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April 12, 2000
Stress in the Friendly Skies
Frequent travel can wreak havoc on mind and body
By Carol Sorgen

illustration: Terrie Maile

Steve Berger is very much up in the air. He's not flaky or indecisive; it's just that the 49-year-old sales manager from Maryland is constantly in an airplane flying across the country on business. A glamorous work life? Think again, says Berger.

"The whole flying experience only adds to the stress that you're already experiencing on the job," Berger says. "From getting to the airport on time, to leaving on time, to dealing with crowds, to the stress of flying itself ... it's just a very difficult way to live."

Berger describes the experience as being "out of sync," especially if he's crossing time zones. And in terms of business deals, "Whoever's on their home turf has a distinct advantage," he says, "because they're on a normal schedule. Business travel is not designed to let you be at your best."

Berger's situation is not unique, say two University of Washington researchers who recently conducted a study on how air travel affects business professionals. Professor Irwin Sarason and clinical psychology researcher Jonathan B. Bricker surveyed more than 300 San Francisco- and Seattle-based employees of an international consulting firm who made an average of 21 domestic business trips a year.

sidebar: Protect Your Body: It's Not All in Your Mind

"What we found," says Bricker, "is that both personal characteristics and situational factors interact in the experience of air-travel stress." In other words, if travelers are already anxious, they are likely to experience more stress when traveling than people who are at ease. Anxious women are more likely to suffer travel stress than anxious men are, and anger-prone men are also likely to experience travel stress, says Bricker.

The researchers also found that those who traveled to a variety of sites every week were more prone to stress than those who had a set schedule. "A person who traveled to Dallas, Los Angeles, and then Miami in two weeks," says Bricker, "was twice as likely to be upset by travel than those who traveled to Dallas for two weeks."

Getting to know the different destinations may very well reduce travel stress, Bricker suggests. "If you're familiar with the layout of the airport, how to find the gate for the plane and baggage claim, and how to get into and out of the airport easily, then you'll have a better time traveling," he explains.

How to fly friendly

If you seem to be spending more time these days in the air than on the ground, must you resign yourself to a life of constantly feeling on edge? Not at all. There are many coping techniques you can use to help reduce travel stress.

  • "Know thyself," says Bricker. "What kind of traveler are you? What are your individual needs and preferences? How do you react to various kinds of travel situations?"
  • Problem-solve. When it is possible to control a travel situation, try to use a practical approach. For example, schedule a flight that leaves early in the day; take a nonstop flight; travel on less-traveled days, such as Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday; fly into or out of smaller airports; get to the airport early.
  • Relax. Travel situations such as delays or crowded cabins are often beyond your control. Try relaxation exercises; visualize a troubled situation and then imagine yourself coping calmly.

Related links:

Rx.magazine feature article: Jet Lag: Combating the Drag