The airliner, heavy with fuel and filled with passengers, is climbing toward its cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, having taken off less than twenty minutes earlier and more than one hour behind schedule. The captain and the second officer are completing their post-takeoff routines and anticipating a smooth ride; the weather forecast is for clear skies ahead and relatively little turbulence. The steady muffled roar of the four jet engines envelops the aircraft.
In the cockpit, a large amber light begins flashing on the upper center quadrant of the dashboard. After a few seconds, the light goes off. An automatic correction has taken place, initiated by the onboard navigation computers. Other lights flash briefly and then go off. To the uninitiated eye, seemingly at random.
Suddenly a bright red warning light flashes in the section of the dashboard that groups all engine functions. The cockpit crew appears to pay scant attention to it. The red flashing continues. If you were the pilot of the aircraft, what would you do?
- Put a dark cloth over the light. Too much flashing can be distracting and one simply cannot chase after every light. Get busy doing flight path calculations.
- Relax. Take a break and go get some coffee from the galley with the copilot. The light may be off by the time you all come back to the cockpit.
- Ignore the light. Look at some other part of the dashboard where there are no lights. A lot of lights come and go. It will probably shut itself off, eventually.
- Respond to the message that the light is giving. Check engine functions and take the appropriate steps to address the problem.
If you answered 1, 2 or 3, your stress level is probably very high. If you answered 1, your preferred mode of dealing with high stress is by covering it up. If you answered 2, your strategy consists of using various relaxation techniques hoping that stress will take care of itself somehow, without addressing its cause. If you answered 3, your favorite approach consists of denying the existence of high stress, preferring instead to believe that there are plenty of times when you are really not stressed at all.
If you answered 4, you understand that the amber and red lights (representing mild or severe stress reactions) are occurring as an indication that something of importance (a significant stressor) requires your immediate attention. By acknowledging the valuable message that the stress reaction (the cockpit light) is giving you, you begin to address its cause, the stressor (the engine problem). This is the essence of effective stress management: managing the cause of the stress, instead of simply mitigating (or covering up, or denying) the symptoms.
How do you react to the warning signs of stress? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. Check out Stresshacker’s StressWise program: stress coaching, online webinars, and downloads for making sense of stress, and for better stress and stressor management.