Manage Stress During Flight Training

Pilot managing his stress

The I’M SAFE checklist is one of the first introductions to human factors that student pilots receive. It helps pilots identify possible reasons why a pilot might not be fit for flight. 

The checklist boosts self-awareness amongst all pilots. Most of the items on the list are pretty self-explanatory. For example, I is for illness–are you sick? If so, you probably shouldn’t fly today. A is for alcohol–have you been drinking? If so, you really shouldn’t fly today. 

But a few list items are more complex than they first seem. S is for stress–and stress is a complicated topic. Here’s a closer look at the types of stress and how they might affect a student pilot during flight training. 

Stress – The Good and The Bad

The most important thing to remember about stress is that there is no avoiding it. Stress is hardwired into human beings thanks to eons of evolution. Would you be–should you be–stressed if a jaguar jumps out of the bushes at you? A pit viper crosses your path? An elephant stampede heads your way? You would and should be!

The moment you see that jaguar, viper, or stampede, the adrenaline starts pumping, and your heart starts beating faster. And that’s a good thing because it sets your body on high alert–ready for fight or flight. Your brain works faster, and your muscles are ready to spring into action. All this means you’ll survive to live another day. 

Instructor teaching student how to manage their stress

Well, most of us aren’t running away from jaguars, pit vipers, or stampedes anymore. But our ancestors did, and thanks to their reactions to stress, they survived so that we could be here today. 

How these natural reactions work in the modern world is a fascinating thing to ponder. We’re still looking for threats–and we’re still finding them. But they look very different today. What has stressed you out lately? Are they things like the stressors above that come on suddenly and are over quickly? Or are they longer-term things, like financial insecurity, relationship problems, or final exams in school? 

Types of Stress

Since you escaped that pouncing jaguar, you know that some amount of stress is a good thing. Our performance increases the more we are stressed–but only to a point. If you experience too much stress, the body begins to get overloaded and perform poorly.

Stress comes in two flavors–acute and chronic. 

Acute Stress

Acute stress is your reaction to a particular event, and the physiological changes in your body help you “fight or flight.”

We don’t face wild animals anymore, but we have lots of stressors that cause the same reaction. Maybe it’s a car swerving into your lane on the freeway, or a plane rolling past the hold-short line while you’re on short final. 

Some acute stress is a good thing. You swerved to avoid a crash on the freeway, and you made that go-around like a pro. Your body cut down your reaction time and sharpened your senses for a few seconds so that you could survive another day.

Chronic Stress

Chronic stress is the term used to describe life stress–things that pile up and go on and on. Our body reacts the same way. But since the stressor doesn’t go away, the physiological reaction continues. 

This type of stress is harmful to your overall health, and it’s the thing you should be worried about most when you look at the S in I’M SAFE. Chronic stress leads to burnout, and burnout means dulled senses and lackluster performance. For a pilot, chronic stress affects the safety of flight. 

Stress Vs. Fatigue

Another similar concept on the I’M SAFE check is F for fatigue. Like stress, fatigue comes in acute and chronic forms. But fatigue has to do with a lack of quality rest, while stress has to do with your reaction to environmental factors.

The thing about fatigue is it causes stress, and stress causes fatigue. They have very similar signs and symptoms, too. So they are more interconnected than many give them credit for.

Stress Vs. Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are very similar, but it’s worth taking a look at the differences. 

According to the APA (American Psychological Association), anxieties come from worries that persist when no stressor is present. In other words, anxiety comes internally–it comes from the “what ifs” that rattle around in your head and don’t go away. Common anxieties include phobias, social anxiety, or panic disorders.

The symptoms of anxiety and stress are nearly identical–irritability, fatigue, anger, digestion problems, difficulty concentrating, or insomnia. Therefore, coping and managing the stress and anxiety in your life requires the same techniques. 

What Causes Stress During Flight Training

Learning to fly is an exciting and life-changing experience–a door to an entirely new world and entrance into an elite club. 

All flight students will experience some stress during flight training. There are certain times when you will be required to push yourself outside your comfort zone and prove what you can do. 

Everyone is stressed and excited during their first solo flight. And everyone experiences the same build-up of stress as their checkride day approaches. And everyone experiences learning plateaus and even has the occasional poor performance on a flight lesson or progress check.

Four A’s of Stress Management

The list of Four A’s is a valuable tool to help pilots manage stressors. When faced with a challenging stressor, which A will you choose–avoid it, alter it, adapt to it, or accept it?

