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How to develop better mental habits

Better mental habits through mindfulness
Tags: Health

'Prevention is better than cure', so the old saying goes. People tend to be proactive when it comes to physical health. We make sure we eat properly and exercise regularly because we're taught to do so as children. Keeping ourselves mentally healthy doesn't come as easily. We're not taught how to think and often we don't learn to emotionally regulate either. Sometimes that's because it's culturally unacceptable to show our emotions (or we're taught that "boys don't cry"). Or we're taught that some feelings are bad and we shouldn't have them (anger for example), but we're not taught how to channel them properly.

Developing better mental and emotional habits when we're adults is much harder to do. If you're saying to yourself 'I don't have time for that' or 'how am I going to remember?' ask yourself how you learned your good physical hygiene habits. Your parents nagged you ('For goodness sake go and clean your teeth') and/or you learned it in school. As for not having time, it only takes a minute here and there. Practice ...

'A little and often'

As grown-ups, we need to make an extra effort because that effort is up to us. We need to be pro-active. Initially, being pro-active can be a little stressful. You're the one who has to do the nagging but do it gently and be persistent. Here are some things to do and ways to remember how to do it.

Things to do

  1. Be radically mindful. Keep an eye on yourself all the time, not just when you do your breathing exercises or meditation. Regularly checking yourself throughout the day can be that gram of prevention. If you notice you're tensing up, or reacting to a person or a thing; take a 6 second breath and a mental step back. Take the breath anyway, even if you don't notice anything wrong. It's a pause that refreshes your web page and re-sets you back to calm.
  2. Take a break from whatever you're doing and look out the window towards the horizon for at least 30 seconds. If you're standing, sit down; if you're sitting down stand up. At least 30 seconds every 30 minutes. Remember if you sit for long enough, your blood starts to pool around your lower extremities and that's not good for your brain. Get up and move 30 seconds every 30 minutes.
  3. Don't rush. We all know the story about the tortoise and the hare. Rushing doesn't get us over the finish line any quicker and all it does is get us in a lather. Take a deep breath and slow down.

Just start with those three things. Now, how are you going to remember to do them?

How to do it

Give yourself a visual or auditory reminder:

  • Put your watch on the opposite wrist to the one you normally wear it on. It feels odd. Every time you notice it, check yourself, take a breath and slow down.
  • Put a reminder on your phone. There are some nice apps now with gentle sounds like a Tibetan bowl. When you hear it, check yourself, take a breath and slow down.
  • Draw a coloured dot on your hand between the index finger and the thumb. When you see it, check yourself, take a breath and slow down.
  • Leave out a visual reminder e.g. I leave my yoga mat down so every time I see it, it reminds me to do my stretches.
  • Change it often though, as the brain will get used to it and you won't notice your reminder. Make it a different colour, change your watch back, or use a different sound.

Pair it with physical hygiene:

  • Before you have a shower in the morning or before you clean your teeth at night, check yourself, take some breaths and slow down.
  • Every time you eat or drink, check yourself, take some breaths and slow down.
  • When you go to the toilet, check yourself, take some breaths and slow down.

Being proactive and developing good mental and emotional hygiene takes effort. You're the one who has to make the plan to do it and then take action, but it's worth it to make a positive change in your life.