Mental Hygiene – Make it Part of Your Routine
Public mental health is considered one of our greatest public health challenges. As we have progressed in caring for several physical health issues in this modern era, mental health remains highly prevalent with no sign of it letting up. Canadian society has come a long way in facing the realities of mental illness. Great strides have been taken to encourage folks to talk about mental health challenges, not to be ashamed of them, and make concerted efforts to destigmatize this whole issue. Bell Media’s “let's talk” day is a great example. In addition, more initiatives have been undertaken to make mental health services accessible to the public. Ontario’s Telehealth network has emphasized making mental health accessible to rural communities. Our Crocus Care Solutions clinic has been a leader in getting people the mental health care they need.
But what can the person do to support their mental health? Historically, many concrete recommendations have been given to the public to help various dimensions of our health. For example, the Canadian Dental Association recommends everyone brush their teeth for 2 minutes twice daily. The Canadian Sleep Society recommends the average adult target 7-8 hours of sleep per night and avoids nicotine, alcohol and caffeine before bed. Furthermore, in alignment with the World Health Organization, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity to support general and cardiovascular health. Public health organizations give numerous specific health recommendations to the general population. But what about mental health? In this regard, there is still a significant gap where although we are much more open to talking about and providing services for mental health, we are not offering specific guidance to the public in how to support their own mental health. In analogy, this is like raising awareness about dental cavities without telling people to brush their teeth.
Enter the concept of mental hygiene. The term “hygiene” simply means conditions or practices conducive to health. Therefore, to extend that idea, mental hygiene refers to practices that are conducive to supporting mental health. This concept was recently validated in an academic journal that describes the concept more in detail. You can access the article here. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/26320770211000376
So what is mental hygiene? It refers to the simple idea of taking care of your mind on a day-to-day basis, just as we do with the rest of our bodies. We shower and brush our teeth daily; we try to get good regular sleep, and we get regular physical activity to maintain our physical health. We need to apply the same principles to our minds. Our mind, like our body, requires regular maintenance for optimal functioning and maximizing our ability to enjoy life and navigate the many challenges we all face.
We all tend to over-think. Sometimes we can express this as the hamster wheel in our mind that goes on non-stop, or in other words, the non-stop ‘blah blah blah’. Certainly, practical thinking is beneficial and important, but we are talking about the non-practical thoughts that swirl around in our mind. We know from psychology research that when there’s too much of this, we tend to have a lower mood, more anxiety, less resilience, and generally be more vulnerable to mental health issues. Again as an analogy, dental plaque build up on our teeth is common to us all, and not a big deal. But when dental plaque becomes excessive, we’re more vulnerable to problems with our teeth. Good dental hygiene, that is, good day-to-day maintenance, doesn’t eliminate dental plaque, but it does minimize build-up and the chances it becomes excessive and problematic. The same goes for our mind; wondering about non-practical thoughts and a bit of hamster wheel is nothing of concern, but when this pattern becomes excessive, our susceptibility to mental health challenges increases. And so, regular day-to-day maintenance of our mind, or in other words, mental hygiene, helps reduce the tendency for these patterns to become excessive and negatively impact our mental health.
So what are mental hygiene practices? Mental hygiene can take on many forms. They are essentially evidence-based practices that have been demonstrated to support mental health. Examples include: gratitude exercises, deep breathing techniques, mindfulness meditation, pro-social prayer, journaling, self-directed cognitive behavioral therapy exercises, positive psychology exercises, and nature exposure. Please check out this link for specific guidance on different practices https://www.theroyal.ca/patient-care-information/about-mental-health/mental-hygiene-challenge-yourself-take-charge-your-mental-health, and be sure to download the free toolkit. It offers concrete instructions on different mental hygiene practices that can be done, along with quick instructional videos.
So what exactly is the recommendation to the public? The recommendation is for folks to engage in 10 minutes a day of mental hygiene. The wonderful thing about mental hygiene is that you can make it your own. Whether you do 10 minutes all at once, or whether you do 2 minutes, five times throughout the day, or 5 minutes twice, or even 1 minute ten times, it’s all up to you and what works for you. And also, you can even combine and mix the different practices depending on what you connect with. For example, a 2-minute prayer with 3 minutes of gratitude exercise and 5 minutes journaling would be a good example of excellent mental hygiene. Mix it up, make it your own, and make it practical so it can become part of your daily life. A recent survey study showed that for those who did 10 minutes a day of mental hygiene for 30 days, their average mental well-being scores increased by 25%.
Remember, you don’t need to wait for a bad day to do something good for your mental health. In other words, we don't shower only when falling in the mud. So although it’s good to help our minds during those bad days, we want to go beyond and incorporate mental hygiene in our daily lives. Be proactive, take care of your mind like you do the rest of your body, and give yourself the best chance at enjoying life and encouraging flourishing health.
The article was written by Mr. Guillame Tremblay, a Nurse Practitioner who is one of the co-authors and researchers of Mental Hygiene. Edited by Ibrahim Ismayilov, Registered Psychotherapist.