Self-Care: First, Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask

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Shorter Version

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The Self Care Oxygen Mask Analogy

Attending to basic self-care seems like common sense, but we are conditioned to prioritize everything and everyone above ourselves. Self-care can feel selfish.  However, in order to be the best versions of ourselves, we must look first to our own physical and emotional health. Its widely accepted to exist as chronically sleep-deprived, “oh, I forgot to eat today,” haven’t-seen-a-doctor-in-five-years human beings. Because, if we’re not burning the candle at both ends, we’re not truly adulting, right?

Wrong! Self-care is the foundation of adulting

Instead, let’s focus on getting enough restful sleep and moving, eating, and drinking to fuel our bodies. Additionally, let’s work to become more comfortable setting appropriate boundaries, utilizing coping skills, and turning to professionals for medical and psychological expertise when needed.

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Longer Version

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What is the self care oxygen mask analogy?

Too often, we categorize self-care activities as “luxuries.” I implore you to flip that narrative. Are you afraid of flying? I hope not, otherwise, the following self care oxygen mask analogy is really going to crash and burn (yikes). So, you’re on an airplane: the cabin pressure drops, and the oxygen masks are released. As instructed, you place the mask on yourself before assisting another flyer with their mask. Frankly, you’re no good to another person if you’re rendered unconscious. This analogy means that before you’re able to take care of others, you have to take care of yourself first. Self-care is paramount and necessary to navigate the world in a productive and meaningful way.

So, what is self-care?

Self-care is anything we do deliberately to tend to our mental, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing.

Self-care refuels rather than reduces. While it isn’t one-size-fits-all, there are some universally accepted self-care essentials. As we acknowledge the significance of self-care, my hope is that we also prioritize those things that are so easily overlooked. Bear with me, because this is where I start sounding like your (barely-older-than-you) parent.

How to Know if You’re Practicing Good Self Care

Are you…

Getting enough restful sleep?

Sleep hygiene is key! 7-9 hours of sleep each night is ideal. Your room should be dark, quiet, and comfortably cool.  Here’s where it gets tricky. Ready? Keep your phone out of reach. Turn off your TV, computer, tablet, etc. For optimal sleep, turn off anything involving a screen at least an hour prior to getting into bed. Use your bed only for sleeping (and if you choose sexual activities). Our brains are creatures of habit.

Each time you hang out in bed and engage in non-sleeping activities, you are reinforcing that bed ≠ sleep time.

Even if space is limited and you cannot go to another room to binge Netflix or browse the interwebz, set up a comfortable spot somewhere that isn’t your bed. Also, if you’re in bed and unable to fall asleep after 20-ish minutes, get out of bed and read (a book, not on your phone) until you start to feel tired. Repeat as necessary.

Moving your body?

Exercise is as important for our emotional wellbeing as for our physical health. It increases serotonin levels, leading to improved mood and increased energy. Getting started can feel overwhelming, but remember to choose activities you don’t hate. Or, do what I do, and stream your favorite Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime shows as you jog on your treadmill. I don’t love running, but having a show or series that I enjoy and designating it as a “treadmill show” helps encourage me to move when I otherwise wouldn’t.

Simple Changes

Start by making small changes like taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

Ask a friend to walk around town with you. Make friends with people who have similar fitness-related goals so you can motivate and hold one another accountable. 

Drinking enough water throughout your day?

Generally speaking, we really suck at staying hydrated. The recommended daily water intake is eight 8-ounce glasses, which equals about 2 liters, or half a gallon. This is the 8×8 rule and is very easy to remember. So why is it so difficult for some of us to implement? Well, we make excuses, get too busy, forget, don’t have time for bathroom breaks, don’t like the taste of water, drink several cups of coffee (and that counts… right?), etc.

Make it a point to have a bottle of water with you at all times.

Use Reminders for Water Intake

Set reminders on your phone – yup, schedule times to drink water. Unapologetically take bathroom breaks after reminding yourself that you’re a human being and everything you put into your body must eventually come out. Make water more interesting and palatable by adding your favorite fruit.  Also, other beverages, like milk and fruit juice (and yes – coffee in moderation), count as well.

Eating to fuel your body?

We each have different dietary preferences and requirements as well as ideas of how we should be eating. Three meals a day? Or, rather, two large meals with several smaller meals in between? Should we fast intermittently? How about eating keto or vegan? Should all food be organically and ethically sourced? What about Hormone-free, Pesticide-free, Non-GMO? I hold my own dietary beliefs and principles and to be honest, they’re constantly evolving. But, with that being said, can we agree to limit processed foods and that whole foods (closest to their original form) are typically the way to go? I’m not a Dietician/Nutritionist and I would advise you to make an appointment with someone who is, in order to establish a personalized plan. This is a nice segue into my next point!

