Stress and Pilot Performance: Part 2

Stress hormones are catabolic in nature; in other words, they break the body down. In the last issue of SAFE, the magazine, we discussed the problems of stress relating to pilot performance. Now, we’ll continue the conversation.

In 1976, Selye described stress as “wear and tear” on the body. Some degree of stress is actually necessary in order to perform day-to-day tasks, but stress which persists over a long period can severely affect human performance and health.

Interestingly, individuals with the strongest psychosocial support systems seem to be able to tolerate the most stress without adverse effects (Mitchell, 1997), so creating and maintaining healthy relationships is critical to good stress management.

Stress that persists over a long period of time is called cumulative stress. Some clear indications of cumulative stress are physical and emotional exhaustion, apathy, and
deterioration in performance. Cumulative stress needs to be dissipated or discharged through physical exercise, meditation, body massage, or other forms of relaxation.

Extensive research conducted by NASA over the years confirms that a moderate level of stress has a positive effect on human performance while abnormal levels of stress decrease human performance. Additionally, research findings indicate that the performance of complex or unfamiliar tasks requires a higher level of attention than completion of simple or over-learned tasks, thereby increasing stress levels. During an inflight emergency, the pilot’s workload can quickly exceed his or her capabilities to perform certain tasks within a finite period of time.

This inability to respond in itself creates stress, which in the extreme becomes traumatic stress. Everly (1997) makes the point that traumatic stress overwhelms our normal coping mechanisms while cumulative stress erodes them. The analogy that comes to mind is that of an ocean wave. A single ocean wave can easily knock a person down just as a single traumatic episode can overwhelm a person. But it takes many ocean waves over a period of time to erode a beach, just as it takes on going stress to cause “wear and tear” on the body.

Coping with Stress

In theory, as one matures and adapts to life’s many stressors, one learns to cope more effectively with stress. It would seem that as a pilot grows in experience, he or she should be able to handle more stress. However, there is a limit to the amount of stress a human being can handle. This limit varies from individual to individual and also varies over the life span. Elderly individuals generally cannot cope as well with the same amount of stress as a younger person.

There are numerous techniques available to cope with the effects of stress, but some of

the most helpful techniques are very simple — just make sure you get plenty of exercise, rest, and healthy food. Research studies show that individuals who get less than seven-to-eight hours of sleep per night are not as alert as those who do (Foster & Wulff, 205; Hublin et al., 2007). Additionally, the Operators Guide to Human Factors in Aviation, a compendium of information first published in 2009, cites research to indicate the adverse effects of too much caffeine on pilot judgment and the effects of sitting for too long at a time on pilot performance. Few pilots would think that drinking too much coffee or sitting too long in the cockpit could produce stress, but it does.

Stress can be significantly reduced through increased awareness of one’s personal signs of stress. In addition, stress can be successfully managed through meditation, the practice of constructive self-talk, socializing with friends, deep breathing exercises, muscle tension release exercises, visualization or guided imagery, therapeutic massage, reiki therapy, listening to soothing music, and by being appropriately assertive in meeting your own needs.

Other stress busters include taking a walk for at least 20 minutes a day, journaling aboutyour thoughts and feelings, planning some “alone time” each day, simplifying your life on all levels, and doing at least one thing each day just because it pleases you. Learn to take control of how you spend your time and you will also reduce your stress level in the process.

Stress that isn’t dissipated daily will continue to accumulate over time and either “spill out” at some inappropriate time, such as yelling at your spouse, or become internalized in the form of high blood pressure, migraine headaches, stiff neck, low back pain, chest pain, or an actual heart attack. For that reason, it is important that pilots of all certificate levels learn to recognize their own personal signs of stress and have a plan for dissipating or reducing stress as necessary.

Rossiter Stress graphic

In Conclusion

The best way to cope with stress as a pilot is to do a thorough job of assessing your own fitness for flight. The checklist in Table 1 was devised by the FAA Aeromedical Branch to aid a pilot in determining fitness for flight FAR 61.53 prohibits a person from serving as “a required pilot flight crewmember” if experiencing “a medical deficiency.” In other words, pilots are expected to ground themselves if they have a physical or mental impairment that affects the safety of flight. Flying when you are depressed, angry, physically ill, fatigued, or emotionally stressed out is never a good idea because such conditions can and do impair pilot judgment.

While piloting an aircraft will never be a stress free activity, there are things a pilot can do to minimize the amount of stress experienced. Educating oneself about the effects of stress on human performance generally and on your own performance as a pilot, flight instructor, or crew member in particular can go a long way toward increasing safety of flight and your mental and physical wellbeing.

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