfulness Meditation practice has been used in these first two groups for years, and my goal is to make it readily available to any pilots who are interested.
The list of negative influences in a crewmember’s life is like a laundry list of everything NOT to do in order to live a long, healthy stress-free life. I’m not going to bother listing them here, you know what I’m talking about.
When pilots first ask me about meditation as a way to reduce anxiety and stress, I ask them about their eating habits, sleep patterns and exercise. Truth is, you may need to make changes in these areas first before meditation will provide any lasting benefit and many pilots need sleep more than they need meditation.
Each situation and individual is different. If you aren’t sure if meditation is right for you, let’s talk. Who knows, you may simply need vitamin D supplements and exercise. Check out the article in this section titled Are there stressors I haven’t considered?
While I believe that nearly all crewmembers could benefit from meditation, that doesn’t mean I believe they all need it.
So, at what point is stress a problem?
George Mumford, (who taught Mindfulness and Meditation to the Chicago Bulls, LA Lakers and more) sums up the result of my long term “not dealing with it” experience in what he calls “AOF”. I procrastinated in dealing with my stress until my “Ass was On Fire”! The result of which (once I finally understood my problem) was a year off on medical leave.
Don’t procrastinate! The best time to deal with anxiety and stress is before reaching the AOF point!
If your stress level is such that you’re finding it difficult to function, then you’re already bumping up against the AOF point. If your “ruminative mind” is constantly proliferating with thoughts to the degree that it interferes with your ability to pay attention (stay focused or on task), then I strongly suggest you talk to someone about it. Confidential help is available through peer support groups, private consultation and more. Feel free to Contact me if you have questions about your options.
To self-disclose or not, the difficult conversation
By: Carl Eisen
As a highly skilled professional, working at a challenging technical level, in an incredibly competitive industry, performing a safety critical job where public perception of our superhuman “Sky God” image is critical, you may be wondering why I’m willing to speak openly about my own battle with a “psychological disability”.
Well, I wasn’t always open about it. In fact, very few people knew at all. Outside of my family, a hand full of people at my airline and assorted medical professionals, I could count on one hand the number of people who knew about my little secret. It simply isn’t in our nature as pilots to talk about such deeply personal things, particularly when it reveals a sign of “weakness or vulnerability”. When friends or other crewmembers would ask what happened or where I went for a year, I would simply mumble something about a medical condition and change the subject. After eight years, I figured the whole episode was behind me. People stopped asking questions and I remained a “closet meditator”. I was very happy in the knowledge that my secret was safe.
That was my story right up until March 24th, 2015.
When Germanwings F/O Andreas Lubitz flew himself, his passengers and his crew into the mountains in southern France, I did some real soul searching. How could a person do this, why would they do it, did anyone see it coming, had he sought help or was he afraid to talk about psychological issues (like me)? Then came the most important question of all. Is there anything I can do to help prevent this ever happening again?
Over and over again I reviewed my own experience, the details of that crash and the subject of airline pilot mental health. While I was never suicidal, I was intimately familiar with the subject of stress, anxiety and depression and the difficulty crewmembers have recognizing and dealing with it.
The first conclusion I came to was that we need to start talking about this more openly. This might seem obvious but it’s almost impossible to achieve because of the nature of pilots in general, and the culture we all operate in. If we aren’t willing to talk about this, (at least confidentially among ourselves), then we will never be able to do anything about it.
If I myself am too embarrassed to talk about my experience, then don’t I become part of the problem?
So, I started talking, and writing, and studying, and educating others. It is truly the difficult conversation that few in the industry want to deal with. More often than not, my attempts to start the conversation at company and union levels resulted in the sound of doors slamming shut all the way down a long corridor.
What I haven’t spoken about yet is my history with anxiety before I went out on medical.
When describing how issues with stress can creep up on us, I use the anology of a frog and a pot of water. If you put a frog in a pot of hot water, it jumps out right away. If you put the frog into cool water and heat it up slowly, the frog stays put until it cooks.
Unless we’ve experienced a sudden traumatic event, anxiety and depression have a way of creeping up on us.
