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Flight Attendants and Addiction

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Flight Attendants and Addiction

High-stress jobs are known to contribute to increased rates of substance abuse and addiction. The job of a flight attendant is one such occupation.

Addiction Due to Job-Related Stress

There are a variety of work-related stresses on flight attendants, any of which alone may be enough to trigger addiction; the combination of ever-present stress factors makes flight attendants serious candidates for addiction issues.

One factor that may contribute to addiction among flight attendants is the constantly changing sleep schedules. Flight attendants are often required to adjust their sleep schedules frequently to fit flight schedules. This constant disruption of circadian rhythms often results in difficulty sleeping; as a result, flight attendants may become reliant on sleeping pills or may use other substances such as alcohol or prescription sedatives to help them sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation causes stress in its own right that may be self-medicated with drugs or alcohol.

The dangerous and unpredictable nature of the profession can also lead to substance abuse. In a study entitled Critical Incident Stress Management and Addiction in Flight Attendants, Susan Wallace-Wyant, BA, CEAP of American Airlines, cites the significance of critical incidents in the development of addiction issues in flight attendants. She defines critical incidents as follows: “Critical incidents are unusually challenging events that have the potential to create significant human distress and can overwhelm one’s usual coping mechanisms.” Critical incidents for flight crews can involve any of the following:

Flight Attendants and Addiction
  • Death in flight or on a layover
  • Terrorism
  • Severe turbulence with or without injuries
  • Flight attendants are physically assaulted during flight or layover
  • Hijacking
  • Fire on board
  • Evacuation of airplane
  • Medical emergency in flight
  • Aircraft accident
  • Aircraft disaster

Wyant asserts that flight attendants need not experience these critical incidents directly in order to be affected by them; often vicarious experiences by flight attendants are enough to induce an empathetic hyper-arousal state. In other words, simply by being reminded of airborne tragedies such as September 11, flight attendants may be reminded of the dangerous nature of their profession and the ever-present possibility of experiencing a critical incident. Wyant lists a number of addictive behaviors including alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, food, and hoarding that people may use in order to avoid feelings of hyper-arousal.

Availability of Drugs in Other Countries

Another factor that may contribute to addiction among flight attendants is the fact that they travel all over the world and regularly visit countries with widely divergent drug laws. Drugs that are strictly controlled or even illegal in the U.S. may be readily available (and affordable) in other countries. Traditionally, flight attendants are also exempt from having to go through customs; as a result, it can be surprisingly easy for a flight attendant to smuggle drugs on board an airplane. Even if he or she were unable to conceal drugs in personal baggage, a determined flight attendant could almost surely find some secure place to transport drugs on board the airplane.

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