From anxiety to mindfulness meditation – a pilot’s journey to wellbeing

Comedian Stephen Wright has an amusing quote: “You know that feeling you get when you lean back in a chair and you suddenly realize you’ve gone too far? I feel like that all the time!”

For a time, this was more accurate than I’d like to admit. Leading up to 2007, I found myself increasingly distracted with symptoms of anxiety and depression. I kept telling myself feeling stressed was just a temporary thing and that I could handle it. I definitely didn’t think I needed help, and there was no way I was going to tell anyone what I was experiencing!

In the fall of that year, I had purchased a horse trailer for my wife and I was driving it to a shop to have the electric brakes hooked up. As I was driving, I thought, “If I slam on the brakes, this sucker is going to jackknife on me,” and guess what? Right on cue, some idiot pulled out of a side street in front of me while I was going 45 mph. I slammed on the brakes and narrowly avoided hitting him.

Miraculously, the trailer stayed behind me. In most people, this would have resulted in a combination of surprise and fear. That sudden rush of adrenaline followed by fear, anger, relief and so on. I realized something was wrong when the near miss left me feeling no different than I did for most of my waking hours. The level of anxiety I was living with was on the same scale as being in a near car crash. This was my wake-up call. I had to do something. But what?

My airline doesn’t have a Wingman program or any form of confidential peer support group. I didn’t want to “self-disclose” anything that could ground me, and I really didn’t have a clue about what anxiety or depression was or how to treat it. I wasn’t suicidal or anything so who do I talk to? Who can I trust that won’t end up grounding me on the spot? For many of us, the thought of “talking to someone” can actually make the anxiety worse. So, we try not to think about it and put off taking action.

Psychotherapy
Doctors and therapy are not usually popular options for pilots.

My sister is a practicing psychiatrist and analyst so I decided to give her a call and open up about my experience with the trailer. Her professional opinion was that I should be on antidepressants and in therapy. Great, and to the guy with a hammer everything looks like a nail. I’d like another opinion, please.

Next, I went to my family doctor to see if there was anything physically wrong with me. Perhaps I could be lucky enough to have a heart condition or brain tumor. Anything but antidepressants and therapy! He said there was nothing wrong with me (physically) and he recommended antidepressants and therapy. Crap, I hate when my sister’s right.

So, I flew my last trip in December of 2007. I spoke to my union and our aeromedical folks and went out on medical for a year with the goal of being back in the cockpit by January of 2009. I needed to be off the antidepressants for three months before being eligible for a medical, so that meant I needed to be done with the “meds” by the end of September 2008.

And so began the drill. Cognitive therapy (talking with a psychologist) twice a week, and a monthly report to a psychiatrist to renew my prescription. It all went very well and my “shrink” called me her poster child for effort and rapid improvement. Gold star on the forehead. Yes, pilots can even be competitive about psychotherapy!

By September I was off the meds and pronounced “cured” by the powers that be. I was no longer depressed or suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

But there was a problem. I was still experiencing some mild (although not debilitating) issues with anxiety. Some anxiety is a normal part of being human. It’s part of our built in “caution and warning system.” My psychologist explained that I was just “an anxious person,” there was nothing more that modern medicine could do for me, and I would just have to live with it.

My first thought was bulls**t! I didn’t work this hard and come this far just to be told I was simply an anxious person.

There was also the issue of the application for medical I would be required to fill out in December. On it, there is a yes or no question regarding your “Mental Disorders of Any Sort; Depression, Anxiety, Etc.” Although I had actually been suffering with varying degrees of anxiety and depression for many years, I hadn’t understood it and never answered yes on the medical questionnaire because I honestly didn’t consider it a “Mental Disorder.”

After all, everyone gets sad or anxious from time to time. But now that I understood the reality of my struggle, this left me with a choice. I needed to resolve my lingering anxiety, or lie on the application. (The “Administrator” (FAA) has made it very clear that they will prosecute any individual who “knowingly and willingly falsifies” an application for medical certificate.) I’d never intentionally lied on the application, but I was not going to stay out on medical leave.

Since modern medicine had only taken me part of the way, I began a frantic research effort on alternative treatments for anxiety. I read books and searched online. One book was titled Undoing Perpetual Stress. In it, the author (who suffers from anxiety as well) said he had been having some personal success with meditation. What the heck, I figured I would give it a try. But what kind of meditation?

Meditation
You don’t have to be a monk to practice meditation.

Research into this subject revealed so many different kinds of meditation, I didn’t know where to begin. Further research into the types of meditation that had been backed up with scientific research narrowed this down to Mindfulness-Based meditation. I put aside my aversion to what I considered “hippy guru touchy feely nonsense” and gave it a try.

So, for 20 minutes a day I sat in a chair and tried to focus on the sensation of breathing. My mind had other ideas, but I was determined (stubborn). My window of opportunity was closing fast as it was now November.

