Putting on your oxygen mask: a guide to self-care

In a previous post, I explained the difference between selfishness and self-care.

In this post, I’m going to outline the four guiding principles of effective self-care and why being self-caring is important for your wellbeing.

Self-care is a hot topic; it’s a human topic that touches us all. In my practice, I meet a lot of people who spend most of their lives caring for others but receiving very little care in return. These people see giving care as a one-way street: them doing the giving and everybody else taking. I have met men and women who are exhausted and at their wits end by the amount of care that they give to others. In some cases, these people feel resentful and guilty for feeling resentful, which makes them try harder to be even more caring. It’s only in later conversations that they realise that they feel unconsciously that they do not deserve to be cared for.

When I ask the question: how do you care for yourself? First, they look blank, then quizzical. They start to describe what it feels like to be a carer to kids, partners, elderly parents, disabled siblings. Their words often remind me of the folk tale of the turtle who holds up the world. When I tell them the story and show this picture, they nod and smile, expressing their relief that someone finally understands.

I then use the metaphor of the oxygen mask to explain how important it is to care for yourself first.

Every time we get on a plane, the cabin crew takes us through the safety routine. They show us where the life jackets are and how to locate the emergency exits. Then they tell us that if there is a problem and the oxygen masks drop down, we must make sure that we put ours on first before helping others with theirs.

The global pandemic has made many people to think seriously about their lifestyles. Many have taken the opportunity to rethink and change the way they live their lives. In the UK, the housing market has exploded as people who can afford to are choosing to leave city life behind them to move to the countryside. 

You don’t have to relocate to care for yourself better. You just have to take some time to reflect on the four key dimensions of physical and mental well-being and make the changes that you think will enhance your life.

The four key dimensions of self-care for our physical and mental

Well-being are:

Physical Self Care

Eat well
Stay hydrated
Sleep hygiene
Manage your environment
Be sexual, with yourself and/or your partner
Do the exercise you love

Emotional self-care

Take care of yourself before caring for others
Set healthy boundaries: time, space and energy
Laugh and smile
It’s OK to meet your own needs
Seek out positivity
Address issues and problems before they get out of hand
Give support
Receive support
Spend time with people who you love and who love you
Give some of your time to the causes closest to your heart
Practice forgiveness: forgive yourself, forgive others
Look after your sexual needs

Psychological self-care
Take  care of your needs before caring for others
Take time to develop personally and professionally
Deal with things like life admin and finances before they cause you anxiety
Take time to think about yourself
Learn how to ground yourself
Spend some time in counselling as part of your personal development
Take some time away from social media
Be mindful
Treat yourself
Make the time to do the things you love

Spiritual Self-care

Be mindful
Be appreciative
Show appreciation
Give praise
Accept praise
What is meaningful to you?
Be present in the moment

 We have to take equal care of each of these to achieve a happier and healthier life.

Thinking about self-care is slightly easier than actually doing it. We all have calls on our time and shit happens so you have to commit to transforming thought into action. A good place to start is deciding how much time you’re going to gift yourself. It may mean that you have to get up earlier in the morning but doing some form of self-care first thing sets the tone for the day.

A way of finding time for yourself in the evening is by mindfully logging the amount of time you spend on social media in the evenings. You could then halve that time and devote yourself to doing something creative.  

Personally, I gifted myself an hour a day by not watching the TV News in the evening. My mood lifted perceptibly after not two days of not shouting abuse at the TV for an hour a night. spending hours at a time on Twitter had the same effect. I now use that time to read the news online and to log into Duolingo or to do a few minutes of an online course as part of my Continuing Professional Development.

I think that the first thing to do is to accept is investing time in yourself is OK. You deserve to spend time doing the things that will enhance your physical and mental health:  things that help you to feel good and bring back that joy of being alive.

If you search the net, you will find lots of sites that focus on giving you ideas of what you can do to restore self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth. However, it might be the teacher in me, but I think that you are the first judge of what you want to do and what you can manage and when you need to start self-caring, 31 days seems like a very long time, so be realistic about the time you can give, and celebrate each time you give yourself some me time.

Remember self-caring is supposed to be a pleasure not a punishment. You could start by making a chart for the next seven days. The cornerstones of this practice are morning journalling and doing a short meditation first thing in the morning. Apps like Headspace and Calm are great for teaching you how to meditate. If you haven’t got time you could try one of the grounding exercises below before you start your day.

Incentivise yourself but saving up for a reward

Give yourself a star or a tick for every day that you achieve your goals, then decide on the treat that seven stars will earn you (mine is a large bar of chocolate). You could give each star a monetary value which may feel more concrete to you.

