I thought I led a reasonably hygienic existence.
I used a hanky, changed my undies daily as a child, ate my crusts and washed my hands after the toilet. I keep salmonella and e coli at bay at home (given the limits on time, motivation, where I’m at with my writing, and my belief that children should be exposed to enough germs to develop healthy immune systems). I vaccinated my children (even my dogs), gird my loins for the dentist and regular pap smears . (OK, I don’t floss as much as I should. Have a secret theory that all that flicking will eventually push my gums back). I provide my family with enough vitamin C to keep scurvy at bay, spray enough bleach around the bathroom before visitors come to make it at least smell like the local pool, etc etc. You get my drift.
So it was a surprise to recently be told by my doctor that I lacked good sleep hygiene. Hmm. Then, last week I attended an inspirational staff training session on emotional resilience. Here I discovered that I also have poor mental hygiene. Mental hygiene!!??
The word hygiene originates from the Greek words hugieinē (tekhnē), meaning the art of maintaining health. But I’d always believed hygiene was a physical activity. In the training session I learnt that mental hygiene has a lot to do with building and maintaining emotional resilience, ie. behaviours that help us bounce back after life’s challenges.
How does one maintain a clean and tidy mind, besides avoiding porn? In a nutshell, get enough sleep, and be mindful of crappy, self-defeating thoughts. Theoretically, most of us allow loads of negative thoughts to march through our heads, all day, every day. Negative thoughts—the chatter of our primal, monkey mind—are not always true, and are like pollution to the soul. Bad mental hygiene is deluding ourselves into thinking these thoughts are true. We all have our own versions, but here are some common examples-
- I’m not a good enough, thin enough, beautiful, or clever enough.
- She never rang back / turned up, so she must hate me
- No one ever listens to me
- I could never do that. I’m a failure.
- I don’t deserve to be loved like that
Why do we have so many negative thoughts? Being alert to negative things around us kept us alive and out of harms way in the past. But there aren’t so many sabre tooth tigers or robbers/ murderers around every corner nowadays.
It’s important to let the higher order thinking part of our brains (the later evolutionary add-on, the frontal lobes) to recognise, label and immunise ourselves against the negative chatter in our brains, otherwise it can lead us very far astray from what is good for us.
What goes on in your mind all day long can determine your behaviour, can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, someone who believes he/she’s not worthy of love may not have high expectations in relationships, or make wise choices in partners.
Also, negative chatter can stop us realising our dreams, we may not even dare to dream.
In the training my colleagues and I were taught to develop a mindfulness that acknowledges these often untrue and unhelpful thoughts as an unhelpful outsider, and put them away. For example, “Thanks for the doubts, Susan’s monkey mind. I’m not going to listen to you. Instead, I’m just going to go and do this anyway.”
Other useful points about mental hygiene –
- During sleep and meditation we process our thoughts. Not giving ourselves enough sleep can lead to anxiety and stress from not giving our minds the space to filter and process what is happening to us. Giving a challenging feeling its space and acknowledging it can actually help it move on. Meditation is useful too.
- The psychologist recommended we not look at computer or mobile screens two hours before bed. Our brains are tricked into thinking the screen light is dawn and we start to release a hormone that keeps us awake.
- That we need breaks from social media ‘rabbit holes’ , from comparing other people’s ‘shiny exteriors’ with our own messy interiors.
- The mind is a good servant but a terrible master.
- Everyone should have their own non-negotiable self-care plan (whether that is your need to exercise, get enough sleep, boundaries / time with friends and family, time for yourself)
- Maintaining realistic optimism in life and being adaptable to change is a large part of being emotionally resilient.
- Emotionally resilient people work more on things they have control over.
- Psychological flexibility is being able to be compassionate with ourselves, to defuse from the negative chatter of our primal monkey mind. This awareness guards against the fear of making mistakes, feeling anxiety, shame, not feeling good enough…
- Emotions are contagious. Surround yourself with positive people. As Dr Amen states – Deciding that you don’t want to spend time with people who are going to have an adverse effect on you doesn’t mean you have to blame them for the way they are. It simply means you have the right to choose a better life for yourself.’
- Apparently Einstein said, Great discoveries are made when brain has time to breathe.
So I will be cleaning up my act and –
- Learn to recognise, catch and defuse my negative thoughts.
- No blaming, of myself or others! (Reflecting, yes, but no blaming.)
- Not look at my computer or mobile after 8pm (now having the best sleep in years)
- Start to meditate again
- Give the realistic optimist in me a louder voice.
- No caffeine after 3pm
- Will play the ‘3 good things about today’ game around the family dinner table. Cheesy but has great results!!
The session helped me, so thought I’d share. Any thoughts or comments?
The Human Mind by Robert Winston
Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Dr Daniel Amen
The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman