Why do I cry when I fly? Your movie choices have nothing to do with it.

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5 min read
Why do I cry when I fly?
Have you ever found yourself crying on a plane for no good reason? A flight could be associated with many valid reasons to cry. You could be leaving loved ones, starting a new chapter i.e. extended holiday or an interstate or overseas move, going to or from a sick/injured relative or friend, or a funeral. Even returning home from a great holiday could be such a downer that you shed a few tears. It’s a different sort of crying that catches many passengers by surprise.

This is crying for little or no reason or reacting more strongly than you would on the ground to a sad (or happy) movie, TV show or even an advertisement. Something which you would observe dry-eyed at home has you sobbing and blowing your nose and leaves you with red puffy eyes and hiccups for the rest of the flight.

Why do I cry when I fly?
Don’t worry, it’s not just you crying at films on planes. Why do I cry when I fly?

Virgin Atlantic finds emotions run high on their flights

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. In 2011, Virgin Atlantic surveyed customers on their in-flight emotional experiences. Overall, 55 percent of passengers reported “experienced heightened emotions while flying,” and a surprising 41 percent of men stated that they had “buried themselves in blankets to hide tears in their eyes from other passengers.”

After running their survey, Virgin added ‘emotional health warnings’ to certain particularly sad movies (like Toy Story 3 and Eat, Pray, Love) that read “the following film contains scenes which may cause viewers of a sensitive disposition to cry, weep, sob, wail, howl, bawl, bleat or mewl.”

Crying on planes – This American Life

A 2015 segment of This American Life documents writer Brett Martin’s flight from New York to Puerto Rico where he found himself bawling at the end of the Reese Witherspoon movie Sweet Home Alabama. During the segment, he admits to crying in movies on airplanes and adds, “Not sometimes, always. And not some movies, all movies. Don’t believe me? Here is by no means complete list: Bend It Like Beckham101 DalmatiansWhat A Girl Wants, Daredevil”.

Upon investigation his friends confessed to crying on airplanes watching Everyone Loves Raymond, Dirty Dancing Havana Nights, Freaky Friday, and even an AMEX commercial.  He ultimately concludes that he saves his tears for flying as he never cries on the ground.

The surprisingly common phenomenon of the tendency to cry when watching films on planes even has a name ‘Altitude Adjusted Lachrymosity Syndrome’ coined on the United Kingdom BBC Radio Show “Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review”.

Overall, 55 percent of passengers reported ‘experienced heightened emotions while flyingVirgin Atlantic

So what is it about flying that brings on the waterworks?

Pre-flight factors

Could it just be that we are just tired and emotional? The lead up to a flight can be stressful. Before you take your seat you’ve endured the planning, preparation and packing. Maybe the alarm didn’t go off so you had a Home Alone-style dash to the airport.

At the airport you battled through airport security, customs and immigration, with their rules on liquids and gels and laptops. You trekked out to your far-flung gate. You’ve boarded and battled the cabin crew and other passengers to put your carry on above your head or under the seat in front.

Crying can be a delayed response to stress. At the time we’re in ‘fight or flight’ mode (the sympathetic nervous system).  However, once the stress is over – in this case once you’re relaxing on the flight – we move from ‘fight or flight’ to ‘rest and digest’ (the parasympathetic nervous system) which is responsible for tears.

We surrender almost all control when boarding an aircraft.

In-flight factors

Once on-board, the cabin environment can also take its toll. Most cabins are pressurized to 8000ft, and that thinner air contains less oxygen than thicker air at sea level. Cabin humidity is low, which can contribute to dehydration. Your space and seat recline is limited, so you may not be able to sit comfortably let alone sleep. Flying is physically tiring and one of the symptoms of tiredness is reduced ability to control your emotions.

Why do I cry when I fly?

The most common emotional trigger for adults – powerlessness

We watch movies following stressful periods and when tired on the ground without such strong effects. There must be other factors at play here. Why do adults cry in general? Psychologists Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets and Lauren Bylsma reviewed the literature on crying in adults and found that for crying “probably the most common emotional trigger is a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness.” And “powerlessness [is] in a central position that stimulates our tears.” Flying renders passengers powerless and helpless in ways not common to other forms of public transport.

Alone in-flight is one of the last few places you are truly disconnected from your friends and family.

Disconnected

Alone in-flight is one of the last few places you are truly disconnected from your friends and family. If you are old enough you may remember a time when you didn’t carry a phone with you, and weren’t instantly available via phone, text or social media. If you fall into this camp, you can probably cope with, perhaps even relish a few hours offline. Millennials however didn’t experience this world, and such disconnection from their online social networks may make them feel keenly isolated.

Lack of Control

We surrender almost all control when boarding an aircraft. The pilots (or more broadly the airline, airport, air traffic control etc) control when you leave, when you arrive, the route taken, the altitude and the speed. You have no input and they can’t stop the flight so you can get off.

The on-board experience is much like being back in a primary school classroom:

  • You are told when to enter and leave (sometimes signalled by bells), where to sit and where you can put your belongings.
  • You are restricted in what you can bring and when you can have your electronics out and in use.
  • At times you are not allowed to recline your seat (just as you are prevented from swinging on your chair in primary school).
  • At times you have to have your window shades open or shut.
  • At times you are not allowed to leave your seat not even to use the bathroom.
  • You cannot control when the in-flight entertainment starts and ends or when it will be interrupted.
  • You will be fed on a schedule and your meal choices are limited.
  • You are not allowed to smoke (just like primary school!)

It’s hard not to feel infantilised by this environment reminiscent of a controlled childhood classroom.

Crying during airplane movies is normal

Flying can be stressful and tiring and finding yourself offline and alone in the strictly controlled aircraft environment can cause us to feel powerless and helpless. This can render us susceptible to emotional on-screen scenes triggering tears.

How to stay dry-eyed in-flight

To stay dry-eyed in-flight you could minimise the stress leading up to your travel date, look for flights with onboard wifi and avoid emotional TV and movies.

Alternately, why not join me in accepting that you are one of the majority of us who get a bit emotional on-board and jot down what set you off to compare notes with other passengers.

On my list is:

  • Room, Me Before You and Never Let me Go (even though I’d read the books and knew how they ended).
  • The Fault in our Stars and Me and Earl and The Dying Girl (even though I had a fair idea how they would end).
  • Any dog related movies. I’m currently avoiding A Dog’s Purpose after sobbing through the end of both the book and movie Marley and Me at home. Who knows what would happen in-flight!

Nina x

Let me know in the comments below which TV show or movie made you sob at 35,000 ft.

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Why do I cry when I fly?

2 Comments
  1. Neeti Jain says

    I just chanced upon this piece and have giggled and giggled because this is ME in every long-haul flight. The last film that made me really bawl (my husband could not get me to stop for a whole ten minute, until i fell asleep sobbing) was “The Light Between the Oceans”.

    1. Iris Lillian says

      Hey Neeti, it’s hilarious isn’t it! Who knew they being so high could make you cry 😉

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