Why Do We Always Cry On Planes?
Don't worry, you're not alone.
I don’t know if Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a great book. John Updike called Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel “sentimentally watery” and The New York Times reviewer said it was irritating. I thought it was heartbreaking, but I read it on a plane. I can’t trust my feelings when I’m 40,000 feet in the air.
On this particular occasion, I was on the second leg of a long-haul flight from Europe, that point where time becomes syrupy. I was overtired, slightly musty and wrung out from six weeks of travelling; stuck in that nowhere place between holidays and home. About two hours into the flight, I came to the part of the book where this kid who loses his father finds an index card summing up his whole traumatised existence in one devastating word.
At least, I thought it was devastating. I felt devastated. I finished the book and spent a full hour sobbing quietly into my complimentary pillow. The flight attendant expressed concern, but there was really nothing to worry about. Like many people, for no apparent reason, I’m unusually prone to crying on planes.
There’s very little research into this phenomenon, but there is no doubt it exists. A flurry of articles in recent years has proffered plenty of anecdotal evidence and a quick query out on Facebook brought a flood of tales from weepy traveller friends. These are normal people, when their feet are on the ground. In the air, they are giant babies.
Even when you have a solid reason for breaking down after take-off (FYI, literary fiction is not a solid reason), mid-flight crying jags still feel a little ridiculous. Take Lisa Cant’s experience on a flight home from New York City, for example. She was forced home to Scotland when her work visa expired, leaving behind an American boyfriend and a burgeoning career in the arts. She cried all the way across The Pond.
“I boarded in tears, took off in tears, enjoyed my inflight meal in tears and fell asleep to my own sobbing,” she laughs. But things got really weird when she woke up before landing and glanced out of the plane window. The site of a Tescos supermarket in the rain opened the floodgates again.
Is Crying On Planes Logical?
People cry for obvious reasons – leaving home, leaving holidays – but there are some curious heightened emotions that seem specific to the internal logic air travel itself. Mirerva Holmes remembers a particular trip to the Cook Islands with her fiancé, which wore her down with an interminable series of stopovers.
“Flight number three unleashed a torrent of tears, wailing and unreserved flooding of emotion to no one in particular but the back of the seat in front of me,” she grins.
The most curious and most commonly reported incidences of airborne weepage are triggered by the entertainment onboard. With the difference in cabin pressure and oxygen from the ground, our brains become flimsy and vulnerable to the most transparent manipulations of Hollywood.
It’s The Movies That Get Me
“I cry on planes in movies that would not move me in real life,” says Lola Ellis. “That one where Julianne Moore gets Alzheimer’s. That one where Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts pretend to be Spanish and survive the tsunami. That one where Mark Ruffalo is the adorable hot brother to that dancing comedian guy who pretends to be a wrestler. The one where Lindsey Lohan fights with her mum or something… all the movies make me lose it.”
“I sobbed through How To Be Single on the plane,” reports Gemma Dawes. “What the hell is wrong with me? That movie is supposed to be a comedy.”
Melbourne psychologist Shawn Goldberg is not a frequent flyer-crier, but he can see how the disruptive experience of being on a plane could make you more susceptible to Hollywood drama.
“We’re talking about people whose defences are down. They don’t have to deal with the façade that they live with day-to-day,” he says. “The sense of relief that comes with not being at work, not having to deal with the daily grind, not being in contact or constantly contactable by email or phone, allows us to let go. Then we become more attuned to other emotions, which can easily be triggered by films that people watch or the books that they read. We allow those emotions to come through a bit more.”
There is something very solitary about air travel, too, though we’re constantly surrounded by people. Sitting in tidy rows, arranged in a uniform direction, we barely have to acknowledge each other’s presence, let alone make eye contact, let alone talk. As well as a suspended reality, air travel is a public space that feels very private, which makes it easier when the tears well up to let them run free.
“With the natural noise of the plane, I figure no one notices my sniffs,” says Tamsen Franklin, who is prone to crying on aeroplanes after saying her goodbyes.
Mirerva Holmes knows that people can hear her, she just doesn’t care. “It seems to be this safe space, this sub-reality fly-zone where planet earth is detached from real life,” she says. “People are always going to be aware, but it’s unlikely you’ll see them again, so I just go with it. It’s a release. I actually look forward to it.”
Shawn Goldberg points out that our physiology is primed for this kind of release when we set out on a journey.
“When we go on holidays, we’re mostly running on adrenaline to get through the day,” he says. “We’re trying to be productive; we’re drinking lots of coffee. When we slow down, when we go to get on a plane and take a break, our nervous system switches out of adrenal mode and relaxes, and that makes us more vulnerable. If we accumulate high, long-standing adrenal cortisol levels that aren’t addressed by a good work-life balance, it’s totally going to catch up with you.”
And when life pauses for a moment, when we’re up there in this suspended reality, we are forced to sit still with our thoughts. All the external noise of life stops and the feelings rush in, all wobbly and ridiculous and beautiful.
It’s totally embarrassing, says Lisa Cant, but there is definitely an upside.
“Generally, at least one kind stranger will approach you and ask if you are okay, or put a tissue in your hand,” she smiles. “It reminds me that I am not alone and that people are generally good. I find it weirdly soothing.”
And let’s face it – you usually have an exciting holiday ahead of you, or the prospect of returning home after being away. So it’s not all bad.