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Be prepared: use your brain's abilities to manage fear of turbulence

Published January 05, 2024

Many people are anxious or uneasy about turbulence. For most of them, this is compounded by the fact that they’re sitting in a metal tube that’s 35,000 feet up in the air, they can’t move, get out, or do many of the things that they’d find helpful to ease stress or anxiety. Breathing can help in the moment, and so can distraction. But, there’s lots of great science to prove that knowing in advance how your flight might transpire can go a long way in easing that anxiety. The trick is being prepared and repeatedly exposing yourself to as much information as you can. There are a well-studied scientific reasons for that. Let’s look at them one by one. 
Stress response in the brain: When confronted with stress, the brain activates the amygdala, the region responsible for emotional responses. This triggers the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which leaves us feeling frantic and nervous, and doesn’t allow us to make good decisions. However, preparation allows the brain to engage the prefrontal cortex instead, responsible for decision-making and problem-solving. This proactive engagement helps in modulating the emotional response and maintaining cognitive control during stressful events. So if you know in advance that, as you’re about to cross the Rocky Mountains, your plane will encounter moderate mountain wave turbulence, your brain can respond in a more rational way. You know what it is, that it was expected, that it’s normal, and your response will be less stressful.
Predictability and control: While you can’t control the weather or the air, advance knowledge provides a sense of predictability and control over the situation. Our brains craves certainty, and when we have advance knowledge or a plan in place, it signals to the brain that we have a degree of control. This perception of control helps reduce the psychological and physiological impact of stress. If you can anticipate a situation, it’s much less stressful. 
Familiarity and cognitive load: Preparation involves familiarizing oneself with potential stressors. When the brain encounters a familiar situation, it expends less cognitive resources to process that information. This reduces the cognitive load, allowing the brain to allocate resources more efficiently when dealing with stress. In the case of turbulence, being familiar with the different types, how intensity feels, and knowing ahead of time where and when your flight might be bumpy, creates that sense of familiarity. So when it happens, it’s not a surprise and you already know what to expect.
Cognitive reappraisal and learning: Preparation encourages a cognitive reappraisal of stressful situations. Instead of viewing them as insurmountable threats, preparation allows you to see challenges as opportunities for growth or problem-solving. This shift in perspective enhances resilience and aids in maintaining a more positive mindset during moments of adversity or anxiety. You brain is also remarkably adaptable, and preparation leverages this quality. Repeated exposure to stressors, even in a simulated or prepared setting, contributes to neuroplasticity—the brain's ability to reorganize itself. This process aids in enhancing coping mechanisms and making you more adept at handling stress over time. As a result, each time you learn and look at a turbulence forecasts, maps, and pilot reports, and each time you actually experience turbulence after you’ve prepared yourself, you train your brain to recognize turbulence as a normal part of flying. 
Next time you’re getting ready to fly, be prepared. Study our maps, get a personalized forecast, and learn as much as you can in our FAQ and blog. Make it a habit to know what the weather conditions will be on your route, and look at pilot reports when you’re sitting at the gate. You will find that being aware and informed reduces the surprise and anxiety, and increases your feelings of being in control of the situation. For those times when you still feel anxious mid-flight, we’ll have a series of tips and tricks in our next post.