Disrupted passengers both ways. We’re all in this together.

Today I thought I’d write about those that have had a really difficult time during the recent volcanic eruptions in Bali, disrupting their travel plans. Those who couldn’t get here and those who are stranded in Bali draining every cent that would have been put towards future holidays.
As a psychiatrist, I see first hand the emotional and medical consequences of banking up a sleep debt, rest debt and ‘catch up with family and friends debt’ all the time. So many of us, including me, continue to put off what is immediately beneficial and rewarding. How many times have we thought about how much we enjoy having a coffee with a friend, only to lament about how long it has been between drinks? Finding time for a coffee and a catch us seems insurmountable yet the benefits last longer than the coffee does. Likewise, planning a break from relenting commitments, daily schedules, obligations and structure can often be the only way we cope with it all.

I think about how exhausted I was before heading to Bali. I didn’t even realise until I almost collapsed into the lounge by the pool and couldn’t move. Daily morning yoga was a total struggle; I hadn’t practiced yoga for over 2 years and my busy mind made me lose my balance way before my muscles did. But after about 3 days, I was, surprising to me, completely relaxed. After 5 days, one of the guests, soon to become a friend alerted me to the cancellation of flights and the volcanic disruption occurring all around me. Because, from the resorts in Bali, there is no evidence at all there is an ashcloud.  From that morning on as speculation grew we all succumbed to the lack of daily updates, uncertainty and the very real situation that we wouldn’t be returning home on time.

But what about if it was a week before? What if I hadn’t made it to the yoga mat?

I think if I hadn’t made it to my holiday in the first place I would have needed to have thought of a pretty good plan B by now. I admit I have fallen into the trap of ‘it’ll be OK, just get through this week, this financial quarter, this year’, wishing days away waiting for a break. When we do this we take a toll on our own health, often silent, succumbing to more viral infections, or mildly raised blood pressure, chronic fatigue, and so on. We somehow justify that things will all rectify themselves, once we get on that holiday.

In this current situation, many people just like me have banked up the same amount of debt but unlike me just didn’t get to Bali, or did, but are trying to rationalise the situation by eating into funds for the next holiday. If you are one of these people I am sure you have struggled with the uncertainty, the hope you’ll depart then the disappointment when you don’t and by now are absolutely fed up.

Faced with the certainty of a volcanic eruption, completely at the hands of mother nature, it is time to take charge of some certainty over your predicament. Because, if you were operating on limited reserves like me up until now, it’s time to take back some control.

Some things to try;

  • Sit down with your family and work out what it was that you wanted from the holiday in the first place. ‘Chill out’ I hear you say. Reflect on what it is in your daily life that doesn’t allow you to ‘chill out’. Write it down and save for later. Now is not the time to try and make the most of things. You need a break right now.
  • Negotiate your way into a new holiday, whether it be shorter or to a different destination. I’m not saying to put yourselves in debt, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and I know the airlines are very happy to offload passengers to another destination to get them off the queue. It may be shorter, and it won’t be Bali, but it will be something.
  • If you now have unexpected days at home, use them wisely. Don’t try and overload them but instead spend them doing things you always put off.
  • If you are on an extended stay in Bali, live in the moment. None of us know what next year will bring. There is no reason to believe that this delay due to no fault of your own, means you will never holiday again.

Remember your thinking is probably clouded by your current predicament. It won’t feel like this once you do come back from your holiday or get home. 

The one thing I have seen most in medicine is that none of us know our fate and despite our best plans, sometimes things just happen. As humans we don’t think about this that often, until the inevitable happens. As a word of advice, it might be best to avoid call centres as much as you can. Lip service right now, when you are as frazzled as I am, is not going to help. The operators have to behave a certain way, and we all know, if they just said they didn’t know we would all be happy. I understand that the most frustrating thing right now is not feeling heard or understood.

Take care and find your yoga mat, it is waiting for you.

Dr Helen Schultz is a consultant psychiatrist currently stranded in Bali. She has had the most amazing time and met some fantastic people but it is time to go home. 

Grounded by an #ashcloud? How to keep yourself grounded while you wait to get home

After 8 wonderful nights relaxing in Bali, I too have joined the long list of travellers trying to make it home to Australia. It has been 7 days since flights have departed and arrived without disruption. I am witnessing and experiencing first hand how it is to deal with airlines, hotels, insurance companies and generally anybody you don’t wish to bother unless you are actually in need and trying to find a solution to a problem.

I am struggling with trying to be present in the moment and at the same time managing professional and personal issues at home, things I would be doing as part of my usual life if my plane departed on schedule on the weekend. Meanwhile, around me I notice people struggling with the same thing. We all meet again at breakfast, at the pool, share stories about what we have read or heard and try and connect to feel we aren’t alone in this. One common theme is evident,

Now, just like any other time, past or present, we can’t predict the future, and that really makes people very anxious.

In our day to days lives we are often reassured that we can control a great deal of what happens, and most of the time we do a pretty adequate job of it. That’s because humans are hard wired to work best with habit, routine, and structure. We learn how to function by recognising what has worked in the past. Such as booking a holiday, turning up at the airport, arriving at the destination, leaving the accommodation and heading home. We can often leave our comfort zones and relax on a holiday because we know what will happen when its over. When there is any disruption to this, feelings ranging from unease to panic begin to emerge. This is understandable, even in those not predisposed to anxiety. For those who are, this change in routine and dealing with uncertainty can trigger every vulnerability.