One common source of anxiety is what we call an avoidance strategy. We experience something unpleasant or traumatic and it triggers unpleasant emotions or feelings. We don’t want to appear weak or suffer so we push the unpleasant experience out of our awareness using distractions, addictive behavior or other maladaptive strategies. The source of the anxiety hasn’t gone away, we’ve just tuned it out temporarily and when it comes back, it’ll be worse and require us to employ our avoidance strategy again. Round and round we go getting more and more anxious or depressed over time.
At the heart of all anxiety disorders is some form of this mental avoiding. Unfortunately, it works about as well as turning up the car stereo so you don’t have to listen to that screaming wheel bearing.
Six years before I self-disclosed and went out on medical, I woke up to a home with no running water. My wife and 9-month-old son were still fast asleep when I set about the task of replacing our electric well pump. A few hours into the project my wife came outside and told me I needed to come in and see what was happening on TV. It was September 11, 2001.
As the morning progressed, I followed the unfolding story and went to buy replacement parts for our well. In my own mind, I was coming to grips with the implications of what was going on. As a father of a young boy and an airline pilot, I knew all too well that the world had just become a very different and much more dangerous place.
Then, something happened that I would not reveal to another person for many years. Standing in the isle of our local Home Depot, I had a panic attack. At the time, I didn’t really understand what was happening. I’m a pilot, not a psychologist. What I did know (or strongly suspected) was that telling someone about my experience would be the end of my flying. I was already an expert at employing my avoidance strategy, so I ignored the problem and convinced myself that I could keep on going without help or advice. I also rationalized (each time I filled out my application for medical) that my 9/11 panic attack was a reasonably normal response for an airline pilot, and since I hadn’t had another one since then, I must be OK. What I wasn’t acknowledging to myself was just how much the anxiety and stress was causing me to suffer every day. I was the frog in the pot, slowly cooking and killing myself from the inside while pretending everything was fine.
The avoidance strategy I described above is bad enough when we use it in our own experience. It becomes a collective crime when we engage in it culturally. From our unions and airlines to the FAA, I feel we all share some of the responsibility when crewmembers suffer because they (and we) are afraid to talk about it.
The sooner a crewmember seeks help or learns the skills needed to work with stress, the easier it is to deal with and the better the outcome.
Stress is a normal part of being human, but how much is too much?
How do we self-assess?
When we’re experiencing stress or anxiety, it’s often a product of our busy, preoccupied, thinking mind. In other words, our suffering is related to our thinking.
Here’s part of the problem. We’re expecting that same thinking mind to assess itself while its’ ability to do so may be compromised. I love how Albert Einstein put it. “We cannot solve our problems using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”
Ever flown in a state of fatigue where your ability to assess that state was compromised by fatigue? Every professional pilot has likely realized (too late) that they should have called in fatigued before they ended up flying in a compromised state.
Similarly, every crewmember who goes out on medical for anxiety or depression realizes they should have done something about it sooner.
I think back to my own experience (before my panic attack) when my own growing anxiety would have been easier to deal with. Now that I’m trying to help other crewmembers avoid what I went through, I ask myself one question over and over.
What would it have taken to get me to seek help sooner?
The fantasy of going back in time to give myself advice about a career choice or relationship disaster comes to mind. Would the younger me even listen? Will other crewmembers listen?
Explore these questions in your own mind and have a look at the Assess My Stress link on our home page. If you’re willing to have the difficult conversation, Contact me and we’ll talk.
If I’d known about meditation, would I still have gone out on medical?
By: Carl Eisen
You may be wondering how things may have turned out for me if I had discovered meditation earlier. What if I myself had known about Mindfulness Meditation before I went out on medical for a year in 2007?
My answer is that it probably would have helped. If I had started practicing mindfulness meditation years earlier, my stress level would have improved. In my mind, the question is complicated because there wasn’t as much science validating it back then, it wasn’t yet “mainstream”, and I had lots of pre-conceptions and serious aversions to anything that sounded too touchy feely or reeked of religious quackery, hippies and peace love stuff. I also didn’t actually understand how bad my anxiety was until my “wake up call”.
