Mental Hygiene for a Calmer, Happier You
We all know the basics of hygiene — washing our hands, brushing our teeth. We do these things daily almost without thinking about it, they’ve become so habituated for us.
Just as important as these hygiene basics is our mental hygiene, something that is increasingly essential in a world that is fast-paced and constantly “on.”
Mental hygiene is the idea that the mind and nervous system need some healthy maintenance, too. We can certainly just get up and go every day, but we’re doing ourselves an immense disservice if we don’t take a little bit of time to prepare our minds for what they are going to face in the day.
In the Katha Upanishad, an ancient text of Indian Philosophy, there is a metaphor for the soul and the senses as the driver and horses of a chariot. The horses, or senses, are pulling us in every direction at each moment, and the charioteer’s job is to steer them where they should go.
For those of us who find it difficult to focus on the task at hand or to complete a project, you could say that our horses have gotten the better of our charioteer. When the desires of the senses start to affect our behavior and mood each day, to the extent that we may even feel a bit out of control, it’s time to take a step back and do a little mental house-cleaning.
Below is my mental hygiene reset routine. When I’m feeling overworked, overstimulated, overwhelmed, or over-tired, this is where I start to get things back on track in cleaning up my mental landscape:
The Morning Routine
I keep my mornings simple and give my body time to just be without going into full overdrive.
- No media besides music during this period!
- The morning is dedicated to self-care, meditation, yoga, and breakfast. These activities are done with focus, care, and reverence as much as possible. Some days I feel distracted, but I put effort into clearing everything else from the mental agenda and give myself totally to this morning ritual.
- I incorporate dry-brushing and self-massage before my shower. Dry-brushing (gently) is great for the nervous system and helps to increase circulation and slough off dead skin.
- Self-massage can be an incredibly nourishing practice of self-love. I like to use almond oil with a few drops of my favorite essential oils like lavender and vetiver, and massage from head to toe. This is extremely moisturizing for the skin and helps to give the nervous system a sense of cohesiveness.
When work time inevitably rolls around, I try not to go in full speed ahead and spend up all of my mental energy at once. If I slice things up into chunks and focus on efficiency, not sheer volume, I can actually get a lot more accomplished. My work quality is better than if I tried to do it in all in a day.
- The first work task is a list of 3 essential tasks for the day; I take 5 minutes to reread this list over and over to myself. I repeat to myself that nothing else has to get done today but these three tasks.
- Next task is admin; filter through emails, texts, etc. I make a secondary list of things to do for the entire week. I take five minutes to tell myself that these things will get done, but right now I’m going to focus on my first three tasks.
- I work on first three tasks through lunch, and deal with any ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL things that come in. I try to check email once per hour at the most. I answer essential calls only during this time.
- During lunch; I make an effort to eat away from the computer, no media, focusing entirely on the process of eating. I enjoy a walk outside to settle my digestion, or even eat my whole meal outside. On good days, I give myself at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted non-work time to enjoy my lunch, not just scarf it down.
- I continue to work on the first three tasks and any essential tasks that come up. If the three tasks get completed, I bring the next task in from my weeklong list.
- During the work day, I try to take three to five FULL 10 minute breaks to 1) chat with coworkers/friends/family about non-work related topics, 2) take walks around the home, office, or outside, 3) do something fun, playful, or aesthetic, like a puzzle, arranging decorative items on my desk, or decluttering. I try to do it casually and not with much agenda. Not like one more thing to accomplish.
- When the workday is done, I just don’t take calls or answer emails. I might have a meandering chat with a friend as a form of self-care. Otherwise, My phone is done. I try to allow my mind to completely detach from any work-related topics. I tell myself “The work day is done, everything else can wait until tomorrow. This is my time to just be, just live, just enjoy.”
Winding Down for the Day
- When cooking and/or eating dinner, I don’t do anything else. No media, no multitasking. I just wind down and enjoy my meal, seated at the table. I’ll play a little soft music, make the space feel warm and inviting, chat with my family or sit in silence. Once dinner is over, I move on to leisure activities, not tasks. The time for tasks is the daytime.
- After 7pm, NO MEDIA. I put my phone on airplane mode and turn off the TV. I even have it set to turn to grayscale so I’m less tempted. I start to let my mind wind down. Whether it’s reading, crafting, yoga, tai chi, gardening, taking a stroll; anything works that is not stimulating to the sympathetic nervous system. I’m starting to allow the parasympathetic to take over as I prepare for sleep. This usually takes at least an hour. For our wound up world, even more.
- I prepare my sleeping space and do whatever I need to do to relax. I try to make sleeping a ritual, even when I’m putting my little guy to sleep. I take a bath, put on soft music, brush my teeth, and do an evening care routine. Sometimes I have a cup of chamomile, kava tea, or warm milk. While I drink, I sit and smell the tea, taste the flavor, and do nothing else. I focus on enjoying the hot cup in my hand.
- Whenever I feel the urge to “do,” I try to relax it and let it go. If I find it difficult to do this, I’ll supplement with little activities like puzzles, zen sand gardens, or journaling to help my mind get used to being less stimulated.
- Once in bed, I turn off all the lights or wear an eye mask. Sometimes I’ll do a body scan to notice any areas of the body holding tension, and consciously relax them. I notice if I’m too cold or too hot, and correct appropriately. Sometimes I put on a little white noise or rain sounds. I make this process very intentional, as if I was putting a baby to sleep.
- If I have trouble falling asleep or wake in the night, I get up and do slow movement, like seated yoga, to take my mind off of the frustration of not falling asleep. If that isn’t enough, I try journaling or something slightly more engaging for the mind.
- I avoid bright lights or media, as they stimulate the nervous system far too much to encourage sleep. CBD, Valerian, GABA, and in melatonin also help me when I’m restless.
It’s so important to allow the nervous system to finally get the sleep it may have been lacking for years. It is also good to have the reference point for what it actually feels like to have a truly deep rest, as many of us may not have had one since childhood.
This is my comprehensive plan for slowly waking up my senses and mind for the day, and then slowly and gently bringing them back down to a calm state for the end of the day. Our nervous systems are an often-neglected part of our health, but we can all benefit from a little extra TLC to help us handle each day without stress.
The beauty of a mental hygiene routine like the one above is that it allows us to use our mind only when we need it. It calms down the sense-horses so that all non-essential stimulation is put aside, and allows the charioteer, our higher executive functioning, to make the decisions.