Turning to professionals for their medical and psychological expertise?

Go to the doctor. Get regular checkups with a primary care physician, dentist, etc. See a mental health therapist. Visit an acupuncturist or practitioner of functional medicine. While, understandably, barriers are often financial in nature, don’t wait until something is majorly wrong before making an appointment with a health care provider.

Long story short, seek the services of people who know more than you do.

And as a dear friend who happens to be a personal trainer so wisely said, “build your team.”

Setting appropriate boundaries?

To take the best care of ourselves, we must become more comfortable with “no.”

  • Say “No” to checking emails and answering work-related calls during lunch breaks or after a certain time.
  • “No” to social engagements and interactions when you’re exhausted.
  • Also, say “No” to a project that isn’t an appropriate fit.
  • “No” to a favor for a friend when you are unable to provide the required amount of time/money/effort.

Setting boundaries effectively takes reflection and practice. If “no” isn’t a viable option, consider prioritizing, negotiating, and/or delegating instead.

Utilizing coping skills?

Sometimes, we use “self-care” interchangeably with “coping skills.” Some coping strategies do in fact fall under the self-care umbrella. Simply, self-care practices build up our physical/emotional/spiritual health reserves while coping strategies help us navigate through a particular and transient experience. Self-care activities maintain and replenish in a long-term sense while coping skills are used for a set amount of time in specific scenarios. So, when should we use coping skills?

It’s best to use coping skills/activities during times of stress and discomfort and to prevent further escalation.

Types of Coping Skills:


This category involves comforting ourselves through our five senses.  Create a list of sensory go-to’s for each sense – Something to touch (ex: stress ball, pet your cat), Something to hear (ex: music, guided meditation), Something to see (ex: family photos, snowglobe), Something to taste (ex: tea, sour candy, mints), Something to smell (ex: perfume, scented lotion, candles). Understandably, some of these things will be more/less appropriate during specific times. Soothing through touch by taking a warm, relaxing bath probably isn’t super feasible while at work.


Distraction as a coping skill involves taking our minds off of the problem for a bit. This is probably the broadest category. Distraction activities include reading, knitting, and watching movies, or chatting with friends.  Really, any activity that is enjoyable for you. As a word of caution – be wary of engaging in unhealthy (and numbing) distraction methods involving but not limited to overuse of alcohol, drugs, and food. Impulse-driven choices are not to be construed as suitable techniques (ie. shopping spree).

Opposite Action

This technique involves doing something that is the opposite of our impulse and more consistent with a comfortable emotion. Feeling sad? Watch a funny movie. Experiencing self-doubt and insecurities?  Read motivational and inspirational quotes. Also worth noting – all emotions are intrinsically neutral. We are erroneously taught to divide our feelings into the categories of “positive” and “negative.” Rather, we enjoy experiencing some emotions more than others.

Emotional Awareness

We can practice emotional awareness as tools for identifying and expressing our feelings. This is where we journal, write, draw, paint, make lists and charts. Folks are sometimes resistant to journaling because the act of sitting down and writing from nothing feels daunting and tedious.  I suggest trying “bullet” journaling or writing prompts to get started.  The same goes for creating anything art-related. Try reframing the value of creating art as its process rather than the final product.


Mindfulness could fill an entire article on its own. With mindfulness, we center and ground ourselves in the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting our feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. More than any of the other coping skill sub-categories, mindfulness takes practice. Our minds wander and we think we’re effective multi-taskers. Often, we go into “auto-pilot.”  With mindfulness, we focus our attention and awareness on the here-and-now and we do so without judgment. Mindfulness activities include listening to meditation/relaxation recordings, doing yoga, and practicing breathing and grounding exercises.

Actionable Steps


Set some boundaries

Learn about the beauty of boundaries. This will give you guideposts in your relationships and help prevent resentment.


Learn about grounding techniques

Grounding techniques are a set of tools used to assist you to stay in the present moment during episodes of intense anxiety or other overwhelming emotions.


Take time to write

Here are 30 journaling prompts for self-reflection and self-discovery. Take the time to explore in your journal to get to know yourself better.


Practice mindfulness

Wake up to the inner workings of your mental, emotional, and physical processes with mindfulness.

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About the Author

Rachael Packer

Rachael Packer

Mental Health Therapist (BSW, MSW, LCSW)

Rachael is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been working as a therapist for over six years. She received her Master’s Degree in Social Work from Millersville University and her clinical hours, supervision and experience working as an Outpatient Clinical Therapist within a community agency.

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