There could be a scientific reason for why you cry more on planes

  • If you often cry at films on planes, you are not alone.
  • According to scientific research, people may cry to form bonds with others.
  • So when feeling vulnerable, in a scenario where you have no control, your primitive self may take over.
  • There's also the chance you are simply more engaged with the film, because you're sitting so close to the screen, and you're not distracted by texting or talking to people.
  • Other possibilities are exhaustion, low oxygen, and nerves.


Very few people enjoy air travel. The chances something will go wrong are incredibly tiny, but that doesn't mean it's a pleasant experience.

Your feet may swell up, your ears may pop, and, for some people, you may end up crying like a baby.

In 2011, Virgin Atlantic conducted a study that revealed 55% of respondents had heightened emotions on flights, with 41% of the men surveyed saying they had used a blanket to hide their tears. As a result, the airline started issuing "emotional health warnings" before in-flight films.

At the time, Virgin Atlantic film critic Jason Solomons said it was all to do with the unfamiliar environment we find ourselves in, and the flurry of emotions that brings.

"On a flight, we're isolated, leaving loved ones or aching to be reunited with them," he said. "We're nervous, we're tired, we might have had a drink at a time we usually wouldn't. If we see an image, a scene that reflects our emotional state, frankly we're suckers. Flying and films is a heady cocktail, the images and feelings so close to your eyeballs, so intimate."

RELATED: Flight attendant secrets

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22 things your flight attendant won’t tell you

1. Want to start off on the wrong foot with me?

Put your carry-on in a full overhead bin, leave it sticking out six inches, then take your seat at the window and wait for someone else (me!) to come along and solve the physics problem you just created. By the way, this is what your flight attendant first notices about you.

2. Yes, passengers are incredibly rude...

 

..but stealing a beer, cursing out passengers, and jumping out of a plane is not the way to handle it. You disarm an unruly passenger by introducing yourself, asking his name, and saying something like ‘I’ve been incredibly nice to you for three hours. Why are you treating me like this?’ Generally, that gets the other passengers on your side—and sometimes they’ll even applaud.

3. We don't have a boyfriend in every city.

 And our median age these days is 44.

4. An all-too-common scenario?

I hand you a cup of coffee and say, ‘Cream and sugar?’ You say, ‘What?’ I say, ‘Cream and sugar?’ You say, ‘What?’ Come on, people. What do you think we’re going to ask after we’ve handed you coffee? Your favorite color? (But in all honesty, you probably shouldn't order coffee on a plane.)

5. If you’re traveling with a small child and you keep hearing bells, bells, and more bells...

...please look to see if it’s your child playing with the flight attendant call bell. These are the things you should never do on an airplane.

6. The lavatory door is not rocket science.

Just push.

7. If you have a baby, bring diapers.

If you’re diabetic, bring syringes. If you have high blood pressure, don’t forget your medication. That way, I’m not trying to make a diaper out of a sanitary pad and a pillowcase or asking over the intercom if someone has a spare inhaler. Here are some other little flying etiquette rules you know.

8. Just in case you hadn’t noticed, there are other people on the airplane besides you.

So don’t clip your toenails, snore with wild abandon, or do any type of personal business under a blanket!

9. If you’re traveling overseas, do yourself a favor and bring a pen.

You would not believe how many people travel without one, and you need one to fill out the immigration forms. I carry some, but I can’t carry 200. Here are some more tips to know before your next flight.

10. Passengers are always coming up to me and tattling on each other.

‘Can you tell him to put his seat up?’ ‘She won’t share the armrest.’ What am I, a preschool teacher?

11. I hate working flights to destinations like Vail and West Palm Beach.

The passengers all think they’re in first class even if they’re not. They don’t do what we ask. And the overhead bins are full of their mink coats.

12. Do you really have to go to the bathroom right now, while we’re wrestling a 250-pound food cart down the aisle?

 You can’t wait 90 seconds for us to pass?

