What is Mental Hygiene

Mental hygiene is a collection of habits, practices and ways of being that maintain the health of your mind. As children, we are taught dental hygiene, but nothing about how to keep our minds healthy and fresh. As a child when I was sad, angry, or confused—I had no way out. I knew I was going to be lost in what felt like “the abyss” for awhile and so I avoided many feelings that I deemed negative because I didn’t know what to do with myself. And many well meaning adults didn’t know what to do either. During my childhood, the general cultural emphasis was on what to do to be pretty, popular and well-liked and it felt like the prevailing theory was that would solve everything. Some version of “let me be good at something and I won’t have negative feelings because winning feels soooooooo good!!” Of course, this mode of seeking happiness never provides long lasting happiness but I felt lost on what other paradigm to orient myself to. There are many adages that were confusing to me as a child that were meant to give me hope

“Just be yourself”

“Who cares what they think?”

“Just give it time”

“It’s not a big deal if you really think about it”

While well-meaning, those are lightly veiled versions of “I don’t know what to do, so please get over it”. As an adult I realize how many of the adults in my life didn’t know what to do with their own negative states, let alone their children. That is what inspired me to begin this blog. There are many aspects to psychology and mental health but I believe just good mind maintenance is something we can all increase in our life. There are activities that are generally agreed on as to be good for your mental wellness, backed not only by scientific research but anecdotally as well. I appreciate when there is science to back things up but I also want it to match with real experience. Here are the things generally suggested to improve mental hygiene:

  • Mindfulness
  • Activity
  • Perspective
  • Social Support

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is being intentionally present in the moment. Being present is finding an anchor in the moment and getting unstuck from the constant loop in your mind. An anchor can be your breath, your own internal sensations or utilizing one of your five senses to experience something now. We then notice that we can observe ourselves, observe the thoughts and experiences happening right now. There are many ways to become mindful and I plan to share many of those techniques here at The Mental Hygienist

Activity

Our bodies need to move. Studies show that exercise reduces depression. Unfortunately, we have turned exercise into something to dread. We probably all start off well enough but over time the excitement wanes and it turns into a chore. That is why I think the focus needs to be on movement and activity. If you are aggressively stair stepping into oblivion trying to get to a certain number, that is exercise, but what is it doing for your quality of life. If stair stepping is your jam, by all means go for it. However often we are obsessively chasing a goal rather than enjoying moving our bodies. We don’t have to do an Olympic level workout to get the benefits of movement. When I bought in to what exercise gurus were selling, I looked at things like yin yoga as nice but kind of a poor use of my time because I wasn’t getting stronger and faster or whatever the goal was that week. I think we may have some beliefs along the lines of “I’m enjoying this too much, that means it’s not hard enough and it’s keeping me from reaching my goals!” however have you ever noticed how it feels to stretch? Amazing!! Our body sends us messages through both pleasure and pain. We need to pay attention to both. Notice how you feel after thirty minutes of walking on a treadmill vs. thirty minutes of walking at the beach. The way I think about it today is I’d rather do the beach walk even if that means giving up my ability to manipulate my heart rate. Mental hygiene is about prioritizing the mental state the activity creates, not just the external change.

Perspective

There is always more than one thing going on in a moment. Our brains tend to seek out the negative and hyperfocus on it and it does actually take some effort to turn the mind towards something else. There are many ways to do this whether it be gratitude, challenging negative thoughts or even positive affirmations. We often cannot control the external events in our lives so often we must work on our own internal state despite what is happening on the outside. We are taught in a way that there is one way to look at a situation. It kind of goes something like

Car Accident – Bad

Winning the lottery – Good

But if we pause to look at both of these situations with perspective, there may be many more truths to the situation, some preferred and some not preferred. Neither situation is all good or all bad. You may think to yourself “ok, sure, I  already know that” but wait until the next thing that happens that makes your really enraged/offended/guilty/self-righteous. You may notice that the concept you get logically is much harder to apply in real life. It takes some real time, space and intention to turn our mind.

Social Support

We all need people in our lives who we can rely on during the tough times. We are neurobiologically wired to create community. However if having an awesome group of friends, a totally supportive family, and an amazing partner were just par for the course then many people wouldn’t be seeking these things. We desire closeness but finding the kind of closeness we want can be a process. This blog will illuminate ways to increase community in your life. Though we sometimes feel like the only one, most humans have struggled with rejection. We may withdraw from creating relationships with others to avoid even the slightest chance of being rejected, but we can actually change our relationship to relationships. Life will include rejection, loss and pain no matter what. While this may sound depressing, it is actually a great opportunity because we can try things in life knowing we will have to ride those waves eventually. I know I feel better knowing no one gets a free pass from suffering in this life. So basically the choice is, do I want to experience pain and anxiety doing what I want, or avoiding what I want? (I snuck perspective into this one, did you see that?)

When I ask most people what strategies they already have to cope with life, the responses range from “I don’t know” to “You mean, besides alcohol?” My goal for this blog is to increase the number of people who can say “This is what I do from my mental well being and it works!!”