Why You’re More Likely to Cry on an Airplane
In a new survey, 15 percent of men and 6 percent of women say they tend to be more emotional when traveling.
If you’ve ever found yourself sobbing through a mediocre rom-com while surrounded by strangers on an airplane, you’re definitely not alone. In a survey commissioned by Gatwick Airport in London and reported by the Times earlier this month, 15 percent of men and 6 percent of women said they are more likely to cry while watching a film mid-flight than if they were to watch the same movie at home.
This isn’t the first time the crying-while-flying phenomenon has been reported, either. An earlier survey from Virgin Atlantic found that 55 percent of people admitted to being more emotional than normal when they’re above 30,000 feet.
Virgin has even even begun running cheeky “special notifications” before tearjerker movies, warning passengers that “the following film contains scenes which may cause viewers of a sensitive disposition to cry, weep, sob, wail, howl, bawl, bleat, or mewl.”
So what is it about air travel that makes us tear up so easily? Scientists have plenty of theories, although no one really knows for sure.
One reason may simply be that you’re likely to be paying closer attention to the movie when you’re a captive audience, says Lauren Bylsma, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
“You have to watch movies with headphones on, which forces you to really immerse yourself in the movie and also to have a sense that you are alone, which may increase the impact of the movie,” Bylsma, who has previously studied the science of crying, tells RealSimple.com.
Another popular theory is that reduced levels of oxygen—a byproduct of being in a pressurized cabin at high altitude—can affect levels of mood-regulating hormones serotonin and dopamine in the brain. “Altitude can certainly make us feel more tired,” added biologist Emily Grossman in the airport’s report, “which is known to decrease our ability to be able to manage negative emotions.”
And of course, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that air travel often puts passengers on edge—especially when we’re dealing with time changes, sleep deprivation, travel delays, missed flights, and all sorts of other airline frustrations.
Bylsma says it’s interesting that men were more likely to report an increased urge to cry on flights, “which could be because men typically cry less in general so it’s easier for their percentage to go up,” she says. “But I wonder also if they might be more comfortable crying when surrounded by strangers where they aren't worried about judgment of others around them.”
Although the survey only asked about crying because of films during flights, Bylsma says she imagines that people on an airplane may be more susceptible to crying for other reasons, as well. “The significant tensions on a flight, being in such a small space with opportunities for conflict to arise, might also result in other potential triggers for tears,” she says.
If you fall into this camp, our friends at Travel + Leisure have developed some tricks for crying on an airplane without anyone noticing. For starters, you could always skip the movie—or that in-flight glass of wine! Then again, you could also just let down your guard, grab a tissue, and fully embrace the waterworks, knowing that at least you have science on your side.