mix of white and grey, stormy clouds in the sky

This might come as a shocker, but aviation weather forecasters don’t always get it right. The accuracy level they’ve achieved in recent years is phenomenal, but you can bet there are times when the weather throws pilots a curve ball. I’ve encountered this a few times with unexpected turbulence. I took off, eager for a relaxing, smooth flight and halfway to my destination, the plane starts bouncing like a stone skipped across a pond. Unlike that stone that will disappear and sink to the bottom of the pond before it makes it to the other side, I need to safely reach my destination.

But unexpected turbulence doesn’t just show up in the sky; it shows up in everyone’s lives from time to time. We cruise along, everything fine, and out of the blue we get a jolt. Then we get another and before we know it, we can have major turbulence in our lives. We can wish it away, but in the end, we have to cope with it.

Pilots are trained to deal with turbulence, to perform certain actions to preserve the structural integrity of the plane. In fact, flight training covers many emergencies through a series of checklists. Even very wise, high-time pilots use checklists to help them remember what to do in the event something bad happens. However, as human beings on this journey through life, we are expected to deal with tough times without any formal training beforehand. If we do get “official” training it’s often after the fact, perhaps in the form of counseling or therapy. The downside is this typically occurs after long, continuous exposure to major life turbulence, often after some damage has been done.

So what should you do when turbulence hits your life? Here’s a suggested checklist:

1) Assess the situation – How bad is it? Are we talking minor bumps that are a little uncomfortable or is it dangerous, requiring action? Sometimes turbulence is an inconvenience, a minor annoyance. Recognize that any good life will have these annoyances and wait them out, focusing on the positives in your life rather than dwelling on the negatives. Becoming myopic on the negative can lead to a downward spiral that turns minor events into overblown issues that can affect our outlook on life and eventually, our mental and physical health.

2) Look at the big picture – Even the turbulence that seems major, maybe even disastrous, like losing a job, appears minor when we look at the big picture. Once some time passed after losing jobs, I’ve heard more people say, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me” than heard people who say it ruined their life. Actually, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Losing that job ruined my life.” A good friend of mine who was going through a challenging time once told me, “It’s just a speed bump in a big life.” I remind myself of that often whenever turbulence enters my life.

3) Slow down – When moderate to severe turbulence shows up in the sky, pilots often throttle the engine back. That way the jolts to the plane and any rapid control surface movement will not damage the structural integrity of the plane. The last thing we want is a wing popping off mid-flight. This applies to life as well. Many of us are running at full speed all the time. Dialing the throttle back can alleviate some of the “optional” stress we sometimes place on ourselves. How do we know what we can dial back on? See the next checklist item.

4) Focus on what is important – In aviation we have an established priority on performing certain activities so there is no question about what’s most important. Aviating—the act of flying in itself— trumps navigating every time. Navigating trumps communicating. I’m not saying that knowing what direction you are flying and communicating on the radios aren’t important, but those two actions mean nothing if you stall and spin the plane because your airspeed becomes dangerously slow. We all juggle many balls in life. Make sure you know which ones you can drop without serious consequences and which ones you must keep in the air.

5) Divert – If I’m flying to a destination and the turbulence is really bad, I look for a nearby airport to put the plane down, a safe harbor where I can wait out the weather. In life, I may do the same thing. If tough times are keeping me from reaching my goal, do I give up the goal? No, I take a break, check my inner compass to make sure the goal is still sound, and then gather energy. When the shake-up has passed or begins to subside, I resume my journey toward my goal. We all need breaks in life, time to rest and recuperate. Sometimes we decide it’s time, sometimes life itself decides. But these rest stops often give us fresh insight on ourselves, and how to better reach our goals.

6) Have faith in yourself – Every bump in life prepares you for bigger and more numerous bumps. Trust your resiliency as a human being. Draw upon past crises in your life and take comfort in the fact you triumphed before and will triumph again. When I was still a student pilot, shortly after I began flying on solo trips, I was caught in very bad turbulence right after take off. I kept calm, focused on my training, and returned the airplane safely to the airport. That day I walked away with more confidence and faith in my abilities.

7) Get help – We all need help at certain times in our lives. Sometimes it’s a friend or relative, sometimes it’s a professional. Either way, learn to recognize when you need help and then ask for it. Many of us could stand to learn that it’s better to ask for help sooner rather than later. A good rule of thumb is, “If in doubt, reach out.”

Here’s one last thing to ponder. The passing of time helps us recognize turbulent times for what they are: a vital nutrient to our growth as human beings. Wise souls know that turbulence is part of the journey, and they wouldn’t want it any other way. But the even wiser souls remember their checklists.

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