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Knowing When to Stop Digging

Falling out of an uneasy sleep, I rolled over and looked at the clock. It was 4 am. "Right on cue," I thought. My dreams as usual had been full of convoluted logistics and unpleasant surprises. Now it was time for my regular 4 am bout of worry. Did I pay the insurance premium? Hell, I was supposed to contact so-and-so last week about his project. What's the roof repair really going to cost? Have I been flying often enough to be safe? On and on the litany went, and as usual there was no pattern. Last night's crises were gone, replaced by tonight's fresh crop, which would yield to a new set tomorrow. By 6am or so, I drifted back into a fitful sleep until the alarm went off a short while later. In the light of day, the details of these seemingly urgent issues would be forgotten, leaving only a vague, residual anxiety. This went on for years, at least three or four nights a week.

During my flight training and my early days as a private pilot, these 4 am worries centered around flying. Mistakes, the most important staple of the learning process, were rehashed and over-analyzed. Worries were amplified. In the 4 am stillness, small doubts about specific skills or items of knowledge mushroomed into full-blown crises of confidence. Did I have what it takes to be a pilot?

Inevitably, when it came time for my next lesson, my desire to fly and my trust in my instructors were strong enough to break the grip of the 4 am phantoms and get me back in the cockpit. Predictably, as the day of my checkride got closer and I contemplated the prospect of becoming PIC for real, these anxieties reached a peak. It wasn't until I'd passed the checkride and earned my certificate that they began to abate.

I don't know how common my experience is, but I have to wonder whether anxieties and crises of confidence like mine have anything to do with flight training's "dirty little secret": its dismal 30% completion rate. I can't help but think there are lots of students out there who yearn to earn their wings, but end up succumbing to their demons of doubt and quitting. If this is true, it's nothing short of tragic—and, I believe, completely preventable.

Over the succeeding years, like generations of pilots before me, I gained experience, added ratings, and integrated flying more and more into my life. My confidence as a pilot steadily grew and my 4 am worries came to have less and less to do with flying. Still, my "dark nights of the soul" continued, usually centering on career, money, personal relationships, or a host of other seemingly random topics. I spent lots of time and energy analyzing these thoughts and feelings. What did they mean, and what could I do about them?

Then one evening I was sitting with my wife Janet while she surfed the web. She stumbled upon an interesting article about nutrition and sleep.

"Hey, it says here that sleep problems and nocturnal anxiety can be caused by low blood sugar," she said. "They recommend eating some long-lasting protein about a half-hour before bedtime. Yogurt and cottage cheese are good because they contain casein."

We looked at each other.

"What the heck," I said. "It can't hurt."

From that evening on, I started having a bowl of nonfat yogurt or some similar protein shortly before bed. The results seemed nothing short of miraculous. My sleep improved dramatically. My bouts of worry and anxiety became few and far between. Even when they did occur, the thought that it was just biochemistry allowed me to let the unpleasant feelings and disturbing thoughts roll by. Inevitably, they would pass far more quickly and I would sleep much better than when I was scrutinizing them under my mental microscope.

Ultimately, though, this story is not about how to cure nighttime anxiety. That just happened to by my experience, and I can't rule out the placebo effect. The point is that the emotions and physical sensations that I've often invested with such deep meaning don't necessarily mean anything at all.

The lesson I've learned is that when there's no obvious reason for an emotional experience, I stop digging. A reason might become clear at some point, but in the meantime, racking my brains won't help. Thoughts and emotions come and go on their own. Whether it's anxiety, anger, a crisis of confidence, or even happiness or contentment, I can just let it pass through. I don't have to understand it or do anything about it. In fact, if I just focus on observing the experience, I'm much more likely to notice any lessons it might be holding for me. This is a key aspect of the observe-act-observe cycle: just noticing what I notice and not straining for more.

Most of all, when difficult emotions arise, I don't have to take them personally. That more than anything else helps me rest—and fly—more easily.

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October 24, 2010

john spiteri @ 1:00 am #

Kennan, I can completely connect with this article. Flying was in my every night dream during flight training and beyond as a low hour PPL, struggling to be in control and driving myself to make it. Emotionally hard work in my dreams. When I am not worried about flying (I now tell myself, it will come; don't pressure yourself) then I revert back to other life issues: family, pension, futures. A lot of issues are self-pressure; like you said, it's best not to dig and wait for time to reveal what you have been anxious about. With reference to the diet and sugar levels, this is spot on. I am a diabetic (type 2) and my whole emotional state (i.e. postiveness) is driven by how well I feel. Do you have Skype on your PC? It would be good to talk to you as some point. In the UK there is a new PPL who writes in a publication called Pilot. He seems to be experiencing the same challenges as I and all pilots. It is so easy to give up flying because of confidence and like any subject, you can find 1,000 excuses to do so: cost, busy with family/life. So to summarise, what I am saying is you are on the right track with your articles.

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