Time to chill
Defeating checkride anxiety
Checkride anxiety is a major source of stress in a pilot’s career. To a varying extent, we all feel anxiety when anticipating or undergoing a checkride. Anxiety can also surface when flying with a company check airman, a management pilot, after a long absence from flying—anytime one feels the pressure to perform, some anxiety will be felt.
The physical symptoms are increased heart rate, jitteriness, increased rate of speech, sweating, tenseness in gut/shoulders, and loss of appetite. Mentally it leads to increased tension, lowering of situational awareness, a shorter attention span, inhibited concentration, and, ultimately less-than-optimum performance. Sometimes anxiety expands into an enveloping, mentally incapacitating grip on your mind, which washes over you, getting worse and worse with each wave, degrading performance to such an extent that is starts destroying your flying ability and then finally confidence. And once confidence in your abilities goes, it’s a slippery slide to incompetence. Anxiety can be a serious, long-term problem, yet it is rarely dealt with in an organized, systematic way.
All this I have personally experienced. Because of strict requirements and frequent evaluations associated with my job, anxiety had gradually but increasingly built up, reaching alarming levels after my first failed checkride. It was very detrimental to my ego and confidence, but ultimately provided the motivating catalyst needed to face the full extent of the issue. I decided I had enough checkride-related anxiety over the years and set out to find methods of defeating it.
It’s all in the mind. The brain, as far as body-management functions go, does not really know what is real and what is not. Whether it actually experiences stress or merely anticipates it, the signals sent to the body will be the same: “increase heart rate, get ready to flee, sweat, get tense.” If you think about a checkride going badly, your body will react as if it actually is going badly. Your body’s now-nervous reaction will be quickly noted by your brain, which will register a real physical reaction to stress, redoubling its efforts to get the body prepared for that stress, and the cycle will be reinforced.
When you think about future events and those thoughts trigger a reaction, it is clinically defined as anxiety. At best it can manifest itself as a small, distracting thought and at worst it can lead to a full-blown anxiety attack with symptoms similar to those of a heart attack. Anxiety, or bad thoughts about the future, is the key source of performance-related stress.
A close relative of anxiety is depression—thoughts about bad events or performances in the past, which cause a stressful reaction. I am not referring to clinical, serious depression, which requires medical treatment, but rather a lesser issue that uses the same term.
As a checkride approaches we may find ourselves thinking about how badly it is going to go (anxiety) or how badly it may have gone in the past (depression). Especially if there was a previous failure, negative thoughts will influence your future ones and inevitably result in a gloomy outlook—all the while trapping your mind in a never-stopping cyclical pattern of stress-causing fantasies (fantasies in this case simply mean thoughts about the future). Oh, you may try to put a stop to it and not think about how stressed you are, but it’s not so easy and the anxiety-producing thoughts are never really banished. The solution lies in the next step. You must break this cycle of stress-causing thoughts, and the way to do this is to force yourself to feel you are in the moment. Do not think about the future; do not think about the past; just be in the present. Not as easy as it sounds, and probably something you have already tried to do. Being in the moment is a state you have to be able to bring your mind to. It does not mean that you can stop bad thoughts from occasionally intruding (and they will, which is normal), but it does mean you are exerting temporary control over the time period you want to be in—and that period is now.
The most effective method of focusing your mind is a simple breathing exercise. Close your eyes and calmly inhale through the nose. You should feel a slight cooling effect as air is sucked in. Think to yourself, “cool in.” When you exhale, you should feel a slightly warmer amount of air exiting, so think to yourself, “warm out.” Keep doing this until all you think about is the cool-in, warm-out sensation. Soon you will relax to such an extent you will feel your body pressing on the chair, or your arms hanging or other sensations, which are indications that you are finally observing how you are feeling now, and, most important, not thinking about the future!
This method can be used anytime you need a mental break and feel anxiety coming on. To further develop this ability, set aside five minutes a day to do just that; quietly breathe and bring yourself to the present. At these introductory stages of meditation, don’t expect to be able to fully clear your mind, as you may have tried in the past. Your mind will drift and you will think of various obligations, desires. This is normal. Acknowledge them by gently opening your eyes and writing them down, i.e., “I have to remember to buy milk”—write down the word “milk,” close your eyes, and refocus. Then you might have another thought, such as “check schedule”—write down the word “schedule,” and soon you will find that one by one, you have acknowledged your thoughts so that when they return they will be easier to block. In a month, increase your meditation time to 10 minutes.
Additionally, sleep is very important and an active, running mind will prevent you from getting it. Use a modification of the above method to help you just before bedtime—breathe in through the nose but exhale through the mouth five times. Make the last inhalation very deep and hold your breath as long as you can, while tensing all muscles. When you can no longer hold it, exhale and you will experience a calming sensation.
Forget fantasies. When you think about the future, specifically the upcoming checkride, do you see yourself passing or failing? While you may want to think you’ll pass, admit it, you fearfully fret about the worst-case scenario and build on it. Maybe in your fantasy you will fail, then fail the re-test. This sort of bad fantasy just gets more elaborate until it destroys your confidence. Confidence is essential to good performance and has to be maintained if we are to function professionally. When thinking about the future, ask yourself honestly, am I winning or losing in my fantasies? The importance of visualizing the outcome should not be underestimated.
Finally, finish putting your mind at ease with preparation. If you have prepared extensively for your checkride, you will have removed a critical cause of anxiety (fear of failure because of unpreparedness). This advice is not new to anyone in aviation. A further comfort is if the oral phase of the exam goes well, you will have more latitude should the flight phase not go as well. Either way, you will have made a good impression right off the bat. An indispensable part of preparation is chair-flying. Sit in a chair in front of a cockpit mock-up/poster and go through the full checkride, thinking of every movement, and every procedure you will have to do. Fly several scenarios and take each through to its conclusion. Take your time but get it right; when you have done it in your mind correctly, you have set the stage for doing it correctly in the airplane. When you get into the airplane, you will have the confidence that your mind has already been there.
The three main elements of a successful anti-anxiety strategy are getting outside help; stopping the negative thought cycle and establishing a calm mindset that is based in the present; and preparing for the checkride in an thorough way that leaves no room for self-doubt.
When you eliminate performance-related anxiety, you will get a lot more enjoyment out of flying, generally be more relaxed and calm, and find all pressure-causing issues far less serious (relatively speaking) than previously imagined. And that lets you fully develop into the competent yet relaxed pilot you want to be.