If you’ve ever found yourself crying hysterically while watching Die Hard on a plane, you’re not alone. Dubbed ‘The Mile Cry Club’, many of us succumb to the emotional pile-up which occurs once up in the air – even at films you wouldn’t normally shed a tear over.
Even model Chrissy Teigen has experienced it. She tweeted earlier this year: “Is there something about being on an airplane that makes you cry more during movies? I definitely cry more.” Her admission received hundreds of replies. The general consensus being: yes, flying makes us blub like babies.
But why do we get teary? While there aren’t many studies on the topic, there does appear to be some correlation between flying and heightened emotion, we spoke to psychological experts about why this might be.
Counsellor and psychologist Philip Karahassan, who is a member of Counselling Directory, says to understand why we do this, we need to think more about the physiological and emotional state when flying. “Firstly, you have had to get up – usually early – and then make sure you have everything packed and ready to go,” he tells HuffPost UK. “Then you have the long journey to the airport and then you may need to check-in which can be a long wait.
“All of this can be an emotionally-draining experience; fuelled by a lack of sleep, poor diet and, probably, lots of coffee. This leads to your emotions being on high alert – and both crying and laughing are an expression and release of heightened emotions.”
Once you’ve boarded a flight, you’re finally able to rest after hours of heightened stress. This safety, says Karahassan, makes it feel acceptable to express all of the emotions that have been put on pause during the stressful hours in the run up to boarding.
Dr Jodi De Luca, a clinical psychologist based in Colorado with a keen interest in this area, cites many other factors that could influence emotions at altitude – and therefore make us more likely to cry hard (or laugh hysterically) at films. These include: catastrophic thinking and the fear of never returning to loved ones; being confined to a small space and having other people (including strangers) encroaching in that personal space; and other factors such as fatigue, dehydration and the changing of our circadian rhythm.
People who experience anxiety and panic might have greater difficulty regulating emotion and may cry and even laugh more easily, suggests Dr De Luca.
“We have little control over our environment while we are travelling by plane. Although we may not consciously be aware of our emotional vulnerability, our emotional brain, aka the limbic system, is working overtime,” she says.
The brain’s limbic system is made up of parts that regulate our emotion and memory. It also regulates our autonomic nervous system which is responsible for the fight and flight response, a basic evolutionary survival mechanism. “For some individuals, the flight and fight response is activated while flying,” says Dr De Luca. So they might be more likely to laugh and cry due to emotional vulnerability and difficulty in regulating their emotions, she suggests.
“Emotions govern our lives more than we know, and our environment influences our emotions more than we realise.”
If you do seem overwhelmed with emotion as soon as you take off, Dr De Luca recommends keeping busy – “try Sudoko, a crossword puzzle or a video game,” she suggests. “Or catch up on work-related projects while flying. Distracting the emotional part of your brain will make you think more and cry less.”