Travel2020: Finding your inner Buddha at 30,000 feet
Wednesday, May 15, 2019
A 2013 survey by Carlson Wagonlit Travel said it all when it comes to measuring the toll that travel takes on today’s road warriors. CWT found that travelers can experience stress for as much as "6.9 hours per trip," as measured in "lost time, or time unavailable to travelers to work or rest."
The number at that time, which was the first time an algorithm has ever been placed on this condition, showed a financial loss of as much as $662 per trip.
The study reviewed more than 15 million CWT air trips in a one-year period and saw that each trip produced 22 potentially stressful activities from pre-trip through post-trip actions. Each of those 22 stressors were measured according to duration and perceived stress intensity for each activity. And the results?
The largest stresses on a business traveler's time are felt flying in economy class on medium- and long-haul flights. The getting to the airport or train station proved to be the second-most stressful part of the trip.
Sadly, the intervening years have not been kind to business travelers, either. A global study released in March by IHG with help from associates from Harvard Medical School, reported that business travelers lose some 58 minutes of sleep per night while away and sleep an average of only five hours and 17 minutes while on the road. The complications of sleeping in different environments, dealing with unfamiliar noises and changes in working hours all contribute to what can be a hot mess for anyone who cycles through time zones for a living.
While many of the factors that contribute to this particularly insidious strain of stress cannot be helped, there are a few tricks and tips one can apply to one’s travels and daily navigations that can make anyone’s journey through life and their destinations a little more bearable.
On a recent trip to Turkey taken with TV medical personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, the focus was on optimizing health in the air and integrating easy habits that any flyer can adopt. The famed cardiothoracic surgeon and Columbia University professor whose syndicated talk show, "The Dr. Oz Show," usually highlights weight-loss methods and ways to manage pain, had plenty of advice for passengers — many of them frequent flyers — about how to minimize discomforts and stay well during long-distance travel.
Suggestions flew from seat yoga to drinking a sour cherry brew to keep boredom and sickness at bay. But the key concern here was how to keep the auto-immune system boosted through 15 hours of time in a packed tube and use it for some well-needed detox from daily pressures.
Among other things, Dr. Oz suggested popping an aspirin before a flight to prevent pulmonary embolism for those at risk; also a vitamin supplement should be considered, and an oft-overlooked piece of the wardrobe should donned: a scarf. The added cloth can serve as blinders, a blanket, an aroma blocker, a pillow and protection against airborne bacteria.
As for finding those often elusive hours of sleep in a crowded aircraft, Dr. Oz suggested melatonin and rescheduling the body long before arriving.
"Traveling across time zones can be particularly taxing on the mind and body," said Dr. Oz. "That’s because our circadian rhythm, the internal body clock that lets us know when it’s time to wake up and sleep, takes a few days to catch up. As soon as I board a flight, I change my watch to the destination time zone. I also try to adjust my body to the new time zone straight away, by staying up until the normal bedtime of my destination instead of taking a nap. And if you can’t sleep that first night, take an over the counter sleep aid to help get some rest. Natural sleep aids, such as melatonin and valerian, do the trick for some people."
The Space Center in Houston helps astronauts — who, for training purposes, must fly frequently among international space agencies in Russia, Japan and Germany — overcome jet lag two to three times faster than other travelers. Among their recommendations for the long-distance travelers:
First, understand the direction you are traveling. Know that flight has only been aloft for around 100 years, so that fact that people are capable of jumping time zones with speed is a relatively new phenomenon. Begin by determining whether you are traveling east or west, he said. Most people have an internal body clock that makes it harder for them to travel east.
Second, schedule your exposure to light and be aware of when to avoid it (wearing sunglasses, even on a flight, helps). Usually, it takes a full day to shift one time zone internally. To do this faster, you will have to regulate your exposure to light — both natural and artificial — and darkness.
Another Dr. Oz do is: Don’t fly dry. "Did you know the air in here is about 66 percent drier than the air at sea level?" Dr. Oz discussed this question with passengers as he walked through the aisles.
He went on to explain to those nearby that most planes fly at 35,000 feet where the air is thinner and easier to navigate, but cabins are pressurized to resemble an altitude of roughly 7,000 feet. At that air pressure, lower blood oxygen levels cause fatigue and brain fog as well as headaches and dizziness.
Gas expands in the body with these environmental changes to swell intestines and cause bloating. Avoid junk foods, he says, eat slowly, and skip the sodas as they make bloating worse.
The best flight diet, and indeed the best long-haul life diet, is the Mediterranean diet he suggested. Passengers might try dining on such foods as nuts and seeds, olives and olive oil with whole grain bread, legumes and beans (especially lentils and chickpeas used to make hummus), fish dishes for entrees, and fresh fruits and vegetables (especially leafy greens like spinach and kale, and non-starchy veggies like eggplant, cauliflower, artichokes, tomatoes and fennel). They can also enjoy a glass of red wine with the meal, and finish it all off with herbal or mint tea.
