Good hygiene for your mental health

For most of us, dental hygiene is a no-brainer. We brush our teeth every day knowing this simple action goes a long way to preventing serious issues in the future, like gum disease and tooth decay. Although we may not think much about it while we’re standing at the bathroom sink with toothbrush in hand, we’ve subconsciously adopted universally accepted guidelines for our dental health: Small actions, every day, that benefit our wellness. 

What if we applied the same model to mental health?

Guillaume Tremblay
Guillaume Tremblay, a nurse practitioner, The Royal

“There’s something to be said for not just waiting around for the bad days to come,” says Guillaume Tremblay, a nurse practitioner at the Brockville Mental Health Centre (BMHC). “We need a shift of view on mental health in terms of how to empower ourselves.”

Tremblay, with the support of his colleagues Nicole Rodrigues and Dr. Sanjiv Gulati, make the case for a mental hygiene framework in their recently published paper, Mental Hygiene: What It Is, Implications, and Future Directions and offer an overview of research-based practices that anyone can do on a daily basis to support their own well-being.   

The term “mental hygiene” refers to daily activities that support and maintain mental health. Since we already engage in a list of practices to maintain our physical health – like brushing our teeth and getting in some physical activity every day – extending the concept to apply to our mental health makes sense. 

Tremblay writes that mental hygienic practices can help prevent our natural tendency to engage in “rumination, excessive self-focused thinking, and suboptimal levels of positive feelings.” 

“Rumination and successive mind-wandering is a problem we all have,” says Tremblay. In excess, they correlate with increased activity in an area of our brain called the default mode network. Excessive rumination and mind wandering without awareness increases our susceptibility to mental illness and as Tremblay writes, “impedes human flourishing.”

“The hamster running around in our head, we know that's problematic,” he says. Although our mind will always wander – and some mind wandering can be creative and beneficial – studies show that when it decreases, we feel better. 

Knowing what activities can decrease the time we spend ruminating and increase awareness of our own thought processes is the first step in practicing good mental hygiene. 

There is a growing body of evidence that meditation, mindfulness techniques, and prayer, are effective ways to reduce the tendency to ruminate. If prayer or meditation aren’t your style, writing down what’s bothering you every night before you go to bed, or jotting down three things you’re grateful for every morning, might do the trick. Exposure to nature can also have a positive impact on mental well-being. 

The authors of the paper propose ten minutes of daily mental hygiene practice, although they make it clear that more discussion is needed to further refine their recommendations and make sure they are clear, easy to understand, safe, and evidence-based. 

Tremblay cautions that mental hygiene practices can only go so far and are not a replacement for other interventions such as prescription medication. Meditation isn’t a cure for severe depression, nor is a walk in the woods. 

“If you're having chest pain, you don't start exercising to deal with it, you see a doctor,” says Tremblay. “And if someone is depressed or has suicidal ideation, don't just give them a mindfulness app, that's not going to work.” 

The concept of mental hygiene was first introduced in the early 20th century with the aim of preventing and treating mental illness and milder mental disorders, but the movement lost its momentum. Tremblay and his colleagues believe it’s time for a revival. He’d like to see meditation become a habitual practice that’s so mundane it doesn’t even merit conversation around the dinner table, just like how no one discusses the fact they brushed their teeth or took a shower that day.

Mental illness is widespread. In Canada, one in five people experience a mental illness in their lifetime. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, mental illness is the single most disabling group of disorders for youth worldwide and is one of the most substantial costs to Canada in terms of health care, lost productivity and reductions in health-related quality of life. What’s more, it comes with an estimated price tag of $50 billion a year. And then, of course, there’s the pandemic, and its impact on our collective mental health. Good mental health is as important as it ever was.  

Tremblay’s goal is for influential organizations such as the World Health Organization to establish clear, universal, accessible standards for daily mental hygiene practices. This would eventually inform best practices for health care practitioners, public health units, and even school curriculum.  

Tremblay says although “tricks” to help us feel better when we’re feeling down and techniques designed to deal with negative emotions are tools of his trade, there’s no reason to wait until we are feeling down to do something good for our mental health.

Start your own your mental hygiene practice today

Guillaume Tremblay recommends spending at least ten minutes every day doing one of the following activities. (Pro tip: if you choose an activity you enjoy – and do it at a time that fits your schedule – you are much more likely to stick with it over the long term.)

  • Meditation or mindfulness exercises (there are many free apps and podcasts to guide you)
  • Focused deep breathing
  • “Prosocial” prayer (with themes of thanksgiving, praying for others, gratitude)
  • Journaling (writing about positive experiences or expressing gratitude)
  • A walk in a natural setting

You can also combine activities, such as taking a walk in the woods while thinking about the things for which you are grateful or listening to an “eyes open” mindfulness meditation. As Tremblay writes: “These kinds of deliberate and intentional exercises foster cognitive patterns conducive to well-being.”