13. Is it that difficult to say hello and goodbye?

We say it 300 times on every flight, and only about 40 people respond—saying "hello" is really the one word you need to get your flight attendant to like you.

14. Do not poke or grab me

I mean it. No one likes to be poked, but it’s even worse on the plane because you’re sitting down and we’re not, so it’s usually in a very personal area. You would never grab a waitress if you wanted ketchup or a fork, would you?

15. We’re not just being lazy.

Our rules really say we aren’t allowed to lift your luggage into the overhead bin for you, though we can “assist.” Try these tips for packing light when bringing a carry-on.

16. I don’t care if you want to be in the mile-high club, keep your clothes on.

Who decided the mile-high club was something that everyone wants to do anyway? It’s cramped and dirty in those bathrooms.

17. If you hear us paging for a doctor...

 ...or see us running around with oxygen, defibrillators, and first aid kits, that’s not the right time to ask for a blanket or a Diet Coke. Here are some other pet peeves of flight attendants.

18. The only place you are allowed to pee...

 ...on the airplane is in the lavatory. Period.

19. Don’t ask us if it’s OK to use the lavatories on the ground.

 The answer is always yes. Do you think what goes into the toilet just dumps out onto the tarmac?

20. You really expect me to take your soggy Kleenex?

 Or your kid’s fully loaded diaper? I’ll be right back with gloves.

21. Sure, I don’t mind waiting while you scour the seatback pocket

 ...and the floor for candy wrappers and other garbage, then place them in my bag one by one. I only have 150 other passengers to serve.

22. I’m sorry it’s taking forever to get you a wheelchair.

That’s one thing you can’t blame the airline for. The wheelchair service is subcontracted to the cities we fly into, and it’s obviously not a top priority for many of them. Want more insider air travel info? These are the secrets your airplane pilot won't tell you.

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Some research seems to suggest that flying does strange things to our bodies, like affect our mood, mess with our senses, and make us itch more. This isn't that surprising when you think about how the low air pressure can reduce the amount of oxygen in your blood by up to 25%, and the fact the air conditioning makes the environment incredibly dry.

Mild hypoxia — a deficiency in oxygen — can lead us to do strange things because it can affect our thoughts and ability to make decisions. So it's no wonder we may feel a little vulnerable, especially if you're travelling alone, surrounded by strangers, locked in a metal tube for several hours.

Some evolutionary scientists believe crying is a bonding behaviour we've developed over centuries. Crying in theory makes other people feel sorry for you and comfort you, which forms social bonds. So perhaps, when in an unusual, vulnerable environment, our primitive behaviour takes over and tries to help us forge allies.

On the flip side, adults rarely cry in public, and instead wait until they are alone. In fact, some research suggests adults wait until they are behind the wheel of a car to have a good cry, because their solitude triggers their bad feelings, and they can finally let it all out.

Sitting down in your plane seat could have a similar effect. Although you're surrounded by people, it can sometimes feel like you're all alone.

Another factor could be the fact we have fewer distractions while on a plane. While normally at home you might watch TV, play on your phone, and talk to someone all at the same time, on a plane you don't have all of those options.

Related: What traveling does to your body 

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What traveling does to your body
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What traveling does to your body

Low oxygen may make you feel sleepy or headachy

Millions of people travel by plane every single day. If you're planning on being one of them soon, you might not be looking forward to the yucky feeling air travel often leaves you with. Besides the airport crowds and stress, traveling at such a high altitude has real effects on the body. Although the barometric pressure of the cabin is adjusted to prevent altitude sickness, you could still experience sleepiness or a headache. "The lower oxygen pressure found in an aircraft cabin is equivalent to 6,000 to 8,000 feet of altitude, similar to that of Mexico City," says Paulo M. Alves, MD, global medical director of aviation health for the medical and travel safety services company MedAire. "Oxygen partial pressure drops accordingly, creating a mild hypoxia [low oxygen], which can cause headache in some susceptible individuals." One study from the U.K. showed passengers' oxygen levels dropped 4 percent, which could be a concern if you have heart or lung problems. To help prevent headaches, drink plenty of water, and avoid alcohol and caffeine. Here are some other ways to make sure you don't get sick on a long flight.

