Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Happiness and success

 

Daily mental hygeineOne of the hardest things for me as a psychologist is not giving people strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with SAD (Stress Anxiety Depression), that's relatively easy. The problem is how to get people to do it on a regular basis. As I often say – you don't wait until get holes in your teeth and then brush them (although it's never too late).

But remember the old saying – prevention is better than cure and daily practice can do wonders.

Daily Mental Hygiene not only helps us be happier and make us more resilient against SAD but it helps our overall health as well, reducing our blood pressure and heart rate and helps us sleep better.

So why don't we do it?

We get into the habit of brushing our teeth because mum or dad nagged us every day as kids to do it. It's deeply ingrained now. Also the dentist bill for a filling is enough to make anyone want to brush their teeth.

Also we do it in the morning when we have a shower or groom ourselves in the bathroom, so we learn to associate brushing our teeth with another habit or thing - that becomes what I call a reinforcement reminder.

Also we don't want to make it too onerous or we'll be put off doing it.

So:

  1. Making it a habit of practising Daily Mental Hygiene is one way to ensure that we do it
  2. Associating Daily Mental Hygiene with something else reminds us to do it – and
  3. We need to make Daily Mental Hygiene as easy as possible

See how often I'm reinforcing it – this is how we build new neural pathways in our brain and cultivate new positive mental habits – through repetition and reinforcement.

What habits are we aiming to promote?

Daily mental hygiene is not only how we think – it includes doing things that are good for our brain and our body chemistry. What then should we be aiming to make into habits?

Your basic daily mental hygiene routine could include:

  1. Challenging worries or negative thoughts by rationally disputing them, sending them away or being mindful and letting them go. Be mindfully self-observant to notice when worry stress or tension is first starting and take action.
  2. Taking regular conscious breaths – holding for six and letting out slowly for six. Each one of these breaths can lower our stress bucket.
  3. Taking time for quiet reflection, meditation or mindfulness practice and doing other forms of relaxation too.
  4. Practicing good sleep hygiene – a good night's sleep is crucial to good mental and emotional health.
  5. Regularly exercising, preferably with some of that being in the fresh air.

How can we make them a habit?

  1. You can start first thing in the morning when you do your dental hygiene (brushing your teeth); by asking yourself what you are going to do about your mental hygiene today – this is a reinforcement reminder.

          When doing dental think mental

  2. Before you even brush your teeth, when you wake up, sit up in bed and do five minutes of contemplation/meditation or my SORE (Self Observation Relaxation Exercise) using abdominal or 'belly' breathing.

    A reinforcement reminder for this - put an item on your bedside table so your brain associates that thing with your practice. For example I have a scarf that I put around me, or you could put up a post it note, leave some worry beads there or some other reinforcement reminder.

    You only need to do five minutes by the way. Two and a half minutes (on average) gets your 'calm' neurotransmitter called GABA flowing – and a further two and a half minutes lets the 'relaxation response' really kick in.

  3. Blu-tack reminders on the fridge of things to do – or simply write 'Take a breath' (that's the big 6 second chest breath)

  4. Invent a reinforcement reminder to remind you to challenge worries or negative thoughts, to be self-observant, to take a 6 second breath, focus on the present etc.. A really simple one is to take a coloured ink pen and draw a circle on the part of your hand between your thumb and the first finger of your left hand. You will see this coloured dot often (nobody else needs to know what it's about) and each time you see it, remind yourself to 'watch out' for worry, rumination and negativity.

    Other reinforcement reminders for this can be wearing your watch on your other wrist, or tying string around your wrist (or an elastic band). In days gone by people used to tie a piece of string around their finger to remind them to do things – this can look a bit weird.

  5. Another reinforcement reminder is to install an app on your phone that gives you regular reminders throughout the day – when the reminder activates – take a breath – get up and move about – or do another thing on our list of mental hygiene activities (which can be anything from the those mentioned above to visualizing a positive outcome to making a cup of tea). I have been trialling an android app simply called 'The Mindfulness bell' – you can find the app here.

  6. A 5 to 15 minute walk can improve your mood – although it is true that 30 minutes is better for overall health and cardio exercise gets your beta endorphins going for a better mood. But doing it is another matter. A reinforcement reminder for daily exercise could be simply pairing it with walking through the door when you get up in the morning or when you get home from work. Put your walking shoes by the door and as soon as you see them, your brain will associate them with a walk. Walk out your front door and go in any direction for 15 minutes (you can time it if you like). After 15 minutes simply turn around and walk home. Try and include a park or open space. Your mind, brain and body will thank you for it. Remember anything that is good for your heart is good for your brain and emotions.

  7. Get into the habit of good sleep hygiene. Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep (not necessarily in one long stretch )and turn off all screen devices an hour before you want to go to sleep. For more see my article on sleep hygiene.

It's generally agreed that it takes three to four weeks to change a pattern, so if you're not in the habit of doing your daily mental hygiene, be patient and allow a month for change to occur and remember my 4 P's – Patience, Persistence, Positivity and Perspective.

With regular daily practice, you'll feel better on an everyday basis and you'll be in much better shape to cope with relapses of SAD or life challenges.

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