How yoga can help pilots in managing startle and shock better

Startle and surprise can negatively influence pilot performance, leading to hasty decision-making

How yoga can help pilots in managing startle and shock better
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Loss of control in-flight (LOC-I) was the major killer in civil aviation during the years 2006–2010, resulting in the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) setting a high priority to developing mitigating measures for reducing the LOC-I accident rate.

This takes a two-phase approach: establishing training requirements for upset prevention and recovery in commercial aviation and launching a human performance review to identify ways for pilots to improve their monitoring skillset, the response to startle effects and other aspects of human performance.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has released a research report on startle effect management.

The report identifies the problem area as startle and surprise. This can influence pilot performance in many detrimental ways. At the very least, the effects serve as distractions which can disrupt the normal operation and erode safety margins. On a more critical level, they can lead to inappropriate intuitive actions or hasty decision-making. Well-learned procedures and skills can be discarded and substituted by the first thing that comes to mind. 

Startle defined 

The startle reflex is the first response to a sudden, intense stimulus. It triggers an involuntary physiological reflex, such as blinking of the eyes, an increased heart rate and increased tension of the muscles. These are necessary to prepare the body for the fight-flight response (Koch, 1999). The startle response is accompanied by an emotional component, which for a large part, influences how a person responds to the unexpected event (Lang, Bradley & Cuthbert, 1990).

Different elements were combined in the first step, the 'unload'-step of the URP technique:

1. Taking physical distance
2. Deep breathing
3. Muscle relaxation
4. Checking of colleague

Cognitive effect of startle (Griffith aviation)

Research has shown significant impairment in information processing for up to 30 seconds.

Information-processing tasks such as attention perception, situational awareness, problem-solving and decision-making can be markedly impacted.

Communication is often disorganised and incoherent for some time.

Psychomotor impairment often occurs but generally lasts for only 5-10 seconds.

Yogic breathing from the diaphragm is the solution (Neuromuscular reprogramming)

Breathing with the diaphragm as practised in yoga is crucial to healing from structural injuries, whether they are generated from injury or shock. When we get into accidents, arguments, or other physically or emotionally traumatic experiences, our initial response is to hold our breath. By locking the diaphragm, we signal our body to go into a state of shock. This shuts down many of our restorative physical systems and re-routes energy to our muscles so that we can fight or flee as necessary to get through the situation we are in.

Also read: How a Vedic solution can make all the difference in pilot-training

Once that moment passes, it is necessary that we consciously release the contraction from the diaphragm. If we do not, the contraction (at this point, a fixation) in the diaphragm will persist, and will continue to keep us in a state of shock, during which the body cannot heal tissue or perform vital functions.

The diaphragm has 3 essential functions:

1. It provides a platform of support between the top and bottom of the body

It is at the diaphragm that our body twists to accomplish contra-lateral coordination between our shoulders and hips as we walk and work. When it is fixated, not toned, or not working properly, our structure collapses and twists, creating weakness in some places and stress points in others.

2. It regulates the shift between the state of alarm and state of relaxation

When it locks or collapses from having 'the breath knocked out of you', the nervous system can become stuck in the alarm response. This is called Sympathetic Hyper Arousal (SHA).

Also read: West's stress on mindfulness after serious flight errors influenced by vipassana

SHA shuts down many restorative functions of the body (like digestion, immune system function and detoxification of chemicals in the liver) in favour of emergency functions. This condition will not resolve until the diaphragm is unlocked and able to function properly.

3. It is the one autonomic nervous system function that we can consciously control! 

Though you can’t think your way into digesting food more quickly (wouldn’t that be nice?) it is possible to speed up or slow down the breath just by thinking about it. We can use this mechanism to self-regulate our nervous system and shift ourselves into a more relaxed state. It is only in a state of relaxation and slow breathing that our body performs important tasks like repairing muscles and joint tissues, nourishing and hydrating the skin, actively absorbing nutrients from the food we eat, deeply relaxing into restorative sleep and allowing the body to enter a state of sexual arousal. That’s right, beauty, health and great sex life, all by taking some time out to breathe! No wonder the disciplines of yoga and meditation incorporate a focus on the breath as a stepping stone to personal mastery.

mindFly analysis

The duration of a startle can vary from less than a second to about 1.5 seconds depending on the arousal levels. This period can extend if the diaphragm is locked and breathing not restored. While this is a known fact, no training programme addresses this critical unloading exercise as is carried out in the UPRT programme. The only solution proposed by other methodologies is 'do nothing first'. This action is counter-intuitive and counter-productive.

The yogic methodology of restoration of the breathing process from the diaphragm or a form of controlled deep-breathing is the solution for which the flight must be trained for.

In order to get orientated and become situationally aware of the event and environment, mindfulness also requires the control of breathing. One is with the body in that point of time when breathing is controlled. Awareness and attention is focused on the task at hand and all the distractions/clutterings removed.

Captain Amit Singh is a training and safety expert with over 30 years of experience in the commercial air transport industry. He has been associated with two startup low-cost carriers and has hands-on experience with their needs and challenges. He has been a part of the senior management at IndiGo and Air Asia India. Captain Singh has been speaking at international fora on training and safety. He is also the author of mindFly the Human Factors blog.

(This article first appeared in safetymatters.co.in)