Our mental wellbeing is something that we all need to be aware of. Awareness of mental health issues has never been higher. And it is important to remember that small mental health issues can easily become large ones if left ignored. It seems strange, then, that we rarely think about our own until something goes really ‘wrong’ — when we become depressed, anxious or unable to cope.
We can think of mental health hygiene as being a lot like dental hygiene: we aim to remove unwanted stuff so we are left with only what is healthy and useful. And, while we may think we’re doing enough – much like looking our after our teeth – the reality is that most of us could be doing a lot more.
And it’s not all about how we feel or think: proper ‘mental hygiene’ means knowing, as best we can, how we got to feel or think in this way.
It is understanding, the source of our feelings and thoughts that is important. When we do this, we can find all the unhelpful bits, the bits that are holding us back or contributing to unhealthy practices, and begin to scrape them away. On a daily basis, here are the five things you should be doing to ensure good mental hygiene:
Never say something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – change to a more specific word: We rarely ever know whether something is actually ‘good’ or ‘bad’; the words are mostly meaningless. It is amazing how liberating for the mind it is if we simply replace them with something that has some meaning.
Try labelling something ‘helpful’ if it assists in whatever goals you have identified (personally, for others, or even in a society), and ‘unhelpful’ if it does not.
This encourages you to think through why something may be ‘helpful’ or not, and, even though it is more mental work, the mind really enjoys it. Additionally, it better reflects what is going on in your mind.
Remind yourself that change is inevitable: Permanence is probably our greatest illusion. Science tells us it is nonsense, and common sense does, too – yet we spend so much emotional and mental effort trying to pretend things do not or will not change, and get upset when we are forced to face the truth.
However, the flip side of impermanence is dynamism, growth, exploration and development. Change is simply a fact — so on a daily basis try to identify where you are resisting or lamenting change, and why. Embracing change takes a lot less emotional and mental effort than trying to preserve an illusion.
Accept that you can’t have complete control over anything: Another great illusion is our control over outcomes: whether we wish it for our own ends, or to help others, individually we control almost nothing. A huge amount of causes brings about future outcomes — our actions are just a drop in the ocean.
Try to recognise when you are growing frustrated because things are not turning out the way you wanted — then experience how liberating it is to accept that the outcome is largely out of your control.
Guard against tolerating other people’s unreasonable behaviour: We all forgive our friends’ outrageous behaviour, behaviour we may condemn in total strangers. Recognising when you are doing this is a useful exercise. It’s not that you should become intolerant of your friends: it is simply important to recognise how your mind works, and how standards of behaviour are actually incredibly flexible.
Accept all your emotions – even the bad ones: Having eliminated ‘good’ and ‘bad’, accept all of your emotions. Some of them will be unhelpful (anger rarely helps anything) and some will be helpful (compassion springs to mind). But, helpful or unhelpful, they are all yours.
Accept them. Nurture the helpful so that they thrive. Remain aware of the unhelpful, and discourage them gently but firmly. Like an ill-tempered dog, they are there, and are fine as long as they are quiet and not roused.