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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Killing Brain Cells

A pilot’s life in training… Poor nutrition, no time to exercise, worried about passing the check, anxiety with so much to learn, and we can’t help but feeling depressed living in a hotel room for five to six weeks.

Worry, Anxiety, and Depression:

The good news is, that a little bit of worry actually can help the memory…if it kicks you into gear to study. But too much worry will lead to anxiety. Unfortunately anxiety reduces available working memory capacity. Too much anxiety… and depression sets in. And a depressed individual’s processing capacity and lack of motivation will contribute to inferior cognitive performance.


Stress not only physically hurts you, but destroys your ability to recall. A small amount of stress can be good to get you moving, but too much will kill brain cells. Stress disrupts a chemical communication essential to learning. It stimulates cortisol, a hormone that helps process carbohydrates, but in excess will damage brain cells. Stress inhibits the brain’s ability to absorb glucose (the brain’s primary energy source) and robs its ability to moderate other chemical signals. Too much stress means that your brain cells will become overexcited and either become severely damaged, or killed.

Legal Substance Abuse:

Painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs such as Ibuprofen are detrimental to your long-term memory… not to mention potential kidney failure.

Alcohol impairs your memory when you drink too much because the ethanol is broken down into various products which reduce calcium concentrations in the brain. The brain needs calcium to communicate, and thus your mind begins to slow down and forgets. Drinking in moderation there is no impact on recall or learning. However moderate consumption can  hurt information processing tasks. A deficiency in B1 is also associated with chronic alcoholism, which affects your attention and reaction time.

Caffeine can over stimulate the brain making concentration and learning difficult. Staying up late at night, and filling up with caffeine is actually disruptive to learning.

All I can say is that it’s amazing how pilots have survived this long! Maybe what they don’t know won’t hurt them?

Tomorrow… the difference between male and female brains...


  1. Once again, more great advice!
    Today I had a long nap, and I must say I feel a lot more better and relaxed!

    At 14 it's easy to be stressed, especially in exam week. When you've got no self-esteen (like me) it's really hard to deal with. I cried and paniced every time I got a test result back!

    How do pilots deal with stuff like this? Training must be a lot more stressful than High School exams, right?

    Can't wait for tomorrow's entry... a lot of aviators I've met offline have told me that male and female brain work differently, especially when it comes to flying planes..?

  2. Hi Aeropup, Thank you so much for your comments. No self-esteem? High school... that explains everything!!!

    With the testing and anxiety...I think the best thing you can do is understand that as long as you do everything you can to prepare ... then don't worry about the testing. I know it's harder to do than say, but the reality is... worry and anxiety kills brain cells. And those are brain cells that you could use for your test.

    I too have been a perfectionist my entire life and I always over prepare. And... I think that can lead to anxiety. But I realized that since I do everything I can to prepare...I'll just use all my brain cells for the test, not waste them on worrying about what if.

    I don't worry about what happens if I fail. I figure that if I fail...I will deal with it then. Focus on the moment. Not on what if.

    My first type rating I was so scared. But I realized that the instructor would not have signed me off to take the ride if he didn't think I could do it. Therefore I knew that I had the ability. At that was all about my confidence or lack of.

    What I did before that very first type ride was... go to the gym and I walked around the track for an hour telling myself, "I can do this. I know what I am doing. John signed me off because he too knows I can do it. All I need to know is in my mind now. I have done this before, I can do it now...etc."

    I shifted my focus into conditioning my mind that I knew exactly what I was doing, and going into that ride, there was no room for doubt. I told myself I was going to do great!And I did.

    Did I make a mistake? Of course. We all do. Nothing is perfect. But... I did not beat myself up over it, I figured... "Got that one out of the way." And pressed on.

    Have you ever heard that we get what we wish for? The power of our mind is incredible. Don't let your mind hear doubt. Give your mind the positive thoughts. Know that if you put out the effort, you will be rewarded.

    You are so much farther ahead than so many people twice your age. You're smart, funny, and have goals for your life. Don't let your mind slow you down. Take control.

    Honestly... I think high school is more stressful than anything. lol. Hang in gets much better!

    Male vs Female brains... should be fun! lol But, next week...the power of visualization, I think you will like too.

    Have a great day! And remember...pack those worries in bubbles and let them float away... You don't need them anymore.

  3. Wow what fantastic advice. I am a very high stress person, even the littlest of things stress me out, I love caffiene, and staying up late writing probably doesn't help either!!

    Your blog is fantastic! I think it's awesome that you are an airline pilot! What a neat and amazing job! I'm sure that requires a lot of time and effort in to each day, but what an interesting day it must be! I'd love to pick your brain!