Because I actually suffered some childhood trauma around my parents ugly divorce that happened when I was 5, I probably still needed some cognitive (talk) therapy. The best and fastest solution would have been a combination of therapy and meditation. Earlier treatment with both would have definitely kept me in the cockpit and off antidepressants.
My airline doesn’t have a wingman or peer support program. If I had known about Matt McNeil and his independent crewmember support company LiftAffect www.liftaffect.com , I believe he absolutely would have kept me in the cockpit. Matt isn’t just a mental health professional, he’s a pilot as well. A confidential call to Matt could have made an immediate difference. That is, if I’d had enough sense to call him before I “self-disclosed” and went out for Anxiety and Depression. I also believe that if I’d called him after I went out, I’d have gotten back much sooner than I did.
Dealing with “non-pilot” mental health professionals in my home community wasted a considerable amount of time and effort. Also, the tendency (in the general population) is to medicate with anti-depressants when it might not be necessary.
All this speculation quickly becomes an exercise in “woulda, coulda, shoulda”, which isn’t very useful.
The key here is getting an education about stress and learning to self-assess as early as possible. Understanding that you aren’t alone (or somehow uniquely defective) is really important. Knowing that confidential help is available, (provided by qualified and trained pilots), can be a real game changer! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me.
Postures for Meditation
By: Carl Eisen
There are many positions we can meditate in: sitting, standing, walking and lying down. These instructions focus on the sitting position, the most common position for formal practice, as it’s conducive to staying alert and relaxed. For those unable to sit, you may use the alternate option of lying down.
The aim of the sitting posture is to balance being upright and alert, with being relaxed. When exploring a sitting posture, we want to choose a method that is relatively easy. Choosing a method that looks good, but is a significant struggle defeats the purpose of meditation. What’s most important is what you do with your mind, not what you do with your feet or legs.
It’s easier to stay upright and alert on a chair if you sit closer to the front edge and hold your own spine up instead of leaning against the chair back. If you sit with your pelvis against the back of the chair, you can use a cushion behind you to help keep your back straight. The hips should be slightly higher than the knees, this keeps you from slouching.
Keep your feet flat on the floor.
If you are much taller or shorter than “average” you can compensate using a cushion under the feet if shorter, or under the buttocks if taller.
The hands can be kept on the thighs, or folded on the lap, or on top of a cushion on the lap.
Lying down (if sitting is not an option)
The tendency to fall asleep is more of an issue, but there are ways of encouraging alertness when lying down.
Place your feet comfortably apart with the knees up, the knees not touching. If you fall asleep, the knees will bump each other or fall away and wake you up.
Another choice is keeping one of your forearms perpendicular to the floor, with your elbow and upper arm resting on the floor. If you get sleepy, it will drop.
What about at work, in crew rest facilities? Keeping a regular daily practice is extremely important. The last thing we want to do is skip a day of practice because the only time we had to meditate was in front of other people (and you don’t want to be embarrassed by doing a Yoda impersonation in a crew lounge). In this case, I find a Lazy-Boy recliner, plug in my headset and set my meditation timer. No one needs to know I’m meditating, and (for the purpose of meditating) as long as I’m not falling asleep, it’s just fine. Not ideal, but just fine.
If I am falling asleep, perhaps I need rest more than meditation right now. That’s OK too.
We recommend any position where the arms and hands can be relaxed, often palms up or down on your thighs or folded on your lap. If there is neck, mid-back or shoulder strain, a small cushion can be placed under the folded hands.
Wear loose clothing. Loosen your belt if necessary. Material should not gather behind the knees when you cross the legs, inhibiting circulation.
The mouth is kept closed. Unless you have some kind of a nasal blockage, breathe through your nose. The tongue can be pressed lightly against the upper palate. This may reduce the need to salivate and swallow.
We recommend you keep our eyes closed, but it’s perfectly okay to meditate with your eyes open. Usually you do so with the eyes kept lowered, with your gaze resting on the ground about two or three feet in front of you.
The chin is slightly tucked in.