How familiar are you with the concept of “mental hygiene”?
The term has actually been around since 1893 when Isaac Ray, a founder of the American Psychiatric Association, defined mental hygiene as "the art of preserving the mind against all incidents and influences calculated to deteriorate its qualities, impair its energies, or derange its movements.” Today (2022) Edward G. Brown defines mental hygiene in his book, The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had, as a practice and focus on caring for your mind the same way you do for your body. Personally, as a clinician, I prefer Isaac Ray's idea of brain preservation.
Given that approximately 1 in 5 Americans experience a mental illness in a given year. Our society and healthcare system, somehow fail to acknowledge the interdependent relationship between our physical and mental health. And the say is true, there is no health without mental health.
Just like “dental/oral hygiene” and “body hygiene” – the routine and regular practice of brushing your teeth or cleaning your body. And, in conjunction to the daily routine, frequent checkups with a dentist or doctor are an additional benefit to ensuring good health and disease prevention. Similarly, the practice of good mental hygiene is an equally important part of strengthening, maintaining, and disease prevention of the brain. How regular and consistent is your mental hygiene? After all, the preservation of your cognitive, psychological, and emotional wellbeing depends on it.
What is Mental Hygiene?
Personally, I think the practice of good mental hygiene involves at least two parts: 1) the use of mindful self-awareness to monitor for changes or shifts (good or bad) in our cognitive, psychological, and emotional state; and 2) the regular use and application of mental exercises and strategies that allow us to be life-long learners, build strong and meaningful connections, mindfully reflect, maintain emotional stability, overcome difficulties, and prosper as individuals and as a society. In this article, my hope is to introduce what mental hygiene is, explain why it’s important, and provide some ideas on what it might look like in your daily life.
The Power of Mindfulness
From the moment you wake, before starting your day, the brain can actually benefit from a quick morning tune-up. Taking just 15 minutes a day to focus on your mental hygiene can provide many benefits, including an improved and consistent mood, increase concentration and enhance memory recall, learning and creativity. According to Hui Qi Tong, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at Stanford Medicine and director of the Mindfulness Program at the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine, incorporating a morning routine of meditation, stretching or exercise can easily qualify as good mental hygiene.
As it pertains to the practice of mindfulness, Tong explains the goal of mindfulness is to interrupt the mind’s default mode or auto-pilot mindset by “Intentionally paying attention to what you are doing while performing any given task. This practice is an effective means of stress reduction. You can practice mindfulness even while brushing your teeth.” Let me explain...
The Five Senses
Tong recommends starting with one activity a day to work with – say brushing your teeth. To begin, “Make sure from the start, as you begin the back-and-forth action of brushing your teeth, to stay stay fully aware of the sensory experience.” Tong explains, “Notice everything about how you experience the ast of brushing. Drawing your attention to the experience will begin to override the mental chatter of say, planning your day or mulling over a problem." Essentially mindfulness focuses on the myriad sensory experiences that come with any conscious or intentional activity. For instance, “Feel the sensation of the bristles against your gums and notice the temperature of the water and the taste of the toothpaste”.
Try this practice with any activity you perform during you day. From driving your car to eating your lunch - the goal of a mindfull experience is to create a calmer brain.
In fact, following 8 weeks of a mindfulness-based stress management program, Harvard researchers found decreased activity in the brain and a thining of the amygdala in the region of the brain that is responsible for the fear and stress response.
On the other hand, in these days of information overload, the endless scrolling on smart phones, monitoring the latest news or social feeds is what I consider mindless content consumption. It's just like over stuffing yourself at the all-you-can eat buffet. Social media posts, new trends, commercials, ads, movies– the list has no end. Over the last few years, research has consistently shown that mindlessness and overconsumption along with prioritizing materialistic life goals have negative impact on our mental hygiene, or psychological and emotional wellbeing. People who live this kind of lifestyle report lower levels of happiness, life satisfaction, and are more prone to suffer from depression and anxiety.
Habits and Routines
Routines and rituals give us a sense of control, familiarity, and stability in life. They make a chaotic world seem safe, calm, organized and meaningful. Additionally, routines and rituals provide us consistency and are an important part of maintaining our mental hygiene. For example, your morning routine can involve an early wakeup, making your bed first thing, eating a healthy breakfast, gratitude journaling, or a short workout.
The daily practice of gratitude is also highly beneficial for good mental hygiene. Practicing gratitude on a regular basis can give us a new perspective on life by opening our minds to having more positive experiences and connections with others. With gratitude, we learn that life is abundant if we can truly acknowledge and appreciate even the small things. Every experience can bring a valuable lesson.
Human relationships are an important source of our mental health - emotional connections, strong bonds, the stories we share, and the activities we do together. As proven over the past two years of COVID, lack of social contact and isolation is a serious predictor of mental health issues. Even if you’re a total introvert, make time to enjoy a coffee with a good friend from time to time.
Make sure that you surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself, who love and support you, and give you a sense of fulfillment and joy. Limit your time with those who constantly judge, complain, criticize, or otherwise drain your energy. Establishing clear and healthy boundaries is also an important part of self-care and mental hygiene.
"Healthy Body. Healthy Mind." Physical activity should be a part of every person’s daily routine. This could be a light morning exercise, yoga, mindful walks in nature, and light stretching in the evening before you go to bed.
Moving and physical activity help us maintain our happiness, hormone levels, and makes us more resilient to stressful situations. The contribution of physical activity to mental health is proof that mind and body truly are connected. We can only remain balanced if we maintain good hygiene of both.
How will you incorporate mental hygiene into your lifestyle as a regular practice?
While mental hygiene is a lot about introspection, self-care, and focusing on our own needs, it’s a lifestyle and a constant practice. Mental health is not something you have' it is something you practice. We can only be good for others if we’re good for ourselves first, so keep in mind that your good mood, vitality, and mental health will have a huge positive impact on those around you.