Encountering stress is as much a part of life as breathing. People spend thousands of dollars on products and techniques to manage stress. For many pilots, the focus and discipline required to fly and the views from the cockpit are ways to give us perspective and escape from the daily stress and pressure of life. Many of us experience peace that comes as we watch the sunrise on the horizon during an early-morning flight. We fly over the red tail lights of rush hour traffic and feel the peace of observing the chaos rather than being in the midst of it.
However, what if the very skills that keep us aloft are the same techniques that can help us engage with stress and frantic pace of life in a way that allows us to be present with those we love the most? What if there was a way to apply the focus and discipline of aviation to cope with an often overwhelming and never-ending “to do” list?
With the right perspective, the training and practice that goes into becoming a proficient pilot can also make us more adept at handling stress and pressure in our daily lives. While being airborne is an escape from everyday stress, with a little reflection, the skill we use to navigate the skies can be directly applied to help us navigate the stressors from which we are hoping to escape.
My work now as a professional counselor is very different from my years instructing and working as a commercial airline pilot. However, I am often struck by how the lessons learned in flying trickle over to other areas of life. More than most, pilots understand the importance of communication, strategic planning, decision-making, priority management and principles of risk management. We know the danger of distractions and the deadly nature of focusing on the wrong thing at the wrong time. All of the above skills contribute to success in leadership, business and relationships. Aviation affects more than our hobbies and pastimes (and our wallets); it becomes a way of approaching life.
I sometimes wish therapy clients had more exposure to the skills learned and practiced through learning to fly. Situational awareness, communication and visualization are all skills adaptable to relationships. Additionally, they give us common language and metaphors through which to talk about life and love!
One of the significant applications of aviation principles to stress management came when I was in my early 20s. After years of instructing, I took a job as a first officer with a regional airline. Moving from piston aircraft to turbofan jet engines was quite a jump. The plane was faster, the airports were busier, and the consequences of making a mistake were much higher. The increased speed and complexity meant that things could go wrong more quickly than in anything I had experienced.