More Travelers Are Experiencing Trauma on Airplane Flights

If you encounter trouble in the air — and it seems a regular occurrence — here's how to care for yourself mentally and emotionally

Tuesday’s horrific tragedy on a Southwest Airlines flight that left one passenger dead and many shook up is a stark reminder of how vulnerable we are when we travel on airplanes.

If there’s a silver lining to the awful tragedy, it’s that the lives of the other 143 other passengers and five crew members were spared, thanks in large part to the capable efforts of the pilot — along with divine intervention, in all likelihood — who commandeered the plane to a safe landing.

These kinds of incidents happen about three or four times a year, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, as The Seattle Times reported.

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Still, it seems that increasingly, passengers are being traumatized by what they’re seeing or experiencing at 30,000 feet.

“I was on a flight recently and the bathroom door swung open and hit the wall, and everyone in their seats just jumped,” a Boston-area woman who had flown from that city to Baltimore told LifeZette. “We are all definitely more ‘on alert,’ hoping our flight just goes smoothly.”

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It seems that every other day we hear about some kind of disturbance on a flight. Who can forget the collective outrage that rocked the nation last month when a puppy appeared to have suffocated in an overhead compartment of United Airlines Flight 1284 after a flight attendant allegedly insisted the owner place the dog in its carrier inside the bin?

Or the man dragged off a United Airlines flight last year in front of startled passengers — his nose bloodied, his expression dazed? “It was very traumatic,” passenger Jade Kelley told CNN. She did not witness the entire event, but said the sound of the screams still haunt her to this day.

To be sure, tragedies can strike anyone, anywhere, and at any time. But what about the trauma experienced in the aftermath of a life-altering crisis?

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“The sooner the traumatic event is processed, the better,” Carmen Visan, a Seattle-based therapist in private practice, told LifeZette this week. “The best ways to cope with something like a plane crash is with support from trusted people and trained trauma professionals.”

While there’s a tendency to turn away from the traumatizing event, that should be avoided, as it could repress and postpone healing, said Visan.

“Conscious, sustained, and supported engagement with the entirety of the memory of the event is the best way to overcome [trauma],” she told LifeZette by email. “Talk about it, express deep emotions physically and verbally, and find a healing, nurturing place within and with trusted others,” she said

Here are more of Visan’s insights and responses to LifeZette about the lingering effects of a traumatic flight:

Question: What might happen to people when they live through a plane crash, an emergency landing or other trauma in the air?
Answer: A plane crash, like a car accident, is what’s called a single-event trauma, but with a capital “T.” What makes it so significant is that it starkly brings to the fore the implicit question, “Am I going to going to die?”

This is the most basic fear humans have hardwired into our neuronal networks: the fight for survival. Surviving such an event is a major trauma; people generally experience PTSD symptoms for a a period of time after the event. If these symptoms persist, that’s an indication the person should seek professional help from a therapist of find a PTSD support group to more fully process the incident.

“The power of belief, just like in recovery from a physical illness, is largely psychological.”

Something else that can be expected with such a high-magnitude event is a pronounced though unconscious and possibly generalized preoccupation with the future, such as: “Will I be OK to fly? Can I let my kids get on planes? I’ve heard that there are far more car than plane accidents, therefore I’m not sure I can even drive.”

Related: Make Things Right When Your Flight Goes Wrong

Q: Are there any particular coping strategies for passengers in the immediate aftermath of a disturbing mid-air event?
A: The sooner the traumatic event is processed, the better. The best ways to cope with something like this is with support form trusted people and trained trauma professionals. The power of belief, just like in recovery from a physical illness, is largely psychological.

Therefore, it is helpful if one’s beliefs and attendant behaviors are framed constructively and realistically. Usually, there is the desire to turn away from the traumatizing event, metaphorically speaking. That is something that should not be done, as it will likely repress and postpone healing; instead, conscious, sustained, and supported engagement with the entirety of the memory of the event is the best way to overcome. Trauma is actually stored in the body, physically, both at the neuronal level as well as at the somatic level. Talk about it, express deep emotions physically and verbally, and find a healing, nurturing place within and with trusted others.

Q: What does seeing a horrific event — or experiencing it firsthand — do to people in general?
A: Witnessing or experiencing such an event produces similar symptom constellations: triggering of the fight-flight-freeze-faint autonomic response, increased vigilance, persistent hyper-arousal to triggers, avoidance of references of the event, impaired sleep, intrusive thoughts, and at worst, social isolation.

These symptoms could be misinterpreted as panic attacks, generalized anxiety or depression in adults and oppositionality in kids. They should more appropriately be interpreted as PTSD symptoms. In my opinion, at minimum, all survivors should have a trauma-trained expert do a therapeutic debrief, either in group format or individually.

Elizabeth Economou is a former CNBC staff writer and adjunct professor. Follow her on Twitter.

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