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 “cleaning up”, 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
Keep your mornings simple and give your 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, exercise, yoga, etc. and breakfast. These activities are done with focus, care, and reverence if possible. You can’t force it, of course, but the point is to clear everything else from the mental agenda and give yourself totally to this morning ritual.
Incorporate dry-brushing and self-massage before your 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 myrrh and sandalwood added, 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, we don’t have to go in full speed ahead and spend up all our mental energy at once. If you slice things up into chunks and focus on efficiency, not sheer volume, you can actually get a lot more accomplished and better than if you tried to do it in all in a day.
The first work task is a list of 3 essential tasks for the day; take 5 minutes to reread this list over and over to yourself. Repeat to yourself that nothing else has to get done today but these three tasks.
Next task is admin; filter through emails, texts, etc. Make a secondary list of things to do for the entire week. Take 5 minutes to tell yourself that these things will get done, but right now you are going to focus on your first three tasks.
Work on first three tasks through lunch, and deal with any ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL things that come in. Check email once per hour at the most. Answer essential calls only during this time.
During lunch; eat away from the computer, no media, focusing entirely on the process of eating. Enjoy a walk outside to help you digest, or even eat outside as well. Give yourself at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted non-work time to enjoy your lunch, not just scarf it down.
Continue to work on the first three tasks and any essential tasks that come up. If the three tasks get completed, bring the next task in from your weeklong list.
During the work day, take three to five FULL 10 minute breaks (don’t shortchange yourself) to 1) chat with people 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 your desk, or decluttering. Do it casually and not with much agenda.
When the workday is done, ABSOLUTELY FORBID yourself from taking calls or checking emails. Allow your mind to completely detach from any work-related topics. Tell yourself “The work day is done, everything else can wait until tomorrow. This is my time to just be, just live, just enjoy.”
Allow your mind to completely detach from any work-related topics. Tell yourself “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, do not do anything else. No media, no multitasking. Just wind down and enjoy your meal, seated at the table. Play a little soft music, make the space feel warm and inviting, chat with your friends or partner. Once dinner is over, move on to leisure activities, not tasks. The time for tasks is the daytime.
After 7pm, NO MEDIA. Put your phone on airplane mode and turn off the TV. Start to let your mind wind down. You can read, do a puzzle, do a crossword, do some yoga, tai chi, garden, stroll, anything that is not stimulating to the sympathetic nervous system. We are starting to allow the parasympathetic take over as we prepare for sleep. This usually takes at least an hour. For our wound up world, even more.
Prepare your sleeping space and do whatever you need to do to relax. Make sleeping a ritual. Take a bath, put on soft music, do your brush teeth and evening care routine. Have a cup of chamomile or kava tea. While you drink, sit and smell the tea, taste the flavor, and do nothing else. Enjoy the hot cup in your hand.
Whenever you feel the urge to do, relax it and let it go. If you find it difficult to do this, you can supplement with little activities like puzzles, zen sand gardens, or journaling so help your mind get used to being less stimulated.
Once in bed, turn off all the lights. Make sure you are comfortable. Do a body scan to notice any areas of the body holding tension, and consciously relax them. Notice if you are too cold or too hot, and correct appropriately. Do you like a soft breeze? Do you like a little white noise? Make this process very intentional, as if you were putting your baby to sleep.
If you have trouble falling asleep or wake in the night, get up and do slow movement, like seated yoga, to take your mind off of the frustration of not falling asleep. If that isn’t enough, try journaling or something slightly more engaging for the mind.
DO NOT turn on bright lights or media, as they will stimulate the nervous system far too much to encourage sleep. CBD, Valerian, GABA, and in moderation melatonin can also help with going to sleep.
If insomnia is a persistent issue, you may want to talk to your doctor. It’s important to allow your 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.