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The Healthy Traveler

Relaxing Above the Clouds


One of six Americans fears flying and the other five are probably stressed from life in general when they board a plane, according to Dr. Reid Wilson, a North Carolina flying phobia expert. So it's not surprising that airlines are making an effort to help passengers relax.

New programs featuring techniques such as deep breathing, visualization and meditation are showing up on airline audio channels. More unusual are programs featuring scalp and neck massages or seats that transform into beds offered with complimentary pajamas.

But even on airlines without formal relaxation programs, passengers can find ways to decompress--either by taking a few lessons from experienced flight attendants or by taking along their own anti-stress paraphernalia.

In May, American Airlines introduced a new audio program devoted to relaxation. Called "Moments of Serenity," the two-hour tape, which runs constantly on one of the aircraft's audio channels, includes breathing techniques and a Westernized version of meditation, said Krs Edstrom, the Los Angeles stress reduction expert and meditation teacher who developed the program.

Qantas Airways offers the audio program, "Ambience," a stress reduction program developed by Sydney consultant Rod Lee. The program features instructions on how to breathe deeply, visualize a soothing environment and relax the muscles, spoken over calming background music.

On Virgin Atlantic Airways, upper class passengers on many flights can receive complimentary neck and scalp massages, and a manicure. (Passengers are given information shortly after takeoff and invited to make an appointment for the services, which are done in the lounge area on board.)

For several years, British Airways has provided passengers with the audio program, "Well-Being in the Air," which includes a series of exercises to help travelers resist the stress-producing effects of air travel. Passengers in first-class also receive lip balm, facial hydrating spray, soothing eye compresses and other products designed to help encourage relaxation.

Newer are British Airways' seats for first-class passengers. They are being phased in now and are expected to be on all long-haul flights (six hours or more) by September, according to spokeswoman Margaret Vodopia. Picture a wing chair, she said; push a button and it becomes totally flat. Passengers are offered sleeper suits, sheets and pillows and invited to leave a wake-up call.

Even if an airline lacks a formal relaxation program, passengers can follow the lead of flight attendants, who have learned to take advantage of what little relaxation time they get during work breaks.

Elevating feet whenever possible is a great technique, said Susan Irick-Hacker, a veteran flight attendant on international routes.

"The farther you can recline the better," she said. Travelers in first-class or business-class can take advantage of built-in footrests. Others can improvise as Irick-Hacker does. She puts her feet up on luggage or empty bins when she gets a break on long international flights. "I listen to music or read. A lot of flight attendants use ear plugs or eyeshades," she said. Avoiding alcohol is wise, she added, because it can make travelers feel worse in the long term. Too much alcohol can cause nervousness and restlessness, and interfere with sleep and well-being, according to Dr. Stuart Rose, a Massachusetts travel medicine specialist.

Edstrom tells passengers to use relaxation techniques that focus on tuning out awareness of other passengers. She believes travelers can be negatively influenced by fearful and anxious passengers nearby.

To counteract that influence, she suggests simple breathing exercises such as this: Exhale to the slow count of eight and think of letting all the air out of a balloon. Focus on contracting the diaphragm muscles (the midriff area) to get all the air out.

Next, inhale slowly to the count of 12. Think of filling the lungs from bottom to top. Hold the breath for a count of eight or as long as possible. Exhale slowly to the count of eight. Continue the breathing exercise as long as possible.

Another option, Edstrom suggested, is a visualization exercise: Picture a recent stressful experience, such as running to catch the plane, being caught in traffic, standing at the back of a long grocery line.

Recreate the feeling of stress, then focus inward. Where is most of the tension felt? Circle the area with an imaginary marking pen. Mentally move inside the circle and explore it. What's the quality, color, texture of the sensation? Relax the surrounding muscles, then let the circle bounded by the marking pen fade. Go totally limp. Now visualize the stressful scene again, but focus on keeping part of the mind in a relaxed state. Picture being relaxed in the same scene even if people all around are anxious or stressed.

Relax even more by picturing a powerful waterfall flowing through the body, washing away anxieties. Visualize the water running over the shoulders and neck, down the spine, throughout the body and finally dribbling out the toes.

Taking along special equipment can also help passengers relax. For example, Soundscape Environments is a portable sound system with headphones that produces the sounds of a summer rainstorm, summer night, ocean waves and other soothing sound effects. (Sharper Image, [800] 344-4444, $99.95 plus tax).

A travel kit including an eyeshade and five sets of earplugs is available from Magellan's ([800] 962-4943) for $4.85 plus tax and delivery.

* The Healthy Traveler appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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