Experts Explain Why You're More Likely to Cry on a Plane

I’m not one to shy away from a good cry. I generally have a healthy relationship with crying; I even schedule a weekly cry session in order to better regulate my emotions. So why do I find it so inherently embarrassing to cry on an airplane? Maybe it’s because I’m in a closely confined space with 60+ other people. Or maybe it’s because I have yet to invest in waterproof mascara. Either way, crying on an airplane is never the plan, yet seems to be inevitable no matter how I’m feeling.

It doesn’t matter if I’m watching a movie or TV show I’ve seen a million times or playing Sudoku on my phone — like clockwork, at one point while being 35,000 feet up in the air, I will shed a tear or two. I understand crying is a healthy and normal response to feeling waves of sadness or happiness, but the things I cry about while on a plane tend to be things I otherwise would not cry over when I’m on land. A lot of the time, I don’t even know why I’m crying in the first place.

Fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be a “just me” thing. People have been making fun of themselves for crying on airplanes for years now. Back in 2015, one Twitter user tweeted, “Bee movie came on in the plane and I cried actual tears.” In 2017, another shared, “I’m watching new planet earth on a plane and this baby turtle can’t find the ocean and I’m ugly crying.” But why are we like this?

Clinical psychologist Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, says that “the high altitude and cabin pressure causes lower oxygen levels in the cabin. This leads to dehydration and can impact passengers’ mood, induce fatigue, and make them more susceptible to intense emotional shifts.”

But that’s not the only culprit. Between the long wait times at the airport and having to scramble to remove your laptop from your bag in the security line, traveling in itself is pretty chaotic. This can sometimes lead to a lot of stress and anxiety — and unfortunately, “stress and anxiety can manifest in different ways, including crying,” says licensed professional counselor Joan Hampton, CEO of Oasis Mental Wellness.

Travel can also be pretty uncomfortable, whether you’re hungry, tired from waking up for a 6 a.m. flight, or holding your pee because you’re trapped in the window seat. Any of these forms of “physical discomfort” could contribute to feelings of unease and vulnerability, which could otherwise lead to crying, Hampton says.

Licensed therapist Jason Phillips, LCSW, also points out that when you’re on a plane, you’re often alone with your feelings. “You’re forced to be alone without many distractions,” he says. For this reason, being on a plane can present an opportunity for feelings to bubble up that you haven’t had time to face. It could also mean a movie might make you sadder than if you were watching it while simultaneously playing on your phone or texting friends in the comfort of your own home. Not to mention, there’s also something inherently deep about being suspended between time zones, in the air, looking down, and seeing Earth. It forces you to “zoom out” and gives you some big-picture perspective that can be pretty profound.

For whatever reason we do it, crying on an airplane seems to have a little to do with our own emotions and a lot to do with factors beyond our control. The bottom line is that while an airplane is not the most convenient place to cry, it is a place where many people do. The next time you feel yourself tearing up while watching “Legally Blonde,” blame it on the altitude. And trust that while your neighbor might catch you crying, they’ve likely been there, too.

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