Avoid

You can avoid some stress by using the word “no.” For example, “No, I will not fly solo today with this high crosswind,” or, “No, I can’t schedule a checkride next week because I have a final exam in my psych class.”

Alter

How can you alter the situation to manage the associated stress? This generally means communicating well with your flight instructor and being open to compromise in flight training. Be assertive in how you feel and what you need to balance a situation.

Pilot after managing his stress

Adapt

You might not be able to avoid or alter a problem, so how can you adapt to it? The most common way people do this is to reframe how they think about it. In other words, every setback is an opportunity.

For example, say you performed unsatisfactorily on a progress check. The check pilot produced a list of deficiencies and sent you back to your CFI. No pilot likes that stressful scenario. 

But it’s not all bad. Sure, some check airmen like to treat you to humble pie occasionally. But chances are there is some truth in what they say, and if you can reflect on what happened, you can do better next time.

Accept

You can’t change or avoid everything, of course. Sometimes you just have to accept what you can’t change and move on. 

In the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Tips for Reducing and Coping with Chronic Stress

Since everyone has stress, everyone needs some healthy ways to handle it. The Four A’s are an excellent place to start. Here are some more proven ways to help you deal with whatever flight training–and life–throws your way. You can find a more complete list of stress tips on the APA website. 

Make Time for Relaxation

Relaxation is planned and deliberate. But, unfortunately, free time and fun activities are usually the first things you skip when your schedule fills up and you’re busy. 

Leisure activities are used by our bodies to recuperate and regroup. So whatever you love doing most, be it hiking in the woods, watching old movies, or gaming, be sure to carve yourself a little bit of time each day to unwind.

Stress causes muscle tension and headaches, so provide time for your body to relax. Relax those tense muscles with massages, warm baths, or exercise. Breathing exercises or meditation are also excellent tools if you’re into it. 

Healthy Diet

Good nutrition is vital to overall health, but it’s seldom found in the FBO vending machine. Healthy eating habits are sometimes difficult to incorporate into the pilot’s everyday life, but doing so is essential to ward off long-term stress and other health problems.

Pilot after managing his stress

Exercise Regularly

Few activities produce such immediate effects on stress and anxiety than a good workout. Even if you just go for a stroll outdoors, getting your body up and moving clears the mind and improves your overall health. It’s one of the best coping mechanisms there is, and it’s free.

Keep a Regular Sleep Schedule

Never underestimate the importance of a set sleep schedule. Pilots must pay special attention and make every effort to avoid long-term fatigue. This life skill begins during flight school but will continue throughout your aviation career.

Seek Social Support

A solid group of friends or family improves our resilience to stress. At the flight school, this usually takes the form of fellow students. Trade notes, set up study groups, and find partners who can help you prepare for lessons and checkrides. Having the shared experience of flight training helps you realize that everyone has troubles here and there, and can help you get through them.

Tips to Reduce Checkride Anxiety

One of the most stressful days of any pilot’s training is checkride day. It’s like college final exams and getting your driver’s license all packed into one four-hour-long stress-fest. 

The number one key to managing checkride anxiety is to be prepared. Getting yourself prepared for the checkride is your responsibility–but you will also have lots of help from your flight instructor. No one wants to send you on a checkride too soon or unprepared. So study hard, do your assignments, and do a few practice runs with your CFI.

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become an airline pilot with Zero Time to Airline training

Here are a few final tips for keeping your stress and anxiety in check on checkride day.

  • Eat a good dinner and breakfast before the checkride.
  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Do not “pull an all-nighter” to “cram” for the test–Set a cutoff time and put the books down (i.e., 6:00 pm the night before your checkride)
  • Make a good impression–Dress and act professionally, show up very early, have your flight bag, logbook, and notes tidy and organized.
  • Be prepared–Have all of your textbooks, POH, charts, supplies, and paperwork with you. Double check that your IACRA application is completed correctly and signed by your instructor. Prepare your logbook by flagging all required flights and hours so the DPE can find the information quickly. 
  • Don’t try anything new during the checkride–do everything exactly as you have practiced with your flight instructor.
  • Keep in mind that the checkride will be over in a few hours.
  • Plan a big treat to look forward to once it’s over–maybe dinner at your favorite restaurant or a night out with friends.

By Liz Brassaw

Liz Brassaw is the Chief Pilot and Chief Flight Operations Officer for Thrust Flight. She is a CFI, CFII and MEI with over 2,500 hours of flight instruction given. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree from the Utah Valley University School of Aviation Sciences. She’s passionate about flying and enjoys instilling that love in the instructors on her team and the new students she trains.

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