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I recently heard the term “mental hygiene,” and it really stuck out to me. Mental hygiene. Are we not saying “mental health” anymore? How does mental hygiene differ from mental health? So, I did some digging.
What is mental hygiene?
Using the word hygiene does make it sound like such a clinical term, doesn’t it? Mental hygiene. What kinds of connotations do we associate with the word hygiene? Cleanliness. Effort. Upkeep. Work, even. It’s a social norm. It is a societal rule that we make physical hygiene a priority.
Mental hygiene is described as the science of maintaining mental health and working to prevent illness or un-wellness. The distinction between using the word hygiene over health when talking about mental illness and care is important and impactful. Because we all know, the language we use guides us. It provides insight into our values.
Mental Hygiene vs Mental Health
The term mental health assumes wellness; being at the peak of your health mentally. This leads us to a black and white way of looking at our mental state. We’re either well or we’re not. In this case, it causes us to treat mental health in a reactive manner. We only work on our mental health once we’ve noticed we aren’t doing so hot. In an over simplified example, it’s the equivalent of putting a bandaid on a scratch instead of making choices to prevent it altogether.
That’s where mental hygiene comes in. It’s more of an active practice. The goal behind mental hygiene is to take away societal stigma around caring for our mental wellbeing and allowing for daily integration of practices that prevent illness. Using this term fosters an atmosphere that is accepting of the need to prioritize practices involved in our mental upkeep that are similar to our other hygienic practices such as brushing our teeth. Or showering!
What might your mental hygiene look like?
We know that every human is unique. Our preferences, interests, hobbies, and aversions vary. So, we can assume that there’s no one way to work on your mental hygiene. There’s no one specific right or wrong answer to which practices you should integrate into your daily life. When working on coming up with a mental hygiene plan, that is, implementing regular practices to strengthen our mental wellbeing and prevent illness, it starts with doing some serious reflection.
Sure, science tells us that in order to feel like fulfilled and balanced human beings, we have some core needs. This includes food, shelter, sleep, water, nourishment, social support, and oftentimes a sense of purpose. But a lot of times, we’re finding that these serve as more bare minimum requirements and don’t take into account the need for individualized, in depth, holistic, care.
This is where the reflection comes in. Be honest with yourself. What kind of environments do you spend the bulk of your time in? Is your schedule conducive to your goals? Who do you surround yourself with regularly? What kinds of hobbies do you have? And finally, are these current practices serving you in a positive way? You may find that some changes are in order. Which, I’ll admit, is quite the privilege to consider. Not all of us can decide our 9-5 is an unhealthy environment and just take off.
It’s important to note that for some, mental hygiene could consist of first simply having those core needs met, adding in some western medication, and weekly therapy. These are more accepted, traditional practices that tackle mental hygiene. And I’m totally an advocate for regular therapy and medication if you desire it and have access. Attending regular therapy can be beneficial for many reasons. For starters, it makes it easier to identify symptoms of illness early on from a third party who is invested in your care. See it, treat it, relieve it. Before it gets to crisis realm.
Another reason attending regular therapy is great is because life happens. We know that there are structural systems in place that oppress many of us creating barriers and struggles in our every day lives. We also know that life throws us curveballs we never could have expected, whether that be divorce, relocation, death of a loved one etc. It’s impossible to predict these life happenings and I cannot tell you how thankful I’ve been in the past to have regular meetings set up with my therapist when these instances come up. Trust me when I say this, it’s worth the extra work and perhaps awkwardness of those sessions where you are convinced you don’t need therapy and will have nothing to talk about!
Interested in finding a therapist that’s right for you? Check out the Psychology Today website. You can filter results by criterion like gender, specialty, and insurance accepted to find one to try out. If you’re interested in one-on-one virtual sessions, check out BetterHelp.
For Those Who Need More
For those looking for more examples of mental hygiene practices, let’s look at non-traditional care. Some folks swear by non-traditional medicine, acupuncture, aromatherapy, art therapy, cannabis use etc. It all comes down to answering questions like this: How can I most effectively process/deal with my stress and emotions? Because life will inevitably throw us situations that cause stress and emotional highs and lows.
Whether it be kickboxing, meditation, binge-watching your favorite show, crying, volunteering. There are ways to get creative about how we process our stress. And it’s important to implement those practices by making them regular parts of our schedule and give them the priority they deserve. Again, this is part of preventative care. So we have to prioritize these activities even when we’re feeling well!
Let’s Talk Science
My last and final plug for how to work on your mental hygiene is around navigating our self talk. Let’s get science-y for a minute.
Did you know that our thoughts about ourselves and our worth have a physical impact on our brains? Our neural pathways work to make habitual connections between cause and effect scenarios. There are pathways in our brains that equate certain occurrences to certain truths. It’s how we create meaning and know what to be true.
For example, let’s look at my personal experience with plus size clothing and internalized fatphobia. When I order a pair of jeans online and it shows up in the mail, the first thing I do is try them on. Oftentimes, they don’t fit. Internalized fatphobia has taught me that my fat body is at fault for not being able to fit in that pair of jeans. I’ve made decisions about my worth because our society stigmatizes fat bodies. And when I can’t fit in that pair of jeans, I’m reminded that my fat body is the problem (as society sees it). My brain has clearly made a connection between a size being too small for me, and my body being a failure. Years and years of this kind of brain connection has made it incredibly strong, thus, I make that connection much more quickly and my self talk (and self worth) remains negative.
Self Talk Is CRUCIAL
But! Part of the work I do with combatting internalized fatphobia is around creating new neural pathways. I decided I wanted to make new connections for myself around plus size fashion and how my fat body interacts with it. I’ve realized that my body is not at fault for those jeans not fitting. I simply need a bigger size. This is a form of what feels like radical acceptance at first. It’s just a simple truth, I need a larger size. I take the negative connotations out of the facts. This allows me to create a new truth associated with the truth that I need larger pants; My fat body is not at fault.
“Self talk is important because it involves our most intimate relationship: the one we have with ourselves.”
This may sound easier said than done. And it is. This takes a hell of a lot of work. Self talk is important because it involves our most intimate relationship: the one we have with ourselves. We can’t escape or mute our thoughts, at least not very easily. It takes a lot of effort to move away from negative to positive or even neutral self talk. Start with simply noticing when you’re engaging in negative self talk. I find myself often saying, “Oh shit, I’m doing the thing!” Its damn near subliminal, so be patient with yourself. You’re literally rewiring your brain!
What do you think about this concept of mental hygiene? Is it helpful to consider mental hygiene as part of preventative care? What does yours look like?