You brush your teeth twice a day to keep plaque from building up and see a dentist regularly for extra maintenance. It’s just good hygiene.
But how often are you practicing mental hygiene?
Whether you have a specific concern or are just trying to get through your day a little better, taking about 15 minutes each morning to maintain your mental health is something everyone could benefit from, said Broderick Sawyer, a clinical psychologist in Louisville, Kentucky.
“This is the mental health equivalent of brushing your teeth before you need a root canal,” he said.
The hygiene comes in the form of lowering levels of cortisol, the main stress hormone. An intentional daily practice for stress relief not only makes you feel better today — studies suggest it could improve your well-being later in life.
Increased cortisol levels can lead to a number of physical health complications, according to research from 2020. And a study from 2016 found that emotional regulation has been shown to improve health resilience in older age.
Sawyer has culled together a method for mental health hygiene. He explained why it should be part of your routine and how you can build it into your life.
Yes, you do have 15 minutes
If you are stressed and overwhelmed, carving out 15 minutes in your morning for relaxation sounds like just another hurdle on your to-do list. That addition, however, will make the rest of the list easier to get through, Sawyer said.
“It’s not about I don’t have time, you have time for a lot of things,” he said. “If we really can (practice mindfulness) throughout the day, then our mental health needs less of our energy, less of our juice.”
Taking time to reset your mental space at the start means that the stressors of the day aren’t piling on top of an already overwhelmed system.
And if you start the day stressed, that is often the baseline you come back to the rest of the day, Sawyer said. When you start with a clear, relaxed mind, you have a calm reference point to which you can return.
“Having a practice of mental health hygiene is like cleaning your mirror and looking into it, and you look in it and know what is and is not you,” Sawyer said.
That understanding of what a relaxed baseline feels like and what brings you away from that can help you have compassion for yourself and others who may also get anxious or upset, he added.
“When we do these things every day, we essentially ‘practice feeling happy,'” Sawyer said. “Then in turn, this can make us feel more confident when stressful life situations come up — because we do a good job nourishing ourselves.”
Here’s how to build in your daily practice.
1. Try new activities
The first step in improving your mental health hygiene is experimenting with different activities — anything that brings calm and lowers cortisol, Sawyer said.
“It’s just learning to treat and cultivate that inner space with awareness,” he added.
To start, set aside 15 minutes in the morning every day as time to slow down and intentionally focus on your inner well-being. The things you fill that time with could be ones you do every day anyway but made more relaxing — like drinking your morning coffee slowly with some deep breaths or swapping talk radio for music you enjoy on your commute, Sawyer said.
But it also could help to switch things up, like sitting outside, going for a walk or stretching, he added.
The important thing is to continue trying new activities until you find something that works for you — and don’t be discouraged if it takes some time to see the benefit.
2. Track how it makes you feel
An important part of the experimentation is journaling, Sawyer said.
After trying a new activity in your 15 minutes, making note of how you felt afterward and during the rest of the day can help you discern what kind of things work best for you.
Are you calmer throughout the day? More energized? Better able to handle stress? The feeling you are looking for may change, but the aim is to cultivate a baseline feeling that helps you feel better as you go about the day.
Journaling can also help keep a positive attitude if you don’t immediately get the results you are hoping for from your practice, he said.
“You just sort of trip onto those things through your own practice of intuitively trying things out. Then if they don’t work, that’s OK and just write that down,” Sawyer said.
3. Pay attention to what you need at different times
No one action will work all the time, Sawyer said. It can make a big difference to keep an eye on what you need in different contexts.
“So, if I have a workday with a lot of meetings, maybe I need to be a little more chipper and buoyant. Maybe I need to be more laser-focused because it is a heavy writing day. Those are different energies,” Sawyer said.
That could mean ending your 15 minutes with a shot of espresso on one day or doing a concentration meditation another day, he added.
4. Add through the day as needed
Eventually, that 15 minutes in the morning might not seem like such a chore. In fact, you might start to crave some check-ins with your mental state at more points throughout the day.
At any time that feels good, but at least three days a week, Sawyer suggested adding in some low-impact physical activity, like walking, biking or yoga.
It’s also helpful to add in some time to wind down at the end of the day if you can, turning off work notifications, stepping away from screens and taking time to decompress, he added.
“Once we find that tool or collection of tools for ourselves, we then get to master how well we use it,” Sawyer said.