Parents, teachers, and doctors regularly encourage young people to establish good physical hygiene habits. Here are just a few: Bathe daily. Eat healthy meals. Brush your teeth at least once a day. Wash your hands after you use the bathroom. Clip your toenails before they get too long. These habits become routine after a while.
Most of us probably were not intentionally taught good mental health hygiene habits. These habits also bring consistency to our lives, promote wellness and resilience, and protect us from becoming overwhelmed by mental illness.
While mental health hygiene habits may vary from person to person, it is important to identify those that work best for us and to integrate them into our day — every day — through reminders and practice until they become a routine that we anticipate with pleasure.
Here are a few mental health hygiene habits that I have established to help me thrive while living with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder:
- Express gratitude. There are many things in my life for which I ought to be grateful. But too often, I take these things for granted and greedily expect them to be there without any effort on my part. I not only intentionally find things to be grateful for, I openly share my gratitude with others who have contributed to their existence.
- Make time for play. I have always taken myself and my life way too seriously. A simple thing like a bad haircut can result in weeks of agonizing rumination that never seems to completely go away. By planning play time and doing things that I enjoy, I am able to create anticipatory joy leading up to the activity as well as a sense of flow and happiness while participating in it.
- Let it go. I have wasted much of my life away with fear, worry, and anger. In retrospect, I realize that I would have had a much fuller and happier life if I let these feelings go in favor of openness, forgiveness, and love. When I find myself clinging to destructive feelings as a crutch, I find the courage to let it go so that I can freely move forward in my life. I regularly check in with myself to make sure I am not attracting and holding on to feelings that weigh me down.
- Nurture connections. I sometimes have difficulty connecting with other people, especially at first. I find it easier to connect with animals and nature. While I haven’t totally given up on developing meaningful relationships with other people, I have adopted and share my home with three cats and we reciprocate unconditional love on a regular basis. I also find inner peace by regularly connecting with nature, whether it be by feeling the sun’s rays on my face, watching the sunset, walking through the woods, or taking a nap at the beach.
- Write it down.Writing is a great elixir for my anxiety. When I write down my thoughts and feelings, they become more tangible to me and less scattered (and scary!) in my head. It is also an emotional release that helps me to develop a broader perspective on what is happening in my life. I write often, and sometimes I share what I write with others so that they, too, can learn from what I have experienced.
These are just a few of my mental health hygiene habits. Doing them regularly requires dedication and discipline, and sometimes even an accountability or reward system. You can develop these habits by trying them out, discovering what feels good, and repeating those that help you to become more centered. Your mental health hygiene needs to become as important as all of the other routines that have been ingrained in you over the years.
Father and son photo available from Shutterstock