You brush your teeth everyday but what do you do for your mental health hygiene? Learn about 4 practices that you can incorporate in your daily life to maintain good mental wellbeing.

Everybody knows about the importance of physical hygiene—wash your hands, brush your teeth, shower often, comb your hair, and so on. But not much discussion is given to mental health hygiene: the knowledge and skills required to maintain mental well-being. According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, mental health is:

A state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his own community.

Mental self-care is important

If you want to live your best life, you need to tend to your emotional, psychological and social well-being. “In order to meet the demands of life, you need to be able to use your brain to the best of your capacity in the present moment. This will allow you to make good decisions and respond appropriately to stressors, instead of reacting with your fight-or-flight response,” says Marie Claire Bourque, MD, psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor, University of Calgary.

Be proactive about your mental health

According to the Canadian Community Health Survey, one-third of the Canadian population (approximately 9.1 million people) will be affected by a mental illness at some point during their lives. Don’t wait until you have symptoms before taking the first step. Experts recommend four practices to help protect your mental well-being.

1. Practice mindfulness

Studies show that the practice of mindfulness can be effective in reducing anxiety, depression and stress. Mindfulness is a kind of meditation whereby you become completely present—not focused on the past or the future. “Mindfulness is a state of being. You can be mindful when cooking, walking, brushing your teeth. It is, very simply, a state of complete awareness of the present moment without judgment,” says Dr. Bourque.

Mindfulness tips from the professionals:

  • Take a moment to stop and notice with all five senses what is going on around you.
  • Close your eyes and focus on your breath. If thoughts come, simply notice, and then bring your awareness back to the breath.
  • Sit or lie comfortably and mentally scan your body. Focus on what each part is feeling. If one part feels tense, relax the muscle.
  • Walk outside in nature and tune into the sights, sounds and smells.

 

2. Exercise

If you want to ward off the blues or reduce stress and anxiety, exercise should be at the top of your list. One study in the International Journal of Psychiatry showed that exercise “compares favorably to antidepressant medications as a first-line treatment for mild to moderate depression and has also been shown to improve depressive symptoms when used as an adjunct to medications.”

Why? Anxiety Canada points out that getting your heart pumping releases those feel-good endorphins, boosts your self-confidence, promotes being social, lowers stress, helps you sleep better and improves your physical health.

You don’t have to be a fitness expert to reap the exercise rewards. Try these, say the experts:

  • Exercise doesn’t have to be 30 consecutive minutes. You can take five or 10- minute breaks throughout the day to get your heart rate up.
  • Dance, go for a walk or bike ride, or practice yoga to a video or a Zoom class.
  • Get creative. Walk around while talking on the phone. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Bike to run errands. Toss a frisbee with your dog.

 

3. Express gratitude

“When you express gratitude, your brain rewards you by releasing feel -good neurotransmitters dopamine, and serotonin, and a little of the hormone oxytocin,” says Dr. Bourque.

How can you do this?

  • Journal daily about all the things in your life you appreciate.
  • Create a family dinner ritual in which each member expresses one thing they are grateful for.
  • Express thanks to other people. For example, if you see a waitress or postal worker who is running ragged, say, “Thanks for working so hard.”
  • If you meditate, end every session by thinking of what you are grateful for and sit with that for a few minutes.
  • Post the word “gratitude” somewhere in your house or office; whenever you see it, take a moment to think about it.

 

4. Sleep well

This may be the most critical part of all, says Dr. Bourque. Your brain cannot function properly without adequate sleep. Just as your body needs to rest after physical exertion, your brain needs sleep to recover and process the day’s events. Need more convincing? Recommendations from sleep hygiene experts:

  • Don’t fall for the hype. There is a tendency these days for people to brag about how little they sleep, to prove how hard they work. The thing is, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), getting adequate sleep makes you more productive, not less. It may prevent burnout, help you recover faster from distractions, enable you to make better decisions, and bolster your memory.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the hours before bedtime. The NSF notes that it takes six hours for your body to process half the caffeine you took in. And contrary to general perception, alcohol may actually disrupt sleep.
  • Turn off your screens close to bedtime. The bright lights interrupt your natural circadian rhythm by signaling to your body that it’s time to be awake.
  • Create a bedtime routine and stick to it.
  • Bedtime is an excellent time to practice your mindfulness techniques.
  • If you have severe sleep issues, see a sleep medicine physician.

 

Disclaimer: Experts caution not to begin a new exercise regimen without first consulting your doctor or a health professional; this piece represents general advice.

Warning signs that you should seek professional psychological help

According to the Mental Health Commission of Canada, “Unlike other health conditions, only one in three people who experience a mental health problem or illness report that they have sought and received services and treatment.”

According to MentalHealth.gov, pay attention if you experience:

  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing from your usual social outlets or relationships
  • Feeling listless, numb, helpless or hopeless
  • An increase in smoking, drinking or taking drugs
  • Mood swings, irritability or uncontrolled anger
  • Anxiety or depression
  • Urges to self-harm
  • Inability to perform daily tasks

This article is intended as general information only and is not to be relied upon as constituting legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. Information presented is believed to be factual and up-to-date but we do not guarantee its accuracy and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or any of its affiliates.