Juliette Sivertsen talks to an ex-flight attendant about coping with distress while travelling
There's a mix of excitement and apprehension in the air, as New Zealanders begin to travel internationally this week, for the first time in more than 12 months.
The return to transtasman travel is a thrilling development after being grounded due to Covid-19, but navigating airports and bigger cities can bring about heightened levels of anxiety and distress.
And it's not just for the passengers - flight attendants also face the same mix of excitement and stress.
For eight years Alice Stevenson worked as an international flight attendant, while studying undergraduate and postgraduate psychology.
Stevenson has lived experience of historical mental distress, and at times throughout her life it's cropped up, including while she was flying. She says many of her triggers as a flight attendant are likely to be the same for other attendants and passengers with mental distress.
"The triggers would be lack of sleep, lack of routine, a lot of things happening out of my control operationally, such as needing to be away for longer. Or things happening at home when I was away, to do with interpersonal relationships," says Stevenson, who is now finishing her Doctor of Clinical Psychology.
She says for many workers in the aviation industry, the unpredictability of the work impacts wellbeing frequently.
"I've been on a couple of mental health committees for flight attendants and the level of burnout was quite extreme."
Flying during Covid times adds another layer of stress, so she emphasises the importance for airline crew to realise they're not immune to the increased anxiety that the global pandemic has brought.
"You might be putting on your smile and your uniform every day and going to work, but actually you're in a really unique situation. And most of us in the world are feeling stressed about it anyway, but you're on the front line. Maybe understanding the emotional and psychological impacts that it will be having. It's not a matter of if - it will. You can only take that on for so long."
Stevenson, who is currently working as an intern psychologist at Rākau Roroa, recommends flight attendants and others working in aviation read the book, The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Russell Hochschild.
"It's about how you're expected to deliver a product, and the product is your body and your face and a flight experience. So I guess when we're thinking about Covid and anxious passengers, what's going to be the cost of that? Because you can't really show your own feelings and be really human in your response to people.
"There's always going to be a boundary there at work. But somewhere you'll be encoding that in your body and mind. And shutting that off might have real impacts later on."
For Stevenson, she recognised some of the hardest times in her journey in the industry was when she was feeling lonely and away from home. And that feeling of loneliness can hit business and leisure travellers as well, not just those working in the skies.
"Something might have happened at home, then I'd go away, and there's not a lot I can do about it. And you feel this lack of connection."
She says if workers and travellers know they are susceptible to feeling lonely, then it's a good idea to plan or schedule a call or video chat with supportive family or friends back home to help regain a sense of connection.
For flight attendants who might be facing or experiencing the issue of burnout or heightened stress as flights pick up again, Stevenson recommends contacting their Employee Assistance Programme to talk to a trained counsellor for advice. "I think the EAP is extremely important; if you're feeling overwhelmed you deserve your own therapeutic help."
Alice Stevenson's tips for managing mental distress while travelling
Prepare for the airport
Have a look at the airport you're flying to and the time it will take to get to and from the terminals. Plan to get there early to give yourself extra time in case of delays. Make sure you have all the prepared documentation or items required for flying.
Plan for delays, hold-ups and flight changes, and always travel with insurance.
Take a bathroom breather
Airports may feel a little hectic and unpredictable initially with the influx in passengers.
"I really like the good old five-minute bathroom breather. No matter where you are, if it's super busy somewhere, find a public restroom. Sit yourself in there and have a few minutes. We forget about these things when we're stressed or somewhere new, so mentally rehearsing them before you go is really valuable."
Stevenson suggests wearing sunglasses, which can help make you feel like there's more space around you, or wear headphones - even if you're not actually listening to anything.
Plan for connection
Have your support people lined up before you go.
"If you talk to your sister when you're feeling overwhelmed, make sure she knows that you're travelling and she's going to answer her phone."
Add to your phone any support numbers like New Zealand's 1737 to talk to a trained counsellor or peer support worker if you'd like to talk to someone who doesn't know you. There are a number of mental health helplines in Australia, such as Lifeline: 13 11 14.
Work on wellbeing basics
Listen to your body while travelling. Find ways to eat well and sleep well. When you're at your destination, prioritise getting outside and into nature.
"It sounds super-basic but those things can quickly fall out of your grasp when you're out of your environment."
Ask for support
It's okay to let airport and airline staff know that you are feeling anxious or jittery, as they're trained to help.
"I think if you've had previous experience of anxiety or distress, it's really important to review all your go-tos for coping. Make a little list and put them in your bag, so you just know they're there."
There are more resources and coping strategies available through the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.
Questions on keeping good mental health when travelling? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter at @j_sivertsen
• LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland (available 24/7)
• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 ,free text 234 or email email@example.com or online chat.
• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757
• SAMARITANS – 0800 726 666.