  4. Hi Jen, Thank you so much for the comment! I used to be hooked on caffeine... until I discovered that I had osteoporosis. Now building the bones back and limiting the caffeine. I still cheat once in awhile. lol.
    I just think that the little things stress most of us out. You're not alone.
    And yes... you can pick my brain anytime! What's left of it. :)

  5. Thanks for more great info, Karlene. Your description of how anxiety saps our brains and abilities made me rethink my attitude a bit -- instead of accepting anxiety as normal and therefore not to worry about (heh), it's time to pay more attention to exercise and meditation to release it. I can feel my brain cells plumping already!

  6. Thanks for the comment Linda! I can feel the difference when I miss yoga too. It does make a difference. My Yoga teacher said when you feel anxiety to place the palms of your hands together for instant relief. Plump those cells!!

  7. Hmm, sounds like too many cups of coffee is not a good study plan! I think that explains a few classes I took in college ...

  8. Hi Portia... oh, this explains so much doesn't it! lol. We can grow new cells. That's the good news! Tips to come. :)

  9. Aeropup, I agree with Karlene. High school was stressful - maybe more than flying ever was :)

    There is a really good book called "Taming Your Gremlim". It talks about shutting off that voice in your head that tells you you're not good enough, smart enough, etc. We all have gremlins, only some are more active (and nastier!) than others.

    My life coach (Citrus Coaching in Vancouver BC), Christina Sestan, says it helped her to draw it, on paper. When you know what the gremlin looks like - you can laugh at it and at yourself.

    When I checked out copilot on the 747, there was a group of guys in training who didn't like my "progression". They thought I should be flying copilot on a smaller airplane first. They even called my husband (!) and told him I wouldn't make it through training. He told them I had flown the 727 as copilot. They didn't believe him and said it didn't matter anyway - that I had been flight engineer (FE) too long and wouldn't cut it as copilot.

    Of course I did make it. I sailed through training - only one day did I have any trouble at all. The day we practiced V1 cuts - when you lose an engine at a high speed, like on takeoff, the plane veers quickly in the direction of the "dead" engine and off the runway - the simulator just kept veering off into the pucker weeds.

    I took a long walk, and did positive self- motivation: You know you can do this. Don't let them get to you. I sat on my bed and visualized V1 cuts for an hour or so. The next day in the simulator everything went great. A few days later I took my checkride and passed it with no problems. Like Karlene says, you know the instructor wouldn't sign you off if he didn't think you could do it - that makes them look bad:)

    Then I went out on my IOE (initial operating experience) and the captain went out of his way to destroy my confidence. It was awful. He nit-picked every thing I did until I didn't know my own name. Worst of all, he didn't help me learn the plane - no suggestions or advice.

    My gremlin started saying things like, "You are so stupid." "Of course you couldn't pass this after sitting back there as FE so long."I bought into that. Then it said, "Your friends will see how stupid you are; they won't want to be your friends anymore."

    Something in me snapped - I almost laughed - none of my friends had ever even tried to be a pilot on a 747. It would never occur to them to not be my friend for failing a test like that - they would say they hadn't even gotten that far! Ludicrous. (Gremlins aren't that smart...)

    Finally I got mad, told the gremlin to get lost, and passed the next hurdle.

    So, Aeropup, the point is, you need to work on strategies that keep you from sabotaging yourself. You get enough flack from people out in the world who are jealous of your success or maybe who you threaten somehow - who knows what their problems are.

    Don't add to it on your end. Take deep breaths, do affirmations - anything you need to do to stay positive and optimistic.

    Oh, and don't be around negative people into your life. I've found I can only handle 2 toxic people in my life at a time - they drain me.
    Supposedly, it takes 10 positive comments to overcome the damage from one negative one - so you have to be your own coach and cheerleader!

    Positive pep talks work wonders. I don't mean that you should get a big head or be egotistical - just be yourself, do your best and know that that is good enough.

    And remember that you can't be a success without some failures. Look up Edison and the lightbulb....

    Most importantly, HAVE FUN. My brain shuts down when I am anxious. You do so much better when you can take things lightly - laugh at yourself and enjoy the process.

  10. Aww, thank you Karlene!

    Words like that which come from successful and kind aviators like you really give me a boost... and make me more ambitious! I'm always very self-doubtful but I always look forward to the future.

    I admire all aviators, but especially people like you who are willing to inspire and help those like me!

  11. Thank you Aeropup! You know... with the same skill set, the same education and the same experience... what will make one person succeed and another not? Their confidence. Believe in yourself you will go far!!! I believe in you!

  12. Kathy, Thank you for great advice to Aeropup! Off to find her to come and read this!

  13. Thank you Kathy!! I suppose you are right in every way. Reading your experience, if that was me now I would of broke down! The fact that you stayed strong makes me feel like I can do it too.

    Also, I've never had the thought that none of my other friends has the ambition to pilot an airliner... and that makes me feel a little happier about myself!

    Thank you Karlene and Kathy, those comments really mean a lot to me, as it seems you understand, and I've never been given this much support before!

    Thank you!! :)


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