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Should you wet wipe airplane seats?

If you want to make your mental health worse, wipe away! But if you want to take care of your mental health or recover from some mental illness struggles, then compulsions like this won’t be helpful.

* The same goes for Clorox wipes, Lysol wipes, or whatever you’re calling the disinfectant wipes you’re using as compulsions.

** Also, dousing your seat in hand-sanitizer or collecting a bunch of single-serving mini-bottles of vodka and pouring them over the seat is also the same. Taking a flamethrower to your seat is also highly discouraged.

Why are disinfectant wipes bad for mental health?

You might feel anxious about sitting on a plane crawling with monkeyCOVIDpox. And maybe it seems like wiping down the seat relieves anxiety. So how can that not be good?

Relieving anxiety in the short-term is actually fueling more anxiety and struggling in the long-term. Those compulsions aren’t helping you. You’re choosing to give yourself more anxiety and panic.

It’s the same as doing any compulsion to chase relief from an uncomfortable feeling, like withdrawal. Chasing that relief is what fuels the addiction. It only encourages the brain to throw up more of the uncomfortable feelings we hate. So the brain will look for more and more things that could be contaminated, and it’ll start to find things you can’t so easily control. 

Airports and airlines are investing in safety and trying to protect passengers and their staff. Some airlines are doing a better job than others. I was really impressed with how professional and efficient LATAM was with their protocols. N95 masks or double masks were required on flights, and they handed out masks to anybody that didn’t come prepared. 

Right now, when I travel, on airplane, train, or bus, I wear a high-quality N95 mask that fits well. It’s part of my travel gear, just like wearing a jacket with lots of pockets.

But I'm scared of catching diseases on planes!

That’s understandable. You care about your health, you care about the health of loved ones, and you understand the impact a virus like COVID can have on a person’s life. There’s nothing wrong with that fear. Traveling during a pandemic increases the risk of contracting and spreading viruses. And you want to protect yourself from harm. That’s very rational.

Since we don’t want to do something harmful to ourselves, let’s also consider how we take care of our mental health and fitness. It would be strange to choose to do something damaging to our mental health to control uncertainty about our physical health. That’s like chopping off my arm before a hike in the jungle because a mosquito might bight my elbow and give me malaria. Ha! It can’t do that if I don’t have elbows! Oh, wait…

It’s very human of us to look for rituals that control uncertainty. When we notice the urge to control fear, it’s an opportunity to recognize where that comes from. What feared consequences are we trying to control? We want to live our lives. We don’t want something to interfere with that. But practicing mental illness will definitely interfere with our lives. So what actions do you want to do in that moment instead of performing rituals? 

When I struggled with mental illness, I had a ton of compulsions around contamination and health anxiety. Let me share some ideas about how I balance taking care of my physical health when traveling, without sacrificing my mental health…

How do you balance safety with not fueling health anxiety?

This is definitely tricky. There will be UNCERTAINTY! A big switch I had to make was from the old way of reactive, fear-fueled actions, to instead approaching things proactively, with a focus on how I do something well.

There are some behavioral changes I make, like not doing things I know were compulsions I’d do in the past, like washing repeatedly. So I identify a simple action-oriented value like: I wash my hands before eating something.

And there are also cognitive changes I had to make, like changing the reasoning behind why I’m doing what I’m doing. I wash my hands before eating out of respect for the food. It’s not because of fear or getting reassurance. It’s about giving. Before I devour (that terrible airline sandwich) I want to give it the respect I wish it deserved.

It’s ok if this seems a bit difficult to grasp at first. It’s a very different way of doing things from when we’re struggling. Here’s a video on cutting out health anxiety / contamination OCD compulsions: Recovered OCD pro on how to handle health anxiety

Mark wearing a multi-pocket jacket, a t-shirt, a baseball cap, and a double-strapped N95 mask with a metal nose bar, on an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Mexico City during the COVID pandemic
Your Guide, all masked up, on an Air Canada flight from Toronto to Mexico City

Are wet wipes good for the environment?

LOL. Mother Nature regrets us. 

In 2019, the charity Thames 21 found a density of 200 wet wipes per square meter in several sections along the Thames River in London, England: 23 thousand wet wipes discovered on stretch of Thames river bank

At the time, the charity emphasized reusable and biodegradable cleaning wipes existed and we needed to ban disinfectant wipes that contain plastic. We didn’t. So the islands of wet wipes in the Thames continued to grow. In 2022, Thames 21 again called on the UK government to ban wet wipes, highlighting research that showed an island of wipes near the borough of Hammersmith had grown by 1.4 meters in five years and altered the course of the river: Thames21 urges Government to prioritise ban on plastic in wet wipes to protect River Thames

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