Put on Your Oxygen Mask First

By Michael Repie, Ph.D.
Dominion Hospital- Senior Director of Clinical Services

If you or someone you know is experiencing feelings of sadness or depression, reaching out and talking with someone is always encouraged. (Courtesy Photo.)

Have you ever thought “I don’t have time to put myself first, It’s all my fault, I don’t have anyone I can count on or ask for help, or I am ashamed that I can’t get it all together?” Let me ask you another more personal question. Are you living or just existing? Existing is a rut that we can easily fall into.

Unfortunately, existing is a long survival of doing what you have to do in order to get through the day or week. Living, on the other hand, is taking life as it comes— embracing it and doing as much as possible to feel satisfied. This Mental Health Month of May is the perfect time to commit to change and consistent application of self-care, or “putting on your oxygen mask first.” Self-care is critical in moving beyond merely existing to really living.

Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” Ask yourself this— when was the last time that you did something for just yourself? If you cannot remember, or it’s been longer than a week, you need to change some things. Self-care doesn’t mean “me first,” it means “me too.” If you run out of oxygen, you can’t help anyone else with their oxygen masks anyway. You have to have the mindset of loving yourself first. When you practice self-care, you may feel calmer, more grounded and more energetic. You may sleep better, eat better and feel more equipped to cope with challenges, just to name a few. Self-care is an important part of building resilience or bouncing back from stress, trauma and burnout. Self-care can help you recognize your emotional responses to stress, and develop skills to manage them.

But what is self-care? As the term became mainstream, we have drifted from its actual meaning. Self-care is not self-indulgence, rather it is self-preservation. Self-care is listening and tending to the needs of our minds and our bodies, and is the key to living a balanced life. Indulgence merely provides short-term escape, while self-care shifts your relationship with yourself and with others for the long-term. Self-care is something that refuels us, rather than takes from us. Self-care is any activity that we deliberately do in order to take care of our mental, emotional and physical health. Each of us have different parts of ourselves that we need to take care of and different methods of carrying out this care. Self-care ensures that you are being cared for by you. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once stated, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”

If you search “self-care” on Amazon, you will receive over 80,000 results from books, to affirmation cards, to kimonos, to treadmills. Self-care, however, is about what we need to practice, not what we need to purchase. Self-care is certainly not one size fits all. What works for you, may not work for your friend. It is what it does for you that is important. Self-care takes time and requires real commitment. Remember, research has shown that it takes at least two months to make a behavior a habit. Keep at it too, because that same research shows that if you miss a day, it will not alter making self-care a habit.

“Paying yourself first” is one of the pillars of personal finance, and considered a golden rule by many financial planners. Self-care is an investment in you. When you prioritize you, you’re telling yourself that your future is the most important thing to you. Remember, people with large emergency funds tend to have fewer “emergencies” than those with low or zero balances. Self-care works exactly the same way. Paying yourself first means we need to schedule self care. It needs to be something that you plan rather than something that just happens. How do I do this, you ask? Add activities to your calendar. Announce your plans in order to increase your commitment. Wake up a few minutes earlier than normal. Pick one or two activities or areas that are most important to you and focus on those. Plan for big activities such as camping, dates, travel, cooking, etc., or whatever works for you. No time, you say? Look at how you spend your time and see where you waste time doing something that doesn’t benefit your mental, physical or spiritual health and break this habit.

When should I seek help? It’s never too early. Lots of people still have the misconception that therapy is only needed when it’s truly a psychopathology. However, more and more people are willing to take a more active approach by incorporating this into their self-care routine. When paying yourself first has reached its practical limits, it may be time to recognize warning signs. Irritability, anger, catastrophizing, sleep difficulties, change in appetite, addiction issues, poor performance in work or school and increased family conflict are just a few things to be on the lookout for which say it’s time to seek help. Common treatment modalities include individual, group or family/couples psychotherapy, medication and combined therapy plus medication. If you’re already utilizing these, and it’s still not sufficient, Intensive Outpatient Programs (typically 3 hours/day), Partial Hospitalization Programs (typically 6 hours/day), and Inpatient Hospitalization (24/7 care) may be required. Not sure what you might need? Talk to your primary care provider.

After reading this, be honestly reflective. Mental health month is the perfect time to challenge yourself to commit to making some changes in your life. I hate to disappoint you but none of this is rocket science. Most of you know what you should be doing, but you may need to commit to change and consistent application of these concepts. You need to commit to putting your oxygen mask on first! And if you cannot, help is just a phone call away.

To learn more about Dominion Hospital and direct admission to any of our Intensive Outpatient, Partial Hospitalization, or Inpatient programs, please call (703) 538-2872 for a free, confidential consultation.