The Real Reason You Cry at Movies on Flights

Wellness Airports + Flying
by Katie Scott Aiton Apr 25, 2024

Airlines have done a decent job curating the menu of films available on their inflight entertainment systems. Depending on the carrier (some are more strict than others,) it’s rare to stumble across a movie or series with lots of naked bottoms, drug abuse, and terrorist events, which is excellent. I’d rather not watch Idris Elba passing notes around a hijacked plane while sitting at 36,000 feet. I did, however, make the rookie mistake of watching A Star is Born for the first time on a long-haul flight to Australia, which left me uncontrollably howling like the baby a few rows back and hitting the call button for napkins to blow my nose.

Crying on planes is a common phenomenon — so much so that Virgin Atlantic has trialed “weep warnings” before movies it deems emotional to help passengers make emotionally sound decisions. These were first introduced in 2011 after the airline ran a Facebook poll that found that 55 percent of flyers agreed they had experienced heightened emotions while in the air.

But why do you cry more on a plane? The scientific community has only dipped its toe into research, but there are theories.

In a study that surveyed 1084 adults in the US who had watched a film on a plane in the past 12 months, a team of researchers from Cambridge, Massachusetts, found that 25 percent of participants reported crying at movies in the air and 22 percent cried on the ground. One of the researchers, Paul Wicks, PhD, of PatientsLikeMe, states the “phenomenon” might well be a social construction fueled by celebrities telling of crying fits in click bate reporting and the fact that during a flight, there are no distractions, we’re not mindlessly watching content like we can do at home. Because of this, we are more emotionally invested in what we are watching, and Wicks argues that more people will remember and recall their emotional state more clearly.

Other studies point to physical changes in the airplane environment that can make people more susceptible to emotional highs and lows. Mild hypoxia, for example, is a condition in which the body’s tissues are deprived of adequate oxygen supply, and it typically occurs due to the decrease in atmospheric pressure as the aircraft climbs. “These lower oxygen levels can affect your brain and how you process emotions,” says consultant practitioner Dr Ahmad to Matador. Ahmad states that mild hypoxia can lead to people feeling “stressed, anxious, or experiencing mood swings.”

As many of us feel anxious while flying, mild hypoxia might exacerbate this feeling. The body’s response to low oxygen can mimic some stress symptoms, leading to feelings of anxiety or irritability.

The impact of mild hypoxia on flyers’ emotions is a complex topic with ongoing research. It’s important to note that healthy individuals usually don’t experience severe symptoms at these commercial flight altitudes. People have varying tolerances to hypoxia. Some individuals might be more susceptible to emotional changes at lower oxygen levels than others.

Vikas Keshri, psychotherapist and clinical director at Bloom Clinical Care Counselling and Therapy Services suggests that changes in our emotional state might also be caused by other environmental factors. “We’re in a confined space with limited control, dealing with potential turbulence and unfamiliar noises,” says Keshri. This, he states, could lead to a range of emotions as our bodies stay alert in the heightened environment.

And, of course, we can’t deny that travel can be emotionally charged. Saying goodbye to loved ones, navigating airport hassles, and the general stress of flying can leave you more vulnerable. This underlying emotional current can make you more receptive to the movie’s impact. Couple this with other environmental factors such as the dimmed cabin lights, none of our usual daily distractions, and no cell phone, and it’s easy to see how we might come to feel isolated and more easily triggered.

So, if you’re concerned about sobbing embarrassingly, don’t be. You’re in good company, but perhaps steer clear of My Girl.

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