Oxygen Mask—Always put yours on first

Put your oxygen mask on first. (NL)

Blasting through the sky at 30 thousand feet in a pressurized metal tube can be a lot like life. On, Jan 15, 2009 US Airways flight 1549 from La Guardia Airport in New York to Charlotte landed gracefully on the Hudson River. Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot, said, “One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience: education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”

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On a flight with my children some years ago, my son was startled when the flight attendant announced that adults should put on their oxygen masks first, before helping their children.

“Why don’t you help the children first,” Mark asked?

“If I can’t breath, then I couldn’t help you with your oxygen mask,” I explained to his satisfaction.

Put your oxygen mask on first. (Airline instructions)

As time went on, Mark and I have experienced many flights and road trips together. The metaphor has come up as a topic more than once. After September 11, 2001, we flew to Las Vegas and Sacramento the following January. Airport security and travel was noticeably different and we had to prepare for any circumstance. Rapid decompression is a rare event, but it happens. All oxygen is suddenly sucked out of the airplane’s cabin and, according to one airline industry source, if you’re in the bathroom without an oxygen mask, “…there’s a good chance you won’t survive it, and the rest of the plane will.” It’s a tricky subject as we’re essentially forced to choose between two separate, but very real threats: death by terrorist attack, or by the lack of oxygen during rapid decompression—which gives a whole new meaning to getting caught with your pants down.

Over the years, I would use the oxygen mask metaphor during presentations and speeches to emphasize why we must take care of ourselves first. Some companies demand too much from people in terms of workload. But it is always important to emphasize that people leave work at a certain time unless there is a crisis. Don’t work every weekend (or your regular days off). Take breaks every hour or so. Don’t sacrifice personal needs such as food and rest for work.

This is so important at any age, but can even be even truer when we are thrust into a caregiving role for someone we love.

This important rule of airplane survival is a great metaphor for many people who spend their time attending to everything and everyone else except themselves. The inevitable results of not taking care of yourself first is stress, anxiety, stress, sleeplessness, burnout, and fatigue. Does this sound familiar?

A firefighter can’t go into a blazing building without the correct equipment. He would soon turn into a detriment and require rescue too. Chemical suits are used to protect against biological and chemical agents. You’re a target for contamination if you don’t take care of yourself first.

Here are some ways to “put your oxygen mask on first:”


Go on a stress reducing walk.


Take a nap and get plenty of rest.


Gratitude List (NL)

Make a list of what you are grateful for.


Making sure your meal is balanced with at least half veggies and fruit.


Schedule a physical exam.


Read something enjoyable to escape.


Listen to uplifting music.


Laughter (NL)

Write in your journal.


Go see a comedy. Laugh.


Try something totally new.


Dance in front of the mirror.




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