Deliberate calm and learned mindfulness

"Deliberate calm" is a term airline pilots refer to in describing the ability to maintain a state of relative calm during a potentially disastrous situation. "Deliberate calm" is learned through conscious effort and regular practice. This is very similar to mindfulness, a process of engaging in a deliberate and focused awareness of your surroundings. As a psychotherapist here in Portland, OR, I use experiential exercises and visualization much like a pilot uses a flight simulator, to walk clients through stressful or anxiety provoking situations. Just as simulators help pilots learn to respond effectively to highly stressful situations, visualization and experiential exercises help clients to develop skills to get them through stressful episodes much more effectively. Here's more about the water landing of US Airways Flight 1549, in case you missed it.


In an opinion piece in the LA Times, Jonah Lehrer offers his thoughts on the crash landing of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. All 155 on board survived. While making their initial ascent, the Airbus 320 struck a flock of Canada Geese resulting in an immediate loss of most thrust from both engines.

In the video recreation above, Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III is heard calmly talking with air traffic controllers on his options for safely landing his commercial passenger jet which had just taken off from New York City's LaGuardia Airport. No doubt his adrenaline was pumping hard, and yet he was able to maintain a state of relative calm pilots refer to as "deliberate calm". They call it "deliberate calm," because staying calm under fraught circumstances requires both conscious effort and regular practice.

Lehrer, who is a freelance journalist, points out that airline pilots go through hundreds of hours of simulations where they practice extreme flight scenarios.

The training provides pilots with important technical skills -- they can practice flying crippled planes -- but it also teaches them something more important: how to draw on an optimal blend of reason and emotion. They learn how to ignore their fear when fear isn't useful and how to make quick, complicated decisions in the most fraught situations. Flight crews don't panic because they've practiced staying calm.