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Fly Well: Mind the gapFly Well: Mind the gap

Enjoy that coffee and take in the moment

The quintessential difference between England and America? Simple: On the London Underground passengers are warned to “mind the gap” between train and platform. On American railways one must “watch the gap.” Let’s go with the U.K. version for now—minding, rather than watching.

I am privileged to participate in a global medical network that discusses issues we believe we can affect. At one such gathering, hosted by Emirates in Dubai, I first had the opportunity to fly an Airbus A380 simulator. Not that different from a GA single, but I think I spilled some champagne on my first few landings.

Launched nearly 35 years ago, and with a fleet of 268 aircraft reaching 158 destinations, Emirates is a major airline with a large medical and paramedical staff. In addition to doing flight medicals, the company attends to work-related injuries and general health concerns, as well as an interesting wellness program.

One of Emirates’ presentations at the assembly caused me to pay particular attention: mindfulness. Mindfulness is the concept of being totally focused on one thing—being “in the moment,” accepting feelings, emotions, and thoughts as separate from who we truly are. As one of the leaders in the field, Jon Kabat-Zinn, said, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

The concept of using personality traits in recruiting aviators dates to 1921, and to be safe one must accrue knowledge and skills, and be physically and mentally fit. But what steps do we take to secure a healthy state of mind? Mirjana Rsumovic, senior counselor in clinical psychology at Emirates, presented how the company was incorporating mindfulness-based training for pilots. Known to improve one’s ability to pay attention, especially in high-demand situations or when tired or stressed, mindfulness training also reduces errors associated with being distracted.

Rsumovic told us that mindfulness-based training increases pilots’ situational awareness, optimizes problem solving and decision-making skills, and improves cognitive and psychological self-awareness. Emirates uses this to aid in pilot selection and conduct a course that includes four weekly sessions as well as self-study. She also explained that outcome measures were being collected to characterize the benefits to aviators; mindfulness-based training for pilots improved problem solving, motor coordination, visual memory, working memory, and tracking in active pilots—and such changes were more pronounced working with pilots who were currently grounded. Emirates’ pilots were impressed with this evidence-based psychological program focused on prevention, and the airline saw a return on investment. In Emirates’ hands, mindfulness-based training for pilots not only reduces workplace stress, but aviators also report improvements in their personal lives.

How might one obtain the skill to practice mindfulness if not flying for Emirates? A good way to start is to abandon multitasking; rather than drinking a beverage while driving, stop, sit down at a coffee shop, order your favorite poison in a proper cup, sit down, and enjoy the java. Nothing else, just the coffee. Focus on the coffee. This is the art of creating space to just be. This is not a spiritual experience, there is no out-of-body element, it’s just about keeping thoughts, fears, and worries out of the present moment. An exercise like having a coffee is a good one—your mind will naturally wander, ideas and tasks to be done will pop up, but let them go and keep coming back to the coffee, a discipline you can later bring to your flying.

Sit quietly in a comfortable chair with eyes closed and simply pay attention to your breathing. Ten minutes is fine, but for that time, think only about breathing. There are apps or audio streams that will guide you through this process, but it isn’t magical or mysterious. Today’s hectic environment imposes so many stimuli on us—estimated at 34 GB daily—that it is hard to be disciplined and unidirectional in our thoughts.

The data is clear: Mindfulness improves performance, reduces stress and its negative health consequences, and is being adopted widely across industries. In addition to the airlines, the armed forces are deploying mindfulness-based stress reduction for troop preparedness and PTSD mitigation, as are several major corporations, sports teams, leading universities, and medical training programs.

Mindfulness-based training is an easy—and free—tool to employ, and has the added benefit to help you enjoy other aspects of your life. So, please, consider minding the gap between a serene and hectic life.

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Jonathan Sackier

Dr. Jonathan Sackier is an expert in aviation medical concerns and helps members with their needs through AOPA Pilot Protection Services.

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