The Helicopter Analogy of Mental Health

I have decided that helicopter controls make the perfect analogy for mental health. When under stress, we have a lot in common!

  • When descending (settling) under power, a thing called a vortex ring state can occur where you’re basically sucking yourself down along with all the air around you. If you don’t escape your own downwash, you crash. Paradoxically, struggling against it by applying more power, which should theoretically pull you upward, just makes the problem worse: you fall faster. You can’t go up, and you can’t go down, so the only way out is to move to the side.
    • Sometimes you feel like you’re spiraling out of control. The harder you think about it, the worse it seems to get. In such times, all you can do is step out of your own downwash—distract yourself, step out of your routine, or even ask a friend for help. If you’ve got coping mechanisms lined up ahead of time, these can help a lot, so now is a good time to think about what those could be.
  • If you go up too fast, the rotors over you—which are designed to flex—will actually bend down enough to strike your own tail, which will also cause you to crash. To counteract this, you should ascend more slowly or move laterally while you ascend to direct the acceleration in multiple directions.
    • It’s not only okay but recommended to make gradual and measured progress toward a goal. This also means that taking an indirect path there may also be the safest.
  • Hovering is the hardest part of learning to fly a helicopter. Aerodynamic forces are constantly buffeting the helicopter in every direction. Moving any one control to counteract these forces has implications in the other axes which involve touching the other controls too.
    • Our mental health tends not to remain in a steady state either. We naturally fluctuate between highs and lows. But as with flight, we should always practice maintaining some control over time so as not to veer too far into either extreme, since these can lead to an endless series of overcorrections.

I have probably stretched the metaphor too far already, so I’m not even going to force retreating blade stall into a one-step-forward-one-step-back analogy.