My early meditation practice went something like this:

  • Focusing on the breath, I’m not doing this right.
  • Focusing on the breath, this is stupid and will never work.
  • Focusing on the breath, thank God no other crewmembers can see me doing this.
  • Focusing on the breath, it’s been twenty minutes and that stupid timer hasn’t gone off yet.
  • Focusing on the breath, pizza.
  • Focusing on the breath, my arm itches, I’ve been in the sun too long, maybe it’s cancer!

You get the idea. After a month of doing this (and slight improvements with technique and focus) my anxiety was gone. Seriously, no more anxiety. I was hooked and have had a regular meditation practice ever since.

Today I am happier and getting more so the longer I practice. I have a better relationship with my family, a better relationship with my own mind, I’m more relaxed, I’m a more effective captain, I find it easier to pay attention, I’m much more resilient when faced with difficulty and so forth. I credit mindfulness meditation for these positive changes in my life and I simply can’t imagine where I’d be without it.

15 Comments

  • Bless you Carl!

    I’d be too anxious and stressed to write this piece. Maybe you can post some meditation books/resources to help the rest of us “Hey, there’s nothing wrong with ME” pilots.

  • Thanks Kim, talking about this used to be difficult but I’m on a mission now. I’ll be giving a presentation at the Wellbeing in Aviation Conference in Dublin April 25 and there are lots of resources on the Mindful Aviator website including free audio. Be well!

    • This is great and sincere story!
      Meditation did help me tremendously when my family collapsed and I get separated with my wife. Meditation brought me firm ground under my feet and I rediscovered myself.

    • Thanks Carl for sharing your story in writing as well as a recent conversation that we had.
      I will say, it has been hard for me to stay on schedule meditating as we travel home.
      So my sitting (myself) needs to be longer and I’m working towards 30 minutes each time. I need to work towards non guided meditation.

  • Improved resilience in the face of adversity is a tremendous benefit meditation practice can provide. I see this over and over for myself and other pilots.
    Thanks for the sincere post Andrew!

  • Thanks for your honesty Carl. You may never know how many people you have helped with this post. I would like to add that studies show exercise- hard exercise that burns nervous energy especially, but any exercise is helpful- works as well as medication. I’m a family practice doc and work against the Western medicine motion that there is a pill for every problem.

  • Thanks Bobby, I agree that mindfulness isn’t the only wellness solution but for some it’s a good fit. I often say that most pilots I talk to need sleep more than meditation. For those like myself who grapple with anxiety or who’s lives have been destabilized by divorce/death of family member etc. Multiple approaches might be best.

  • Carl:

    You are very courageous. My hat’s off to you. Also, I am impressed that you can use UPS’s name in your Bio. I hope this shows that they are a very progressive Company regarding their employees well-being. So often professional pilot’s articles say, ” Flies for a major airline”.

    Terry, ATP, A&P, IA

  • Thanks for the kind words Terry. The courage comes from understanding that if we can’t talk about crewmember mental health in a realistic way, nothing will change. What would you be willing to do to prevent another Germanwings tragedy?
    Regarding the Bio, maybe I should change it. I don’t mention the company on my website or in interviews.
    Be well!

  • Great article Captain. You write very well . I always thought about in doing meditation. Perhaps it’s time for me to put in action. Blue skies.

  • Thanks for the compliment Wagner. Lots of free introduction to meditation resources available out there. The one on my website is tailored for pilots but don’t hesitate to check out several to find a presentation you like. Then, commit for a while and see what you think.
    Be well!

  • Hello Carl..
    I am a monk with 46 years of meditation practice and I am also a student pilot. I appreciate that you offer your guidance for free. Meditation comes in various forms and where the method varies so does the result. Many think that meditation involves making the mind blank or “empty”, when it actually should involve a careful choice of quiet focus. The fundamental principle is “As you think, so you become.” Concentration and contemplation are the key elements. These are two concepts any pilot can appreciate, also known as “situational awareness”. Your article was really good to see.

    • Thank you for the comment RMM. Pilots (myself included) tend to have a lot of aversion to things like meditation when they first hear about them. They associate it with being weak or touchy feely nonsense. Some are also concerned that it is a religious practice. While mindfulness and meditation do have a history in Buddhism, it isn’t a religious practice. It’s an awareness exercise that involves our present moment situation or as you put it, situational awareness. Among the countless benefits of this exercise are reduced stress, better on task focus and more resilience in the face of adversity. The fact that study after scientific supports these benefits should get the attention of the Aviator in search of excellence!

  • That’s a great article Captain Elsen.

    Meditation does work! I’ve been using Insight Timer APP for Android and iOS since 2017 and it’s been a great experience.
    I wish more Pilots would become aware of the benefits of medidation and they would see a better version of themselves.

    Cheers.
    Sony.

    • Thanks Sony,
      I use Insight Timer too. I like how it keeps track of my sessions and the motivation tool of getting “stars” for reaching milestones. There are also lots of resources like talks and guided meditations. Most of us (myself included) are aversive to things like meditation when we first hear about them but the crewmembers who take the time to learn about it are the ones who can benefit. Meditation isn’t what you think!

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