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Mindful Flying - Is Flying Healthy For You

July 2014
BY Victor S. Sierpina, MD, ABFM, ABIHM Director, Medical Student Education Program, WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine, Professor, Family Medicine, University of Texas Distinguished Teaching Professor

Is flying healthy for you? Of course, we know the risks of aviation. Crashes are in fact the least concerning of aviation hazards and occur so rarely that they always make big news. You are safer flying in an airplane mile for mile than driving down I-45 in your personal auto.

There are other perils however. Here’s a short list: exposure to respiratory and infectious disease in the petri dish of an airliner where you are cooped up for several hours next to someone coughing up their lungs, and maybe their tuberculosis. How about the risks of deep venous thrombosis from prolonged sitting, especially on crosscountry or international flights? Foot fungus from the screening area where everybody has their shoes off? There is also cholesterol elevation from fast food, eaten on the run in the airport. Then there is the drying of the mucous membranes and airways due to cabin pressure and low humidity increasing the risk of respiratory infections and asthma attacks. Is that thin skin of aluminum adequate to protect you from solar and cosmic radiation levels, even with a bunch of packed bags in the overhead compartment? Keeping well hydrated and sometimes masked can mitigate some of these as can bringing your own foods (but not fluids!).

Other threats of flying are starting to give me a phobia, even post-traumatic stress. I will share a story of the not-so hidden risk and stresses of flying these days.

There I was, being systematically frisked by a smiling man in a blue uniform and a badge while curious passers-by looked on. My crime? Trying to smuggle my artificial knee across state lines in an airplane. When the beeper went off on the metal detector (I had already told them about my medical appliance) I was whisked to the side for a thorough search. It was not exactly a strip search though by now I had shed my belt, my shoes, emptied my pockets, and had to stand forlornly while they called a male agent.

Mr. Friendly put on his blue rubber gloves, making me wonder if I should just cancel my annual physical. I was only somewhat relieved when he didn’t add any lubricant since a Dr. Jelly Finger body cavity search at the airport is not anyone’s idea of a good time.

“Would you like to be screened in a private room,” Mr. Friendly security agent asked very officially. “Uh, no, I don’t think so.” As much as I disdained the public humiliation of his rubbing the backs of his gloved hands over my buttocks, inside my thighs, in my waistband, front and back, and so on up and down my studly body, I did not want to risk his getting any funny ideas in a private room. So, public exposure and transparency seemed best.

After about 10 wasted minutes, he couldn’t find any bomb powder on me, any hidden weapons, or other suspicious materiel. So I put on my tennies as he put his gloves in a scanner and pronounced me “free to go.” Glad I arrived plenty early. Somehow, I did not quite feel “free.”

This happened in a small Missouri airport last week but I had an identical experience at Hobby not long ago. I was blessed with one of those quick clearance gift certificates. You know, the one that charges you a hundred bucks so you don’t have to take off your shoes, take out your laptop, etc.

Well, while reveling in my good luck to get the quick pass screening, I was busted by my knee replacement again and it took even longer than the regular line, which had an appropriate scanner, to get through to my gate. Had to do the whole semi-strip search anyway.

I remember when flying was fun. It was exotic, luxurious. People put on their nice clothes and flew in style. Now, we are all herded into overfilled airplanes and must submit to screening. Flip-flops, jeans, and T- shirts are dè rigeur as the actually most practical sartorial choices. I realized too late on a short connecting flight that I cannot even take in my carry-on my regular deodorant, shaving cream, toothpaste, or after-shave since they weigh over 3 ounces. I decided to arrive stinky at my meeting.

So what are the positives? Napoleon Hill, the author of Think and Grow Rich told us a hundred years ago that, ““Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” How strange it would be to someone even a hundred years ago to imagine hundreds of people crammed into a sardine can made of aluminum and hurtling through the air at 500 or more miles an hour. Incredible!

Seeking to find gratitude and mindfulness in such clamor of modern life is often a challenge. What came up for me was how poorly I handled that set of experiences contrasted to the principles and practices I taught in a workshop on mindfulness recently. The challenges of flying are just one of many stressors of modern life. It is not always easy to keep centered in the midst of things like going through the airport, rush-hour freeway driving, demands at work and at home.

So I made a decision to make the TSA experience, at least retrospectively, a chance to improve my consciousness and mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined as “moment to moment non-judgmental awareness.” According to the modern founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Jon Kabat Zinn, “Mindfulness means paying attention, in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of the present moment reality. “

Another sage said that “Mindfulness gives you time. Time gives you choices. Choices, skillfully made, lead to freedom. You don’t have to be swept away by your feeling. You can respond with feeling. You can respond with wisdom and kindness rather than habit and reactivity.”

So it came down to a decision to change my perspective and attitude. I decided to be grateful for the TSA agent and the safety net he offers. The incredible engineers, mechanics, and pilots that make it safe to travel by air. The chance to relax quietly in a cool cabin a catch up on my reading. And when feelings of stress bubble up, I choose to practice some diaphragmatic breathing, visualization, and relaxation exercises.

Next time, I’ll smile as I pass through the screening line and not only will I feel better, others around me will experience the peace radiating from me and relax just a little bit. It is a group experience, after all, and each person brings their share of peace and harmony, mindfulness or other, less positive feelings. These feelings can spread. So choose mindfulness instead of irritation, peace instead of overreaction and anger. And know I am teaching what I continually need to relearn. Such is the path of life and growth.