It is OK to feel uneasy. Comments like ‘just enjoy the extra few days break’ might be annoying and make you more anxious if you are experiencing financial or health concerns due to being away longer than you have budgeted for.

People with anxiety disorders often fear the worst. They fear things that will probably never happen. This distortion in thinking is purely a symptom of anxiety and not a character fault. If you are prone to anxiety, or even if you aren’t but feeling anxious right now, here are some practical strategies that can help;

  • Reassure yourself that you will get through this, and no matter how inconvenient or stressful this may be, making rash decisions that could put your health or life at risk are not sensible. Remember to remain somewhere where you feel safe. When people are prone to panic or are distracted they can be impaired in decision making, and may be more prone to accidents or adversity. Remember to be safe crossing roads, entering areas you don’t know and so on.
  • Connect with as much home or certainty as you can. If that means a phone call or Skype chat to someone at home then make that a priority at a frequency that reassures you. Choose a person who will listen and help, rather than friends who may be there for the gossip and drama. Set up a small list of close friends on Facebook that you can contact rather than filter through all the noise on your feeds. Chose who you want to support you right now. Nominate a spokesperson at home who can call airlines, your employer etc on your behalf.
  • Where are your FOMO levels? ‘FOMO’, or fear of missing out, is a real phenomenon and is pretty rife right now, as we learn that social media channels, including unsolicited ones are updated faster than traditional means of communication. This is good and not so good. Certainly, as a group we can force airlines and insurance companies to respond to concerns faster than as an individual trying to call through on a landline. And we can feel falsely reassured by refreshing our social media feeds or listening out for notifications on an almost habitual basis. It is a typical conditioned response. You feel anxious, you press ‘refresh’, anxiety levels drop, there is nothing there, so you search more frequently and on wider platforms. Before you know it, you have spent hours staring at mindless information, in the fear of missing a notification from your airline or travel agency, and feel worse than before. Be very strict about checking for updates and stick to it. Checking your phone constantly, driven by a need to know something, will keep you completely focused on the problem.
  • Be specific about where you will look for information.  As the days go by there are more groups and information making it to our Google searches.  However, what is happening is many of the unsolicited groups and even the official sites are being drowned out by hearsay and personal experiences that may do no more than increase panic. Remember, Facebook pages are often set up by people who are generous with their time as moderators but really don’t sign up or are remunerated to deal with an influx of posts, filtering through for what is genuine or not.
  • Remember you are in one of the most tranquil places in the world, rife with ways to relax. Take this test to see how much you need to use what is here right now with you. Turn on you timer on your phone and set it for 5 minutes. That’s 300 seconds. Press start and lie back and close your eyes. Check how many times you had to resist checking emails or Facebook for updates. Feel how difficult it is to resist the urge. If you have not made it to 300 seconds, or have felt very uncomfortable after that time, you need to embrace some practical ways to help. Focus on the horizon, or where the waves are breaking out in the ocean. Watch the leaves on the trees sway in the wind. Pick up a handful of sand and see how long you can hold onto it before the grains fall to the beach. Come back to the present.
  • If you are a parent and have children with you think about the language you are using to describe your situation. If you are irritable or anxious, or need to have a conversation about your predicament, do it away from the children who will pick up on your anxiety.

Finally, the type of customer service large international companies can offer right now is on display. But now might not be the time to vent anger as it is most likely to make you very anxious, and the call centre operators very defensive. Don’t worry, I have had my fair share of difficult phone calls, when I am able to get through. Just think about what you will achieve right now, and what can wait till a very comprehensive letter of complaint when you get home.

Some tips for major companies when handling calls;

  • Assume everybody you talk to on the phone is calling because something has happened to them and they will be anxious and irritable. The best way to diffuse that is to provide clear directions and allow them to express their concerns.
  • If you broadcast that you will post an update at a certain time then do so. Even if you think it might change, do it anyway. If passengers need certainty, and all they have is a time for the next update then adhere to that.
  • Instead of delivering bad news all the time, educate passengers about what you will do when the ash cloud dissipates. Details such as the number of planes that will be dispatched to fetch stranded passengers, how the priority situation works if you need to get home due to medical emergency and so on. Pretty much every passenger is with you that we don’t want to fly if it is dangerous. there is no argument there. If you truly don’t know the answer, there is a lot of comfort in saying ‘we don’t know’.
  • Employ professional social media strategists to run your Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts. Irritated passengers can see right through comments that come across as patronising. Last week I was told “enjoy the pool, it is raining in Melbourne anyway”, which is no comfort to me when I have obligations at home. Social media is a powerful way of delivering effective communication as it happens, use it as such and the amount of negative comments should dissipate, hopefully as quick as this ash cloud does.

Remember, the ash cloud will pass. Don’t buy into fear mongering or shared anxiety of others. Home will be waiting for us. What we can do when there is not much else to do, is let go of what we cannot control. Continue to remain as resilient as you can using the resources around you. Stick together as couples and families, or if alone, remain connected to loved ones at home. We are all in the same boat.

Dr Helen Schultz, when not stuck in Bali, is working as a psychiatrist in Melbourne, Australia. She is now actively putting into place what she advises patients to do – mindfulness, relaxation and reading books. Oh, and waiting for travel updates.