Put your own (emotional) oxygen mask on first

By on 3rd December 2016

Liz Smith


If you’ve ever travelled on a plane, you’ll be familiar with this. If it all goes horribly wrong and those oxygen masks descend from the ceiling, you’re supposed to fit your own before helping anyone else.

This is totally logical, right? Because if you can’t breathe, you can’t help anyone – and humans can’t survive long without oxygen, so this should be a no-brainer. And yet, it still has to be said, sometimes even more than once, on every flight.

The world is in an odd place right now and there’s a lot of negativity, anger, and fear flying around in cyberspace and the media. When we’re bombarded with petition after petition and campaign after campaign, even for good causes, that we can start to get burned out. I’ve started to feel this lately, especially after the results of the American election, because I have good friends over there, including some who are people of colour and LGBT, and they are very confused and frightened right now, which is totally understandable. I want to help and support them, but I am finding myself increasingly unable to engage.

Positive energy is like oxygen

All of nature is about balance. The air is made up of several different elements, including oxygen, and we need the right balance of those elements to be able to breathe. If you’ve ever had to be put on concentrated oxygen in hospital, you’ll probably have found that too much of it makes you feel a bit lightheaded and almost ‘high’ – you can feel a bit dizzy, even. Concentrated oxygen is great when you have an asthma attack, for example, but you wouldn’t be able to function on it every day. But if the oxygen levels drop too much, the balance goes too far the other way and we can’t breathe and function on that either.

If we think of positive and negative energy being like the air we breathe, it’s a constant balancing act. Think of positive energy as ‘emotional oxygen’ – we need enough of it to be able to deal with and process the other stuff, but not so much of it that we become unrealistic and unable to engage or empathise with people going through a tough time. I work in mental health, in crisis support, and telling people in severe crisis to ‘think more positively’ is more likely to result in you getting things thrown at you than anything else, trust me on that one. But sometimes, engaging too much with negativity and fear, even when it comes from a good place of wanting to help others, can deplete your ‘emotional oxygen’ – and that’s when it’s time to remember that nice flight attendant, put the emotional oxygen mask on for a bit, and retreat from the world’s troubles. Your emotional oxygen mask could be watching a silly movie, going for a walk in the woods, playing with a pet, spending time with your friends, playing a game, crafting, going on a Wild Goose event…anything that fills you back up and restores your emotional balance.

I’ll leave you with this to end on. If you’re also struggling with where things are going in the world, just remember that amid all the confusion and awfulness, we still have to be told to fit our own oxygen masks first on a plane. For me, that means that fundamentally, most human beings are selfless by nature. In the event of impending disaster, we instinctively look to see who is more vulnerable than we are – children, the elderly, the sick – and our first instinct is to help them. This actually kind of gives me hope that the world, and people, aren’t so bad after all.