Raise your hand if you've ever been in the middle of a flight and suddenly found yourself overwhelmed with emotion. This could be from a movie you're watching, a book you're reading or even just from the self-reflection you're doing while staring out the window. You probably thought you were alone in this, didn't you? Good news: you're not.
There is actually a whole world of psychological study that's been done on why, exactly, we are SO much more emotional -- and frankly, fragile -- while flying. And it starts before we even get on the plane.
Think about the day before or even the few hours before you get on a flight. This time is filled with packing and prepping. Getting to the airport. Double checking that you have transportation from the airport once you land. Confirming a hotel reservation (or reminding your mom, again, that you're arriving today). Do you have your ID? Is the oven off? Did you bring enough underwear? Did you remember to lock the door? It's Anxiety City, population one. And after all that, you still have to get through security and wait in line at your gate, only to be corralled like cattle into an aluminum can that's bound for the sky.
Then, once you're on the plane, even more outside factors are at play. The engines are revving up. The flight attendants are explaining safety instructions which, even though you've flown more times than you can count, you still feel a tad guilty ignoring because what if you actually had a water landing and didn't know what to do?! Your neighbor is hogging the armrest. The air is weird. Your seat won't recline. What. A. Disaster.
Were you feeling stressed reading that? Because I was stressed writing it. It should come as no surprise, then, that when our bodies and minds go through this process, anxiety is at an all-time high. It's a lot of pressure, and coupled with the fact that we are willingly entering a situation where a tragic death is improbable but possible, we struggle to intellectually process it.
“We have little control over our environment while we are traveling by plane,” Jodi De Luca, a Colorado-based psychologist who studies the impact of high altitudes on emotions, told TIME. “Although we may not be consciously aware of our emotional vulnerability, our emotional brain is working overtime.”
Just like cabin pressure on an airplane can affect the way things sound, taste or your physical state (hellooooo swollen ankles), it can also affect your emotions. Air pressure in flight cabins is usually 6,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level, not only causing your body to feel out of whack, but also leading to dehydration.
“When you’re dehydrated, it’s not just the body that’s lacking in resources,” De Luca said. “Everything is affected. Some people have difficulty self-regulating their emotions.”
Finally, we have to touch on the anonymity of flying. You know...the dark, still silence of a plane as it glides through the sky. When the cabin lights have been lowered and the only solace is the glow of the screen in front of you, it can really make you think about how truly alone you are, which is a hard pill to swallow. Not to mention that the brain chemicals which control your reactions are off-kilter while flying.
This is why one airline even added "emotional health warnings" to the beginning of some movies available to stream, encouraging passengers to keep tissues handy or contact the steward if they needed comforting.
So, the next time you shed a tear while watching "Avengers: Endgame" at 30,000 feet, just know you're not alone.