Eettickal: Airports and ERs: discussing stress management

Enya Eettickal, Staff Writer

If you happened to be chilling in the concourses of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport at 6 a.m. on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and you saw a short girl galloping down the hall with her Timbs halfway off her feet and bag flailing by her side, just know that was me. 

That morning, I arrived over an hour before my flight and thought nothing of it, given that I usually take 15 minutes to get through security. So imagine the dread and panic I felt as I barely reached the metal detectors five minutes before my flight’s departure. I distinctly remember how my hands shook as I tried and failed to put on and tie my shoes, watching the clock hit 5:58. By the time I reached the gate, the words, “the plane’s already gone,” hit like a truck.

While most of this story seems to be perfectly in line with my bad luck, there was one thing I couldn’t figure out. Why was I shaking once I got out of the line? Sure, I wanted to make my flight on time, but I was composed until the metal detectors. So what threw me off? 

The answer is stress—but stress that was initially not my own. While in line, there was a mother and daughter next to me with a flight at the same time. And while everyone was making their way through the metal detectors, the poor mother was visibly highly distressed. She was shaking, irritated and verbalizing her frustrations to her daughter. Very quickly, her daughter started to return the frustration verbally. And while I was neither mother nor daughter in this case, their distress gradually began to affect me. Their woes and intense fear about missing their flight and feeling helpless slowly started to seep into my brain. 

Stress is contagious. And while there are most definitely more important contagions we have to worry about right now, it’s still important to assess the infectious nature of stress. It’s a permanent aspect of our lives and prevails in certain environments that we cannot avoid. 

For my argument in this article, I will limit the scope of my definition of stress to more extreme instances. Finals season or presentations are undoubtedly stress-inducing; however, they do not cause the same type of hysteria and panic you see in emergency rooms or during admission exams. In spaces with high stakes and time constraints, it’s natural to have intense feelings of fear or worry. However, because it’s usually all the individuals in that space under the same conditions, the stress of a few individuals can quickly provoke similar reactions out of the people around them. 

The most recent and universal example of this would be when the pandemic broke out. It turned the world into a high-stress environment, especially in grocery and wholesale stores. So many people believed that a doomsday scenario was about to arise, so they acted on it by creating high competition for cleaning supplies, bottled water and toilet paper. Whether motivated by genuine or irrational fear, we as a populous didn’t slow down to consider whether or not it was necessary or logical to go to such an extreme.

I don’t fault anyone for stocking up when they saw others do the same. While in stress-dominant spaces, it feels comfortable to default to the hive-mind mentality. When fight, flight or freeze kick in, the best idea may seem to be to follow the crowd and hope that the majority knows best. Unfortunately, I’d argue that the masses are more likely to fall into hysterics before they logically find their way to a solution. 

So then, the obvious question is, how do you fix it? While there’s no real way to fix the chaos of stress-dominant spaces, you will almost always have control over at least one factor: yourself. You can control how you respond to your circumstances and do your best to regulate your reaction. 

To explain how I’d recommend you to control yourself in a stressful situation, I’ll walk you through what I did in an instance after the airport incident. On Black Friday, I got into a car accident and had to go to the emergency room. And if you haven’t been to the ER recently, it’s absolute chaos. The wait time was six hours, and with a potential concussion, I was less than excited to sit in that waiting room. I saw people pacing, rushing around, yelling at nurses and even yelling at each other. But the first thing I did was acknowledge my situation. I knew that everyone was anxious about urgent health concerns. Given that I didn’t have rapidly worsening symptoms, I figured it wouldn’t change anything too drastically whether a health professional saw me in 30 minutes or three hours. From there, I could slightly relax instead of panicking about how I was doing, and honestly, it was a major relief. I ended up sitting there for four hours regardless, so deciding not to be stressed about myself made my wait better. 

From there, I was able to separate myself from the collective stress of the waiting room. And to my surprise, I found that other people were doing it, too. Whether it was reading books or napping, they shut out the panic of the space. That relaxed energy seemed to have a tangible impact on the area. I saw new people walking into the ER, choosing to sit near calmer people. I was glad to see that, even though stress can be contagious, people’s security and self-assuredness can be infectious as well. 

After finally seeing the doctor and walking out with nothing but whiplash and slight irritation after losing six hours of my day, I was relatively content with how I handled the whole situation. I was able to navigate it with a level head and minimized my distress, even if my environment would naturally aggravate it. So while I have no plans of missing my flight by a minute or revisiting the ER any time soon, I can say with confidence that I’ll be prepared to keep a calm head should I be in that type of situation again.