Navigating Anxiety in the Cockpit: A guide for Pilots

Do you find your hands tightening in the cockpit, an urgent need for the bathroom before training, or moments of forgetfulness during routine flows and flight tasks? The overlooked issue of stress escalating into anxiety is becoming increasingly prevalent in the aviation industry. The impact of anxiety can extend beyond the cockpit, affecting your job, relationships, daily activities, sleep quality, and overall well-being. Recognizing the signs is crucial.

pilots in flightdeck

Some Signals That You May Be Experiencing Anxiety:

- Gaps in knowledge (You KNOW you know this!)
- Inability to maintain focus
- Physical symptoms like tension, nausea, dizziness
- Excessive fatigue
- Sleep difficulties
- Excessive worry or nervousness
- Irritability


So what can you do about it?

It depends. How we address anxiety depends on its severity, recurrence, and individual circumstances. Mild instances may benefit from stress management techniques, while more severe and recurring instances might require Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or professional assistance.

John Levinson, MD, PhD, and Instrument Rated Pilot, emphasizes that pilots, like anyone else, experience anxiety. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness but a proactive step towards well-being.

aviation conversations

  • For mild cases - maintain activities that keep you centered. Learn how to identify triggers, adopt grounding techniques, and acknowledge your limits. Request additional training for unfamiliar tasks to bolster confidence.
  • For more serious or recurring cases - Recognize anxiety as a signal prompting further exploration. Some people turn to medication, but this is not always a viable solution for Aviators due to medical roadblocks. In this case, talking to someone, whether a friend, family member, or professional, is crucial. But seeking professional help often comes with concerns about career repercussions.

Despite this, there is a middle ground. Even if the idea of an official setting is daunting, when it comes to self-care, it's not an all-or-nothing decision… it’s all or something.

Here are Some Things You Can Do to Help Yourself Navigate from Turbulence to Calm:

  1. Set Yourself Up for Success: Continue activities that keep you calm.
    What do you do to help yourself stay calm and centered when things are okay? Do you workout? Go for walks in the morning? Write things out? Whatever it is, KEEP DOING IT! Especially if you have something coming up that can induce stress
  2. Identify Triggers: Pinpoint stress triggers for proactive management. If you can pin-point where the feeling begins, you can do something about it before it takes
    control. When it comes to stress, ignorance isn’t bliss and awareness is key.
  3. Use Grounding Techniques: Employ methods like deep breathing to stay present. When you start going into anxiety, your body is in a stress/fear response. Grounding techniques, such as practicing intentional deep breathing or really feeling your feet on the ground, brings your mind back into the present moment.
  4. Know Your Limits: Seek additional training for areas of discomfort.
    If there is something you are not comfortable with in the aircraft, ask for additional training on it. It’s okay not to know how to do something, and letting it just sit there is going to make things worse. As aviators, we like to have control over our aircraft. In fact, we’re supposed to! Learn as much as you can about what you need to do. The more knowledge you have tied with practice, the more confident you will feel.
  5. Use Anxiety as a Signal: Address the root cause of anxiety. If you are feeling anxious about something, that means there is something going on that needs to be addressed. Maybe it is a knowledge gap, a conversation, or maybe you are finally sitting still for 5 minutes and something that really bothered you is finally coming to the surface. Note it, get curious about it, and see if there is anything you can do about it.
  6. Talk to Someone: Release the pressure by sharing with a trusted individual. Keeping things bottled up inside is like shaking up a soda can. Eventually, it’s going to explode. Talking to someone is like opening a release valve. It can be anyone, a friend, a family member, your spouse.... Someone that you trust.

Sometimes we do turn to our friends on the flightdeck, and that’s okay, but if you’d like to get
real, actionable things you can do to help prevent these things from happening in the future,
talking to a professional is a great way to go. Help is available through resources like
www.aviationconversations.com, offering confidential, non-reportable consultations and stress
management training. This ensures a safe, judgment-free space where guidance is solely for
your benefit. Whether confiding in a friend on the flight deck or seeking professional support,
remember: addressing anxiety is a strength, not a weakness. You've got this. ✈️
#PilotWellness #NavigatingAnxiety #FlightDeckMindset

Shannon Torres| Counselor Gone Coach
Owner & Founder of Aviation Conversations
Stress Management, Leadership, and Soft Skills Training & Coaching for Pilots