Stress management is a topic that is often talked about in aviation theory but hardly ever utilized in practice. Students are often unaware of the reason why their training performance is declining or plateauing, even after flying for a significant amount of time. Although there could be several reasons for the slump, stress is a major contributor, and it is often overlooked by flight instructors and students alike. Before getting frustrated with our students, it may be advantageous as educators to first recognize that the student may be under a considerable amount of stress. Asking questions to identify the student’s stressors can be the solution for both individuals to progress.
In the latest issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine, Susan Parson, Special Assistant in the FAA’s Flight Standards Service, wrote a valuable article on stress and stress management. In the article, she states that “stress is a creature of duality.” In other words, stress can either be helpful by improving focus or harmful when it is excessive and causes frustration.
We understand through our Human Factors ground lessons that stress can be acute or chronic. Acute stress heightens our awareness, memory, and visual cues and prevents complacency, which can be beneficial during an approach to land, for example. On the other hand, chronic stress does not just cause poor performance, it also affects other areas in daily life. Chronic stress can lead to sleep deprivation, lack of focus, hypertension, volatile emotions, and so on. In the book Flight Stress: Stress, Fatigue, and Performance in Aviation, Alan Stokes and Kirsten Kite introduce the inverted U diagram, which illustrates the region of stress in which the greatest performance levels can be achieved.
When a student is complacent or overconfident in his or her abilities, their amount of stress is low, which in turn produces subpar performance in flight. When the student is under too much pressure, he or she may be experiencing chronic stress–an excessive amount of stress that also causes subpar performance. The sweet spot exists in the middle, where the student feels challenged, yet motivated to perform. It is crucial for both students and instructors to recognize this balance.
The Flight Instructor’s Role
As mentioned before, if a student seems distracted or has a particularly difficult time accomplishing the tasks of the lesson, the instructor should query the student. Establish whether the student was uncomfortable or tired that day. Are there external pressures like family or finances that are causing a distraction? The instructor should put himself or herself in the shoes of the student. For example, if the student consistently chooses not to fly, even though weather briefings indicate favorable conditions, it may be due to apprehension regarding the lesson content. Instructors may recall the initial fear they once had to face when learning stalls or landings. Use that as a teaching tool to reassure the student that the lesson will be safe under your supervision. Alternatively, explain the maneuver in greater detail or offer some additional encouragement to alleviate some of the student’s stress.
The Four As of Stress Management
For the student, a useful method in recognizing and managing stress is to utilize the Four As: Avoid, Alter, Adapt, and Accept. Instructors should impart this knowledge to students who seem to be distracted in repeated lessons.
Avoid sources of stress. Say “no” to taking on more than you can handle, whether in personal or professional situations. Limit the time you spend with people who cause stress in your life. Refrain from doing things that make you tense. This step urges you to recognize the sources of stress in your life.
Alter the situation. Create a balanced schedule. Be willing to compromise. Learn to be appropriately assertive by expressing feelings and needs in an open and respectful way. In other words, do what is best for yourself, but be gracious when it involves others, including your student/instructor.
Adapt to the situation. Learn to reframe problems (e.g., a mistake is an opportunity to learn; bad weather offers time to refresh aviation knowledge). Put issues in perspective (e.g., will I remember this a month from now?). Set reasonable standards. Practice an attitude of gratitude. A poor day in the air may not be all bad. It helps you recognize your weak areas and can be used to reflect and make corrections. That is what training is all about.
Accept what you can’t change. Focus on what you can do, and don’t obsess about things you can’t control. Frame challenges as opportunities for growth and learning. Let go of anger and resentment. Confide in a trusted friend, family member, colleague, or professional. It may be beneficial to take a step back to assess all aspects of your life and accept what is or isn’t important in your progression.
We Adapt and Persevere
In light of the global pandemic, stress management is all the more relevant. Many pilots are being furloughed from their aviation jobs, students are struggling to get in the air, and the uncertainty of the future sounds the alarms inside of us. As aviators, we are not too familiar with the idea of uncertainty – purposeful planning is our way of life. But as adept aviators, we pride ourselves on our ability to adapt and persevere as well. As a community, we feel the strain of the pandemic as a collective whole, so know that you are not alone. Here at Gleim, we have and will continue to provide you with assistance to your aviation education needs.
One way we can adapt in this time is by staying relevant. It can be wise to catch up on material we previously lacked time for and use this period as an opportunity to learn. Gleim offers various courses to stay informed and polish previously learned skills. Start with either the Online Communications Course, which is designed to increase pilots’ safety, knowledge, and abilities in the area of aviation radio communications, or the Safe Pilot Course, designed to increase pilots’ knowledge and abilities in regard to operating safely in the National Airspace System. Doing so makes efficient use of the time we have available, and in turn helps reduce stress by allowing us to hit the ground running in any environment.
Written by: Ryan Jeff (CFI, AGI), Aviation Research Assistant