Putting Your Mask on First

If you’ve ever flown on a plane then you know the routine, find your seat, buckle up and prepare for take-off. Next, comes the safety spiel so familiar that you can probably say it along. So here it goes, “in the unlikely event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop down from the panel above your head… secure your own mask before helping others…cover your nose and mouth.” It is a standard statement with very simple instructions, yet in the case of an emergency, most people do the complete opposite.

With that understanding, have you ever wondered why they drill that message into passengers or what might happen if you didn’t listen? The answer is hypoxia, a condition in which the body is deprived of adequate oxygen supply. A person experiencing hypoxia may experience fatigue, confusion, euphoria, inability to concentrate, impaired decision-making, loss of consciousness and eventually death. Consequently, by helping others first or ignoring the mask altogether you will likely run out time to put your own mask on and deny yourself oxygen. Meanwhile, once you become incapacitated you can’t help anyone else resulting death for both of you.

This is an important lesson for us all to learn, on and off the plane. For those of us who take care of everything and everyone except for ourselves, we become at risk of death. While this is not always literal death, it can lead emotional death or depletion. I understand taking care of self is much easier said than done, especially when you have people depending on you. There is a saying that you can’t pour out of an empty cup, which seems fitting in this moment. If you give everything away to others you will have nothing left to replenish yourself. Often, we don’t consider our own needs until we are near empty and then frantically searching to refill ourselves. In true transparency, it is not because we are seeking restoration it is because someone else needs us to be at our best. In these situations that “off day” isn’t really an off day at all, it’s the time we use to catch up on all the other tasks we weren’t able to finish. Off days aren’t for catching up with friends, centering ourselves or for hitting the reset button. We find ourselves still slaves to the clock, even on our designated “off day”.

What if for just a moment we considered what would happen if we turned our phones on do not disturb, cancelled meetings, made a home cooked meal, ran that long bubble bath instead of the quick shower, and said yes to that one thing we have been wanting to do for ourselves but have been putting off. If you don’t know what would happen let me tell you, everything and everybody that relies on you would figure it out. They would call someone else, wait until you were busy or utilized some other resource to get some help.

Putting our mask on first in this context means reducing burnout, stress, fatigue, anxiety, depression and self-imposed pressures by making time and space for our mental health. It means letting go of the guilt and the excuses and putting our oxygen mask on by:

  • Getting enough sleep (7-9 hours per night)
  • Exercising regularly (2 hours a week if possible)
  • Eating right (mixture of fruit, veggies and protein)
  • Going to the doctor (for routine checkups or when something does not seem right)
  • Spending time daily in meditation (quiet time, prayer, listening to music, deep breathing, writing, etc.)
  • Finding your tribe (associating yourself with likeminded individuals)
  • Developing a support system (hopefully, this included your tribe)
  • Setting boundaries

About Janee V. Henderson

Janee' V. Henderson is a licensed professional counselor, coach, and consultant. She is based in Kansas City, Missouri, and holds a license to service those located in Missouri, Texas, and New Jersey. Janee received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from Hampton University and a Master's in Counseling Psychology from Temple University. She is currently pursuing her Doctoral degree in Counseling Psychology. Janee has certifications in Anger Management and Trauma-Informed Care.

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