If you prefer you could defer your treat until you’ve earned 14, 21, or 30 stars, which you could convert into something more expensive. I usually opt to buy myself a large bunch of flowers or a manicure. 

The point is that you have to make the activities achievable so that you earn your reward. Remember, if you don’t manage an activity on the planned day, beating yourself up about it won’t help. Be kind to yourself: tomorrow is another day. 

My Self-care timetable  for this week looks like this:

DayMorning ActivityAfternoon/Evening ActivityReward
MondayJournal for 15 minutesMeditate for 15 minutesBake a Lemon drizzle cake
TuesdayJournal for 15 minutesMeditate for 15 minutesPlay the piano for 30 minutes
WednesdayJournal for 15 minutesMeditate for 15 minutesDo an online tai chi classPlay the piano for 30 minutes
ThursdayJournal for 15 minutesMeditate for 15 minutesSocial media free day.Watch a film that will make me laugh
FridayJournal for 15 minutesMeditate for 15 minutesDo an online tai chi class
SaturdayJournal for 15 minutesMeditate for 15 minutesHave a browse around the local charity shopsPlay the piano for 30 minutes
SundayJournal for 15 minutesMeditate for 15 minutesSocial media free dayTake a long walk in the Fresh airBinge-watch something!
This week I’ve earned…………stars. My reward is……………………….

You may find that as you achieve what you set out to do that you want the timetable to cover a longer period of time. The key is to only plan for a period of time that you find manageable.

Alternatively, you could start a project to focus on for the next seven days like making a playlist of new music or knitting a scarf. One of my clients started making decorations for Easter. Her husband saw how much fun she was having and joined in. Spending that time together being creative and having fun strengthened their relationship.

Whatever you choose to do must be right for you. If you do it, that’s grand, if you don’t, no big deal as you’ve taken the first step by thinking about it and you’ll do it when you’re ready.

Self-care is your oxygen mask, put it on before you help others.

Grounding Exercises

Photo by Luis Dalvan on Pexels.com

Grounding exercises are usually used to help clients who are distressed, suffering from anxiety and many other conditions.

The idea of grounding is to get yourself out of your head and into your body. What you are doing is helping your body connect to the earth. When you are grounding you are taking your focus out of your head and bringing it gently into the present. This is why this technique works so well with people who are distressed, suffering from stress, anxiety disorders and many other conditions: grounding brings you into the present, the here and now. which makes it a really useful tool to help you cope with the stresses and strain of everyday life.

The slow controlled breathes help you to release excess energy and, slow down your emotions which has a calming effect.

Some of my clients find it helpful to imagine that they are a tree with their roots pushing into the ground. 

To do this, you need to place your feet firmly on the floor. Then imagine that you are a tree with your roots anchoring you firmly to the ground.

Here are two of my favourite exercises for you to try. The important thing is to take your time and enjoy the experience:

Start by regulating your breathing.

Sit comfortably with your bottom to the back of the seat and feet on the ground. Take a slow breath in counting to 5 in your head, then slowly breath out for 5. Do this five times or until you feel your breathing has slowed down. Then ask yourself how you feel on a scale of 1-10 (1 being I feel awful, 10 being I feel the best I’ve ever felt)

Now do one or other of the exercises below.

Once you have completed it, ask yourself how you feel now on a scale of 1-10.

The 5-4-3-2-1 grounding technique 

This technique uses all 5 of your senses. 

Name out loud: 

5 things you can see 

4 things you can touch (this could be the material of the chair, a rug, flowers, your hair) What does it feel like? 

3 things you can hear 

2 things you can smell 

1 thing you can taste – you might find for this part it’s good to have a boiled sweet, or gum to hand 

Then take a deep breath, release it and end the process.

2  The Happy Place

This is a visualisation technique.

I first came across this technique when a friend told me that to calm down, she imagined that she was a pebble on the beach. Some days, She enjoyed imagining the sensation of feeling the cold salty water wash over. On other days she imagined just being and feeling the warmth of the sun on her surface. 

Either sit comfortably or lay down. Imagine you’re in your happy place. 

What can you see? What can you feel, what can you smell? What can you feel? Build this picture until you feel chilled and ready to carry on with your day.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

By ericapcounselling

Systemic and integrative counsellor/therapist Specialisms: Couples counselling, relationship counselling, addiction, bereavement and loss, mental health, stress management and self-care. Counsellor by day, singer by night!


  1. This is so helpful, and it’s wonderful to see YOUR growth since we met in London for a Meetup, organized by Liz, Cherie Blair’s alter-ego! You are a grounded and wise counsellor.


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