Ever find yourself tearing up unexpectedly at the in-flight movie? Don’t worry, it’s normal.

A flight could be associated with many valid reasons to cry. You could be leaving loved ones, starting a new chapter i.e. extended holiday or an interstate or overseas move, going to or from a sick/injured relative or friend, or a funeral. Even returning home from a great holiday could be such a downer that you shed a few tears. It’s a different sort of crying that catches many passengers by surprise. Crying for little or no reason, reacting more strongly than you would on the ground to a sad (or happy) movie, TV show or even advertisement. Something that you could observe dry-eyed at home has you sobbing and blowing your nose and leaves you with red puffy eyes and hiccups for the rest of the flight.

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone, In 2011, Virgin Atlantic surveyed customers on their in-flight emotional experiences. Overall, 55 percent of passengers reported “experienced heightened emotions while flying,” and a surprising 41 percent of men stated that they had “buried themselves in blankets to hide tears in their eyes from other passengers.”

After running their survey, Virgin added ‘emotional health warnings’ to certain particularly sad movies (like Toy Story 3 and Eat, Pray, Love) that read “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 flying that brings on the waterworks? Could it just be that we are stressed or tired and emotional? The lead up to a flight can be stressful. Before you take your seat you’ve endured the planning, preparation and packing. Maybe the alarm didn’t go off so you had a Home Alone-style dash to the airport. At the airport you battled through airport security, customs and immigration, with their rules on liquids and gels and laptops. You trekked out to your far-flung gate, boarded and battled the cabin crew and other passengers to put your carry on above your head or under the seat in front. Crying can be a delayed response to stress. At the time we’re in ‘fight or flight’ mode (the sympathetic nervous system).  However, once the stress is over – in this case once you’re relaxing on the flight we move from ‘fight or flight’ to ‘rest and digest’ (the parasympathetic nervous system) which is responsible for tears.

Once on-board, the cabin environment can also take its toll. Most cabins are pressurized to 8000ft, and that thinner air contains less oxygen than thicker air at sea level. Cabin humidity is low, which can contribute to dehydration. Your space and seat recline is limited, so you may not be able to sit comfortably let alone sleep. Flying is physically tiring and one of the symptoms of tiredness is reduced ability to control your emotions.

We watch movies on the ground following stressful periods and when tired  without such strong effects. There must be other factors at play here. Why do adults cry in general? Psychologists Ad J. J. M. Vingerhoets and Lauren Bylsma reviewed the literature on crying in adults and found that for crying “probably the most common emotional trigger is a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness.” And “powerlessness [is] in a central position that stimulates our tears.” Flying renders passengers powerless and helpless in ways not common to other forms of public transport.

Disconnected: Alone in-flight is one of the last few places you are truly disconnected from your friends and family. If you are old enough to remember a time when you didn’t carry a phone with you so didn’t have the ability to contact people instantly via phone, text or social media you can cope with, and perhaps even relish a few hours offline. Millennials however didn’t experience this world and alone and disconnected, they may feel the isolation keenly.

Lack of Control: We surrender almost all control when boarding an aircraft. The pilots (or more broadly the airline, airport, air traffic control etc) control when you leave, when you arrive, the route taken, the altitude and the speed. You have no input and they can’t stop the flight so you can get off.

The on-board experience is much like being back in a primary school classroom:

  • You are told when to enter and leave (sometimes signaled by bells), where to sit and where you can put your belongings.
  • You are restricted in what you can bring and when you can have your electronics out and in use.
  • At times you are not allowed to recline your seat (just as you are prevented from swinging on your chair in primary school).
  • At times you have to have your window shades open or shut.
  • At times you are not allowed to leave your seat not even to use the bathroom.
  • You cannot control when the in-flight entertainment starts and ends or when it will be interrupted.
  • You will be fed on a schedule and your meal choices are limited.
  • You are not allowed to smoke (just like primary school!)

It’s hard not to feel infantilized by this environment reminiscent of a controlled childhood classroom.

So why do we cry on planes? Flying can be stressful and tiring and finding yourself offline and alone in the strictly controlled aircraft environment can cause us to  feel powerless and helpless, rendering us susceptible to emotional on-screen scenes triggering tears.

To stay dry eyed in-flight you could minimise the stress leading up to the flight, look for flights with onboard wifi and avoid emotional TV and movies. Alternately, why not join me in accepting that you are one of the majority of passengers who get a bit emotional on-board and jot down what set you off to compare notes with other passengers. On my list – Room, Me Before You and Never Let me Go (even though I’d read the books and knew how they ended), The Fault in our Stars and Me and Earl and The Dying Girl (even though I had a fair idea how they would end). I avoid any dog related movies inflight (currently avoiding A Dog’s Purpose) after sobbing through the end of both the book and movie Marley and Me at home – who knows what would happen in-flight!  Let me know in the comments below which TV show or movie caught you.