It’s a scenario we all recognize: You’re peacefully enjoying a flight one minute, and the next you’re openly sobbing at the rom-com playing on a tiny screen, hoping your seat neighbors don’t notice. Or maybe you’re feeling inexplicably high-strung and can’t pinpoint why, or you can’t help but question all your life choices during turbulence.
You’re not imagining it — travelers are frequently overcome with unexpectedly strong feelings when they’re in the air. Your trek through airport security may be stressful enough on its own, but once you step aboard, you’re in for a whole new emotional roller-coaster. So, why does this happen?
Airplanes make for some serious alone time
Mental health professionals have a host of theories about why planes bring out our inner softies. “Airplanes are probably the longest amount of time that people are in one spot and can’t move,” psychologist Lynn Saladino said in a phone interview. “A lot of times, we’re walking around with emotions that we’re not really looking at.”
The emotional aspects of our lives can easily bring us to tears in flight because we don’t have our usual distractions. “When you start getting emotional at home, you can go for a walk [or] start another project. You do what you need to do to get yourself out of that emotional state,” Saladino said. “On airplanes we have less options, so sometimes that’s a big piece of it.”
Jen Rubio, cofounder of suitcase company Away and a frequent business traveler, said there’s no shame in crying on flights. In fact, she embraces those emotions. “It’s that quiet moment at 30,000 feet, not logged onto plane Wi-Fi with Toy Story on the little screen, where I don’t care who sees me crying,” Rubio said in an email interview. “It’s usually not about anything specific in my life, but just heightened sensitivity from being in the air.”
Feelings are contagious
On top of the intense emotions that cause those in-flight tears, travelers are often anxious about the logistics of their trips or upset about stressful experiences in the airport.
“Unfortunately, sometimes there are some less-positive emotions with airports,” therapist Shemiah R. Derrick said in a phone interview. “Maybe people are traveling to go and see family; maybe there’s a loss. Airports are notorious for there being some sense of goodbye.”
Research has repeatedly found that both positive and negative emotions can have contagious effects. “Maybe [your fellow passengers] are moving away, maybe they’re starting something new to get away from something,” Derrick said. “You just kind of don’t know what you’re going to get.”
In the air, tiny details can make a big difference
No matter how routine or inconsequential a particular flight may feel, flying is a physical transition. “Even if you’re traveling for work, maybe you’re leaving some family behind,” Saladino said. “Even if you’re going on an adventure to Italy for the first time, that’s a big life event for people.” No matter why you’re on the plane, your reason for being there could be looming in the back of your mind more heavily than you realize.
A lot of the entertainment we rely on to get us through the flight is also emotion-inducing. “Music or movies or books are set up to tap into emotions,” Saladino said.
Even if you’re hardly one to cry during a sappy movie on the ground — say, in your living room or a movie theater — you might have a totally different reaction in the air. Since the experience of flying can bring anxiety, frustration and stress along with it, all those feelings brewing just under the surface might make the tears come more easily. It’s not that you’re actually devastated over the main character getting dumped; you’re merely stressed about your trip, and this is how your mind is expressing it.
Tears on a plane don’t necessarily mean you’re sad
It’s important to remember there’s more to tears than sadness. According to Saladino, crying is one of the most contained ways people can express their emotions. That makes it one of the more appealing options when you’re packed in like a sardine between two strangers. It’s not exactly socially acceptable — or sometimes even physically possible — to hit something or to yell while you’re in the air, so awkwardly sobbing into your sleeve might be how your feelings ultimately come out.
For a better flight, give yourself a break
Adding some extra downtime to your schedule before you take off can make a big difference. That way, the shock of transitioning from your busy life to slowing down a bit can be handled ahead of time. “Whatever processing is going to happen, allow for that to happen earlier,” Derrick said. “People work all the way up to the day before they leave, or they work all the way up until the night and they have a red-eye. There’s just no break.”
Make things easier by getting to the airport early. Try to schedule yourself so you don’t have to rush through the terminal or through security.
How to embrace the emotions
Most people avoid in-flight tears like the plague, but those strong feelings do have the occasional benefit. Some flyers find the tears cathartic and even look forward to letting it all out in the air.
Lots of people in the pro-tears camp even queue up the most emotional books and movies before takeoff to really make the most of the opportunity to get sappy.
“When you’re on a plane, you’re not in your busy life. You can’t go anywhere. You’re stuck,” Paige Valdiserri, an Arizona-based therapist and traumatic stress and integrative healing consultant, said in a phone interview. Instead, Valdiserri suggested we parse through what those feelings might be telling us and get more comfortable in sitting with the emotions we usually deflect.
Another way to keep things more constructive is to jot down your thoughts as the feelings arise. Try to think of it as uninterrupted time with yourself to get to the bottom of your real needs.
“It’s almost better than therapy,” Rubio said about crying on planes. “I think crying is hugely healing, but I rarely cry on the ground. So when I find myself tearing up in flight, I let it go.”
Rubio also shared one last piece of advice for emotional flyers: “If you get emotional in the air, get a window seat. Nobody wants to have to climb over a sobbing seatmate.”