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Industry Series: Coping with Stress and Uncertainty

The Industry Series is a collection of curated content from a selective number of aviation experts who are members of the EAWC Committee. This content aims to educate, inspire and contribute to the wellbeing of like-minded aviation professionals going through these difficult times. The EAWC mission is to be the voice of the industry and together be able to support each other and provide a platform for collaborations.

This article has been curated by Fiona Hough, an independent consultant with over 25 years of ATC experience with speciality in training and development.


It is almost the end of March 2020. The world is in turmoil. The Chinese people have endured two months of enforced coronavirus lockdown and are gradually being permitted to return to work. National quarantine was imposed upon the Italian people on March 9th in an attempt to reduce the spread of the virus and consequently the number of fatalities. Two weeks later, they are in the midst of a major medical crisis. Gradually, from March 12th one by one, European countries began restricting movement across their borders then closing them all together in an attempt to stem the movement of the Coronavirus, COVID-19.

When we look back at this period of time in years to come, we shall do so with relief. Relief, that with fortitude, creativity and resilience we have endured and emerged safely through to the other side. 2020 will no doubt come to be known as the year of unprecedented global stress and chaos.

We are being challenged like never before. In ways that have previously been unimaginable. The foundations of our daily routines are being whisked away from beneath our feet, leaving us whirling around like a child’s spinning toy, controlled by higher forces and unsure quite where or how we are going to land.

Not since 9/11 has the global airline industry faced the prospect of such large losses:

· Loss of airline carriers

· Loss of employment

· Loss of job security

· Loss of trust, and

· Potentially, the loss of some airports

“But, how did we come to be in this position after only a few weeks?” we ask ourselves. Valid as this question might be, is it the most appropriate question to ask at this moment in time?


What is needed first and foremost is the same as we would do naturally when faced with challenges during our daily work.


Take several deep grounding breaths.

Calm down.

Then assess the situation, as it actually exists before your eyes and determine what you have some modicum of control over.


Stress in various guises has become an inherent part of modern life, so much so that our awareness of how much we are experiencing only really comes to the forefront once limits become harder to manage.

Most of us are aware that stress sensations come as the result of a chain reaction of chemical responses that occur within our bodies. These responses actually begin our brain.

Information which we see or hear is sent to the area of the brain responsible for processing sight and sound, the amygdala. The amygdala is located in the lower part of our brain, sometimes referred to as the “downstairs” brain, which is responsible for our basic functions (breathing, blinking) innate reactions and impulses. When the amygdala perceives danger it sends a distress signal in turn to the hypothalamus.

Before moving on, it is important to point out the difference between the “upstairs” brain (the cerebral cortex including the middle pre frontal cortex) and the “downstairs” brain. Our “upstairs” brain is where all the intricate mental processes take place: high order and analytical thinking, imagining, planning, empathy and morality. The “downstairs” brain by comparison is primitive.

Upon receipt of the amygdala’s distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system sending signals to the adrenal glands, which in turn trigger our “fight or flight” response: the heart rate quickens, blood rushes from the body’s extremities to its core and hormones such as adrenalin, cortisol and norepinephrine rush in preparing all our muscles for fighting or running. These changes occur incredibly quickly.

Our upstairs brain has also become (temporarily) overridden by our primitive downstairs brain. For this reason stressed individuals often become prone to short tempered, reactive bouts of anger. .

Our inherent primeval stress response is intended only as a short term reaction to get us out of imminent danger. Modern life however contains so many long term stressors that our bodies do not receive the recovery time they need in order to maintain overall optimal performance.

Stress V Performance

The relationship between stress and performance needs to be carefully balanced. A modicum of stress enables us to perform both mentally and physically within an alert, engaged, motivated state.

The Yerkes-Dodson optimal arousal curve explains the relationship between stress, or arousal, and levels of performance. In the diagram presented above we can clearly see the various stages of performance versus arousal. The optimal level of performance comes between the mid-point and peak of the curve when the individual is mentally stimulated and sufficiently engaged to deliver their best performance.

Understanding neuroscience helps us better understand the body’s response to stress triggers and options we then have to alleviate the symptoms. It also helps raise awareness as to which part of our brain could be in control at any given time, and where some of our unintended emotions or behaviours might be coming from.

Reducing the fog and gaining some clarity

People are, for the most part, uncomplicated beings. We gain comfort, stability and even confidence in having our daily routines. They provide a solid foundation upon which we can cope with the daily ebb and flow life offers. Modern life with its ever increasing pace, excessive use of technology and exponential information growth compounded by an associated belief we need to keep up with a lot impacts us profoundly.

So, when we become confronted by a hugely unpredictable life event bearing down upon us unexpectedly at an exceptional rate the body naturally triggers all the inherent fight or flight responses, rendering us stressed, and overwhelmed.

If too many different things are happening to us at the same time, it is often too difficult to see through the fog. The danger then is that we start to panic and loose rational control.

What simple things could we do to gain some clarity and decision making time?

Here are just a few simple common sense suggestions:

1. Make a list

Write down all the different aspects of your current situation that are worrying you and causing stress.

This helps to gain perspective and clarity over all the many things going around inside your head.

2. Make two lists

Now separate each item in your original list into 2 columns. Label the columns: “things I have some control over” and “things I have no control over”.

Taking the same list, write the stressors down under their respective columns.

3. Reflect and Accept

Study each of your columns carefully. Take time to look over the items you (currently) feel that you have no control over, and accept that there is nothing you can do here – not yet anyway.

4. Act

Choose 1 item from “things I have some control over” and write down ideas that you could do to help change that situation.

For example:

It is natural to worry about how we will pay our next mortgage payment. Look online at your mortgage lender’s website for the information they require if you wish to request a mortgage holiday. Gather these documents together and compile your request letter. Or, telephone the mortgage lender and speak with them directly.  

Don’t try to fix all your worries / problems in one go! Start with something easily achievable. Once one item from the list has been dealt with successfully cross it off. This gives you a visual record of your successes as they occur. Having something concrete to look at helps us maintain perspective and reduce the overall level of worry and stress. Do something positive to celebrate each success as it occurs, and reward yourself for your efforts. E.g. take time out to relax and enjoy the feeling of achievement, go for a walk outside, punch the air and cheer or phone a friend and share the joy.

It is very important for us all to remember that during this monumental period of unprecedented uncertainty we are not alone. Please do not allow yourself to slide into despair. Reach out to your family, your friends or your colleagues and stay connected. The healing power of social connection cannot be overemphasised enough.


Author: Fiona Hough

· Independent consultant with over 25 years ATC experience

· Passionate about delivering high quality ATC training with integrity

· Extensive national and international coaching and mentoring experience

· Redesigned and transformed 20 week Basic ATC course

#wellbeing #resilience #aviation #covid19

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