The Oxygen Mask Principle: Five Tips for Taking Care of Yourself While Taking Care of Others

The Oxygen Mask Principle: Five Tips for Taking Care of Yourself While Taking Care of Others
June 15, 2017 Dave Beal
flight attendant with oxygen mask on airplane

A popular observation of human nature divides people into “givers” and “takers.” “I guess I’m just a giver,” people will say, lamenting their overworked and exhausted state. While it might be true that some people are more geared to nurturing roles, in the long run, being just a “giver” is not sustainable for anyone. That’s like trying to always breathe out without ever breathing in. It’s imbalanced and does not sustain life.

That’s where the “Oxygen Mask Principle” comes in, a principle I discuss in my book, The Brain Power Classroom: 10 Essentials for Focus, Mindfulness, and Emotional Wellness. The name of this principle is based on the directions people are given when preparing to take off on a plane, regarding the oxygen masks that pop out in an emergency: “Place the oxygen mask on yourself before helping small children or anyone else who may need your assistance.” The logic of that direction is simple: if you don’t take care of your own needs first, you will be of little help to others later.

That’s obvious enough in theory, but, unfortunately, it’s a rule that caretaking types disregard routinely. People just keep on giving, placing the needs of others ahead of their own, until they are mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted. Sadly, this leads to our worst moments as teachers, parents, and caregivers—those rare occasions when we lash out angrily or become sloppy in our care. Or, we become sick and can’t give care at all for an extended period. To avoid this, you must view self-care as a necessary part of your routine, like brushing your teeth or paying your bills. Here are five things you must find time to do for yourself:

1. Develop a stress management routine. Stress has been linked to most of the common modern diseases, so it is essential to manage stress as part of your basic health routine. The Brain Power program provides dozens of effective exercises for stress relief, including stretching movements, meditation techniques, and breathing exercises. Ideally, I recommend attending a full class in mind-body practices such as yoga or tai chi, several times a week. But, if you find time too scarce, come up with a simple routine that works for you that you can do anywhere, such as some stretches that hit those knotted up spots or a quick 5-minute deep breathing exercise. It’s amazing how much better you can feel if you take just a few minutes to do these things for yourself.

2. Find time to move your body. You may feel that you are constantly moving, and that you are physically exhausted, so why do you need exercise? Perhaps you chase kids around all day or help elders move from here to there, but this is not really the kind of exercise you need to stay fit. These sorts of laborious movements usually place strain on parts of the body while neglecting others, and they don’t offer the sustained cardiovascular workout your body needs. In the Brain Education method, stretching is especially encouraged to help keep the body’s energy pathways open, and light cardio exercise, such as walking, is also recommended.

3. Spend time in nature. Don’t forget your vitamin N. Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” about a decade ago, and since that time research has confirmed the restorative aspects of time spent in outdoors. One study showed that even pictures of nature have a stress-relieving effect! If you are short on free time, try to gear the recreation time you do have to outdoor activities, such as hiking or a picnic in the country. During busy days, try having your lunch outside, or take off your shoes and curl your toes up in the grass for a minute or two. You’ll be surprised how calm you will feel with just small amounts of contact with nature.

4. Find sources of intellectual stimulation. Especially if you work with little kids, your brain needs some grown-up things to think about, and perhaps some culture more sophisticated than “E-I-E-I-O” and Mother Goose. Your brain, to remain flexible and quick, needs to learn constantly, so you need to give your brain challenging and interesting topics to grapple with. Also, without this kind of stimulation, you are likely to become bored and burnt out. So, make sure you pay attention to your own learning by reading interesting books, watching unique documentaries, or taking a class at a local college.

5. Breathe well. One important part of the Oxygen Mask Principle is oxygen itself. As we become stressed and burdened with many responsibilities, we typically begin to breathe more shallowly and incompletely. This is very bad for the body as organs, including the brain, become deprived of oxygen. Deep breathing exercises should be part of your general stress management routine, but breathing should also be something you pay attention to throughout the day. Deliberately breathing more deeply and more evenly will help you to think more clearly and to release stress immediately, even during an overwhelmingly busy day.

People sometimes refer to time spent for self-maintenance as “me time,” but this is not entirely accurate. Time spent for your own self care is not selfish at all; it is simply necessary. Instead of calling it “me time,” you might call it “foundational time,” since it is needed to keep the core of your body, mind, and spirit strong.


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