Blood collecting in your feet could make them swell—or worse

Sitting in tight quarters for hours and hours can affect blood flow throughout your body, leading to swelling in your feet and ankles. It's also well-established that the risk of a blood clot called deep vein thrombosis (DVT) increases when blood isn't circulating well, as happens during plane travel. "In that position, the veins in our legs are compressed and the blood flow through them is slowed down," Dr. Alves says. Although you often hear the advice to get up and walk around, Dr. Alves says that that can cause traffic jams if too many people do it at once, and can be dangerous in the case of unexpected turbulence. "Average travelers without any risk factors would benefit from simple movements of the ankle—rotation, flexion, extension—which can be done in their own seat as frequently as possible," he says. Risk factors for DVT include being obese, pregnant or postpartum, on birth control pills, over age 40, or having a serious medical illness. "People with underlying risk factors for DVT benefit from compression stockings, and for some at high risk, even the use of anti-coagulant drugs may be indicated," Dr. Alves says. Talk to your doctor if you have one or more risk factors and are planning a flight in the near future. Pay attention to these silent signs of deep vein thrombosis.

You can get dehydrated

The air you breathe in the plane cabin actually comes from outside, and air at that altitude has very little moisture. "This air is very dry, having a humidity of under 10 percent," says Quay Snyder, MD, MSPH, president and CEO of Aviation Medicine Advisory Service. "Dehydration can lead to a feeling of fatigue, particularly when combined with the lowered pressure of cabin air. Medical conditions and some medications may exacerbate these sensations." The best way to prevent dehydration, according to Everyday Health, is to drink lots of water, even before you board the plane. Bring your own water bottle so you don't have to rely on the flight attendants to get it for you. (Just don't refill it in the bathroom sink, where the water is non-potable.) The Aerospace Medical Association also recommends using eye drops to relieve dry eyes and consider saline nasal sprays (try Ocean Premium Nasal Spray) to help dried-out nasal passages and prevent nosebleeds.

Shifts in cabin pressure make you gassy

You're not just imagining the farting among your fellow travelers—studies have shown flatulence increases in the air. The Aerospace Medical Association says our body's gas can expand up to 25 percent! "We know from physics that gas tends to expand inversely to pressure," Dr. Alves says. "Therefore, as we climb on a flight, the external pressure is progressively lower, and any gas trapped inside our body cavities will expand accordingly." This includes the gas in your intestines, which can lead to bloating and the urge to break wind. So what should you do? Holding it in is not good for your body, so if you feel the pressure, it's best to let it out—in the restroom if possible. By the way, this is the absolute best time to use the airplane bathroom.

Air pressure changes cause your ears to pop

Along with an increase in gas in your intestines, your ears will likely feel the effects of shifts in air pressure. "As we ascend, gas expands, forcing the tympanic membrane to bulge outward, which gives us that well-known pressure sensation," Dr. Alves says. "That continues until the point that the trapped air vents out through the Eustachian tube into our pharynx and the ears pop back to normal." Chewing gum is helpful for this process. The opposite happens during the descent: The air pressure expands, so more air needs to move back into the middle ear. "This is accomplished by swallowing or yawning," he says. "Another way to do it is to gently force air out of lungs, by covering our nose and mouth so that air is forced up through the Eustachian tube into the middle-ear, equalizing pressures again." Thankfully, this temporary ear pressure won't have any lasting damage.

Your taste buds may dull

That airplane food might not really be as bland and tasteless as you think. The low-humidity air you breathe in a plane dries out the mucus membranes of your mouth and nose, which can affect your sense of taste. A study by Lufthansa found that perception of sweet and salty foods dropped by up to 30 percent in a simulation of air travel. British Airways has recently tried adding the savory Japanese flavor umami to counteract this, but you can also help reactivate your taste buds by drinking water. "A dry mouth may reduce taste sensitivity, but taste is restored with hydration," Dr. Snyder says.