What else can passengers do to make the going a little more palatable? Drink water, wear loose clothing and move around … a lot. Stuck in the middle seat?
"Stand up at your seat, grab your foot and stretch. Or, kneel on your seat facing the back of the plane and lean back or onto your heels," said Dr. Oz. "Your neighbor might look at you like you’re crazy, but when he or she gets a leg cramp later on in the trip, you’ll be having the last laugh."
Meditation as Medicine
Beyond eating right, drinking much and moving around to keep the circulation buzzing on a 15-hour flight, there is only so much ingesting and circulating to be done. And while sleep is often a fickle friend on these journey, meditation is medication and a powerful elixir that can do much more than bring on ZZZs.
Dr. Daniel Siegel, who received his medical degree at Harvard and now teaches at UCLA Medical School, is a well-known name in the field of meditation. He has pioneered research on the subject and written more than a dozen books on neurobiology and the science of mindfulness and meditation.
In his latest book, "Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence," he looks at the science that underlies meditation's effectiveness and teaches readers how to harness the power of the principle, "Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows."
This wisdom can be immensely helpful to travelers, he said, especially when looking at the very definition of stress that is measured by elevations in heart rate, respiration, and muscle tension. “Studies from a range of fields suggest that it is how we relate to our experience that is more important than the absolute experience itself—and this is true with regard to bodily states as well as mental activities such as thoughts, feelings, and attitudes,” he said.
"Traveling has many things at stake that matter: getting somewhere on time, getting there alive, getting there without getting an infectious illness. So yes, it is stressful — especially with air travel and the fear created with security measures. Add to this the physically unnatural ways we have to sit in a tube on a plane or in a car, and it is physically painful. And in addition, we may be leaving the proximity of our loved ones."
These are challenges that layer over the stale air, poor food choices, and the radiation from being higher up in the atmosphere.
If you realize that your mind can change your brain, that’s a good start, he added. And the way to do that is through meditation.
"Meditation is simply a word that means training the mind. Research I review in my latest book, Aware, reveals how the three pillars of mind training: focused attention, open awareness, and kind intention can lead to improvements in each of the factors that stress worsens. Inflammation is reduced, immune function is enhanced, cardiovascular health factors improve, telomerase levels are optimized, and stress hormone levels decrease. Add to this that you are increasing the growth of integrative fibers in your brain — the basis of well-being — and that’s pretty good for a way your mind can transform how you deal with stressful experiences, such as traveling, and even traveling through life," Siegel said.
While meditation should become a practice in daily life, a seat on a plane for hours on end may be a good place to get a start on this habit.
Several interesting technical gadgets had surfaced of late to make meditating all the easier, calming body and soul.
The Muse headband, which first appeared at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, may be the most advanced of the electronic meditation aids available. The item, available on Amazon, is a headband with sensors that reads brain activity and tells the wearer, through a smartphone app, whether he or she is in a calm state of meditation or dancing around with monkey mind.
After listening to a short, guided meditation session, the Muse offers peaceful sounds that actually signal whether the wearer is in a state of meditation. The constant neurofeedback helps the wearer return to states of alpha or theta when brainwaves jump back to monkey mind.
Another item debuting at this year’s CES is the Dreamlight Zen mask. The compact, lightweight and very comfortable mask fits snugly around the head and rhythmically pulses soft orange light (the only hue that does not contain stimulating blue light) at a rate that is supposed to help bring the heart rate down.
A device on the side flap is pressed and guided meditation sessions begin in quiet stereo that no one else can here. All sight and sound is blocked except for what comes through the mask. The item pairs easily with Bluetooth for using smartphone meditation apps instead of what the manufacturer provides. With the Dreamlight, whether for meditation or relaxation, one is completely encased in a world by yourself, no matter the surroundings.
The very act of travel — moving from one destination to another — provides ample opportunity to detach and detox from our daily, digital-heavy lives. While stress will never abate — it is waiting patiently to grab us at the airport on arrival, sit with us through groggy meetings and meals, and haunt us in our hotel rooms — the time in transit can be a glorious moment of turning everything off.
"I personally just like to sit and either tune out the world or tune into one little aspect of it at a time. I find it calming and centering," said Sara Clemence, whose book, "Away & Aware," delves into mindful travel with tips and advice for disconnecting from devices and connecting with the destination.
"Apps can be a great way for beginners to get into the habit of meditating — things like 10% Happier, Headspace. Once you get the hang of it, I think it's more enjoyable to do it on your own," she says.
Similarly, just listening to music is a great way to relax the brain. Listening to the right music can help to shift consciousness and change the brain chemical activity, added Dr. Oz. Do a little self-massage on scalp, temples, arms and legs (cross your legs to work out the kinks in your hips and thighs), add a little positive self-talk, and you have some life-changing therapy going on a flight. Suddenly, life doesn’t seem so stressful.
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