Have you ever been on an airplane, minding your own business, and found yourself tearing up, seemingly for no apparent reason? Or perhaps you sat near someone who developed a case of the waterworks. Or maybe you encountered no actual tears but noticed that the airline played an “emotional health warning” before certain in-flight films. Are you really more likely to cry while on a plane? Is it one of the airplane myths you need to stop believing, or is there actually something happening to your body that triggers the tears?
There sure is! And, unsurprisingly, it has to do with the altitude. Think about it: When you’re inside a flying airplane, you’re miles off the ground. Not exactly a place where humans usually find themselves. So airplane cabins are pressurized to keep passengers comfortable, but there’s only so much they can do. So it’s still not the pressure levels that you’ll experience at ground level. “It’s a bit like having climbed a pretty high mountain,” explains Kate Sullivan, MSc, Head of Experience at Secret Fares and master-level well-being psychologist.
The primary tear-trigger is the lower amount of oxygen in your bloodstream. Just as oxygen thins as mountain climbers ascend, the oxygen levels in the pressurized cabin are lower than you’ll find on the ground. And in both cases, it can send your emotions for a loop. “With less oxygen available, your body goes into conservation mode,” Sullivan explains. “It takes care of essential functions first, like your circulatory and respiratory system, and ramps down some of the less crucial functions…including emotional regulation.” Cue the heightened urge to join the “Mile Cry Club.” It’s only one of several curious things that being on a plane does to your body.
Another potential cause of your heightened emotions is dehydration. “Because the air circulated in the cabin is very dry…we get pretty darn dehydrated on a plane,” Sullivan says. And being dehydrated can have all sorts of adverse effects on your 30,000-foot-high body, not the least of which is making you prone to negative emotions like anxiety and sorrow.
But it’s not just because of the effects being up so high has on your body—there is an emotional component, too! “From a psychological perspective, the mere act of flying can make you more likely to cry,” Sullivan says. “Even if you’re not afraid of planes, it’s a stressful situation.” Taking a flight often involves saying goodbye to someone in the place you’re leaving, which can be emotional. You can be worried about turbulence, losing your luggage, or making a connection. You could be hearing the wails of a fussy baby. So your nerves might be a little frayed, which certainly doesn’t help when your body’s emotional regulation is already on “low.”
There are a couple of ways to stave off the tears while you’re flying. Drink plenty of water before and during your flight to stay as hydrated as possible. If you really want to maximize hydration, Sullivan recommends using a moisturizing face mask. You can also keep your mind occupied with a tricky puzzle or brain game, like these printable crossword puzzles. And if you’re going to watch a movie, maybe choose one that’s a bit more lighthearted in content—save Titanic and Pixar’s Up for a fully earthbound movie night. And, finally, make flying a more pleasant, less cry-worthy overall experience with these 12 tips to make air travel less stressful.