Air shifts can cause a toothache

Although less common, gas changes in our body can even affect our teeth, as gas gets trapped in fillings or cavities. "One of the drawbacks of the 'airplane toothache' is—unlike ear pain or sinus pain—there is little you can do to prevent it," Thomas P. Connelly, DDS, told huffingtonpost.com. "In other words, chewing gum or swallowing isn't going to relieve any pressure inside of your tooth. This makes air travel with a toothache a real problem." You can take painkillers like Tylenol during the flight to relieve symptoms, but if you have even a slight toothache, see your dentist before you're scheduled to fly. Make sure you're not making these other pre-flight mistakes.

Your skin loses moisture 

Another effect of airplane air is dry skin. "Dehydration can lead to dry skin and cracked lips, although most exposure on aircraft is time-limited," Dr. Snyder says. "Moisturizing lotions prior to flying can mitigate these effects." Lotions are better than hydrating mists, which will just be sucked into the dry air, skin care expert Renée Rouleau told refinery29.com. Keep drinking water to keep your whole body hydrated, and wash your face when you get off the plane—Rouleau says exfoliating can help get rid of the dead cell buildup from dry skin that can, ironically, lead to acne. Here are more tips for caring for your skin on an airplane.

You could develop bad breath

When your mouth dries out on an airplane, you don't have as much saliva, which can encourage bacteria growth and lead to bad breath. If you haven't eaten, especially if you're not drinking lots of water, you could have a secondary bout of "morning breath" later on. Sugary drinks and fast food also don't help the problem. "The combination of a dry mouth and not brushing teeth on long flights may contribute to bad breath," Dr. Snyder says. You can remedy this by bringing along your toothbrush (some airlines even supply you with one) and staying hydrated.

Flying long distances throws off your circadian rhythm

 We're talking about jet lag. "Hormone secretion, sleepiness, alertness, and hunger sensation, among other functions, depend on our internal clock," Dr. Alves explains. Traveling to another time zone throws us off, and we need time to reset our clock. "The rule is that we need around one day for every hour of time zone we cross, so that means that after a six-hour transatlantic flight we would need around six days for our cycles to be fully re-synchronized with the local time," he says. So what can you do if your trip is only a week long, or shorter? "On a quick turnaround business trip, it is frequently better not to try to truly adjust to a new time zone, since a full adaption would be impossible from the physiological standpoint," he says. "On the other hand, if we want to maximize our stay on a touristic trip, it is better to try to adjust as quickly as possible, accomplished by exposing ourselves to sunlight and outdoor physical activity." Because we are better able to adjust to a longer instead of a shorter day, flying from east to west is easier than flying west to east. Learn some more ways to quickly recover from jet lag.

You may not actually get sick

Although airborne infections thrive in low humidity environments like airplanes, your risk of getting sick from an airplane is actually low because of the HEPA filters used. "The advantage is that the air in the cabin is exchanged more frequently than in most industrial buildings, schools, or homes," Dr. Snyder says. "This exchange rate, coupled with the filtering and circulation patterns, reduces the risk of airborne infections in aircraft from other passengers or crew compared to the non-flying environment." Unless you're sitting next to someone who is coughing or sneezing into your personal air space, you shouldn't worry too much about getting sick. However, bacteria has been shown to live on cabin surfaces, so wash your hands frequently and keep them out of your eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. Here are some other ways  Next, learn the things you should never, ever do on a plane.

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With nobody texting you, and everyone around you being relatively silent, it's easier to focus all your attention on a film. Add in the likelihood of heightened emotions, and you've got a recipe for weeping.

Of course, there is also the chance you are just tired. Getting up at the crack of dawn and navigating around an airport is no fun, and being exhausted can make us more emotional anyway.

There are no specific studies looking into why we cry on planes yet, but if you find yourself doing so, remember you're not alone — you're simply a member of the "Mile Cry Club."

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