Why we cry more easily on planes

I always cry at least once when on a long-haul flight. It happens to me even when the movie I’m watching is not particularly sad. And apparently, I’m not the only one experiencing this strange phenomenon. As someone who travels quite a lot, I became curious about the science behind why we cry more easily on planes.

A couple of years ago, Virgin Airlines conducted a survey and found out that 55% of respondents agreed their emotions become heightened when on a flight and 41% of men surveyed said they hid under blankets to hide their tears. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for this phenomenon which has been nicknamed the “Mile Cry Club.” Why are we more likely to weep while on a flight?

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Four reasons behind the Mile Cry Club

There is very little science behind the Mile Cry Club phenomenon. This paper in particular looks at the link between crying and the nature of in-flight entertainment. It found that the content of the movie you’re watching has very little impact on your likelihood to start crying while on a flight. Instead, there may be a few factors that come into play.

  • Oxygen deprivation. Also known as hypoxia, it is caused by the low cabin air pressure which results in a reduction in the amount of oxygen carried in our blood. Hypoxia comes with symptoms such as confusion, fatigue, impaired decision-making, and a lower ability to manage our emotions.
  • Emotional vulnerability. “It’s about being in a situation where you’re isolated, but at the same time you’re surrounded by strangers. You have this physical closeness for an extended period of time that you don’t have in any other situation,” says Stephen Groening, a professor at the University of Washington. This particular situation combined with the lack of control may make us feel more emotional.
  • Physical discomfort. Small seats, cold temperatures, unappetising food. Flying can be quite uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing, which also impacts our ability to deal with our emotions. “The smaller seating arrangement increases anxiety—your basic physical boundaries are encroached. Our basic needs—food and drink, blankets and pillows, aren’t provided for,” explains Dr. Jodi De Luca, a clinical psychologist and expert on altitude and emotions.
  • Drinking. And, of course, lots of people tend to drink more on the plane. It’s no news that alcohol can make you more emotional. According to Dr. Robert Quigley, a medical director at MedAire, the physical and psychological effects of drinking and cabin pressure are additive. Combining both can turn you into a ball of uncontrollable emotions.

So what to do if you feel like crying while on a flight? The first option is of course to just cry it out. That’s what I do every time. Other options may include strategies to manage your anxiety, such as playing a relaxing game or meditating. In doubt, you can always try to just sleep it out.


Anne-Laure Le Cunff

I’m an ex-Googler, entrepreneur, and part-time neuroscience student at King’s College. If you found this article useful, subscribe to my weekly newsletter about productivity, creativity, learning, and designing engaging products.

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