For most people, the concept of hygiene conjures up images of brushing your teeth, applying deodorant or taking a shower: simple, daily practices to keep your body clean and healthy.
But mental health providers say your mind can also benefit from a quick morning tune-up. Spending even 15 minutes on mental health hygiene each day can bring a host of benefits, from improved mood and better relationships to even deeper concentration and enhanced creativity.
“Mental health hygiene includes simple practices that improve our quality of life by preventing negative behaviors and providing emotional stability,” said Hui Qi Tong, PhD, a Stanford Medicine clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences who directs the Mindfulness Program at the Stanford Center for Integrative Medicine.
This concept of daily maintenance for mental health dates back to 1909, when former psychiatry patient and mental health advocate Clifford Beers founded the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, dedicated to preventing mental illness through positive behaviors.
For some people, mental health hygiene means dedicating a few minutes of their morning routine to meditation, stretching or walking — but Tong says just about any activity can qualify, as long as you are paying attention to what you are doing while you perform the task. In fact, even brushing your teeth can become part of mental health hygiene when practiced with deliberation.
“Mindfully brushing the teeth is actually part of the home practice assignments for the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction program,” Tong said. “In the program, group members are asked to carry out these seemingly trivial, often overlooked routines intentionally, rather than on auto-pilot as we usually do.”
A focused mind is a happy mind
Studies have shown that American adults spend nearly half their waking hours in a state of mind-wandering, with their attention focused on something other than the task directly in front of them. “So often we are absent-minded,” Tong said, “and not really mentally there with the things we are doing.”
In addition, research also shows that when participants reported paying attention to a task at hand — even a simple, repetitive task — they report high levels of happiness.
“This is why paying attention to daily routines can make such a big impact, especially for busy, highly accomplished people,” Tong said. “We all want to achieve big things, but ironically, it’s paying attention to the smallest things that can help us get there.”
Having a happy, focused mind helps us be more creative and productive, Tong said, and likely to have better relationships with others. Thankfully, learning to focus doesn’t have to mean heading off to a monthlong meditation retreat; you can start practicing mental health hygiene wherever you happen to be.
Pay attention to the five senses
Tong recommends starting with one activity you do every day. Brushing your teeth is one of the most popular choices of participants in her courses. “To begin,” she said, “you simply make sure that from now on, whenever you are brushing your teeth, you stay with the activity of brushing.”
This means not planning out your day or mulling over what your partner said at breakfast, but instead focusing on the myriad sensory experiences associated with toothbrushing.
“Feel the sensation of the bristles against your gums and teeth,” Tong said. “Notice the temperature of the water and the taste of the toothpaste, and be aware of what your other hand is doing. When I ask my group members, they usually say, ‘Oh! I have no idea what my other hand is doing.'”
One great thing about this mindfulness practice, Tong said, is that it doesn’t take extra time — you spend the same two minutes brushing your teeth regardless of whether you’re paying attention, and that’s also true of mindful driving, mindful eating and even mindful dishwashing.
“I used to hate washing the dishes,” Tong said. “But now, my family will joke, ‘It’s your opportunity to be mindful.’ And they are right. I stand at the sink, intentionally washing each dish and, if my mind wanders off, I just bring it back to the soap and the water. If you’re using a dishwasher, apply the same attentiveness to how you load the bowls, plates and utensils.”
Building a calmer brain
This practice may sound simple, but Tong says achieving sustained attention is incredibly difficult, especially with so many devices and distractions vying for our attention. For example, a 2015 study commissioned by Microsoft found that the average human attention span has shortened from 12 seconds in 2002 to eight seconds in 2015.
Thankfully, Tong said, research also suggests that the brain is incredibly adaptable. “Neuroplasticity means that our nervous system has flexibility and can change how it functions and even how it’s structured.”
For example, after eight weeks of a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, researchers at Harvard found decreased activity in and thinning of the amygdala — the brain structure that is responsible for fear and stress responses.
“The point is that the brain is not fixed,” Tong said. “It’s an organ of experience. So if you do something repeatedly, like meditation or playing the piano or exercising, they all have the potential to change the nervous system.”
Tong starts her day with 15 minutes of sitting meditation, followed by some gentle exercise like Tai Chi or Qi Gong, which involves body-centered conscious movements with well-established benefits of improving wellbeing, both physical and mental.
She encourages anyone interested in the concept of mental health hygiene to find what works for them by experimenting with bringing mindful attention to different activities.
“People might worry this feels like just one more thing to do and wonder if it’s worth doing at all. But these trivial routines are already part of our lives,” Tong said. “We cannot skip cooking, eating or brushing our teeth, right? But if you do these activities with mindfulness, they can change your experiences and how you relate to the activities, and can bring lasting benefits.”
Photo by Marina Zlochin