A Primer on Mental Health Hygiene

[content note: vague discussion of eating disorders, depression, PTSD, and sexualized violence]

We’ve all heard about Sleep Hygiene, right? You know, no drinking before bed, use your bed for sex and sleep only, take your TV out of your bedroom, etc. It’s amazing how many of us know these things (if only because we’ve seen it in a million magazines) but refuse to actually put them into practice (turning my computer off an hour before bedtime did WONDERS for my quality of sleep but my consistency could use some help). And it’s amazing how many of us have poor sleep hygiene, refuse to actually institute good habits, and then complain that NOTHING has ever helped our sleeping problem.

I got to thinking last night, as I broke one of my cardinal mental health rules (no reading triggering things right before bed) that maybe a mental health hygiene guideline would be helpful for folks. Obviously this is no substitute for mental healthcare from a licensed practitioner, but it may be something to add to your toolkit. Mainly this is written for folks with ED histories and/or trauma histories, but I can imagine there are pieces that may be useful for folks with other mental health stuff going on (e.g. depression). So here it is:

MENTAL HEALTH HYGIENE GUIDELINES

The Basics:
-eat enough to support your activity
-get enough sleep
-be active in ways that make you feel good (one of the best tools for overall wellbeing–if you have dealt with obsessive exercising/overexercising in the past work with your treatment team to determine what level of movement is safe for you)
-cultivate a network of friends and family that can support you and love you as you are
-utilize your treatment team as necessary

Self-Care is Important
-go on Facebook, cull every group or “celebrity” that does not make you feel good. If you’re dealing with ED, leave/unlike/unfollow any group or person that talks about cleanses, “clean eating”, eating “naughty” food, having “cheat days”, “toning those trouble spots”, and anything else that gives off even a whiff of body-shaming. Do the same with blogs, magazines, shows, and books.
-if you have friends/family members/colleagues who post things on facebook that make you feel bad, unfriend if you can, unfollow and hide if you can’t. You owe no one your attention at the expense of your mental health
-if you have a history of violent trauma STOP WATCHING LAW AND ORDER: SVU and any other movie/show that uses rape as a proxy for character development for women, or as a symbol of “WORST THING EVER” for male characters. It’s lazy, it’s damaging, and it can be triggering as hell.
-do not, I repeat, do not watch or read things you know will trigger you right before you go to bed.
-more generally, if you do not have the emotional resources to read something triggering, don’t read it.
-learn how to set healthy boundaries.
-speak to yourself like you would a child–gently and with love.
-create a toolbox of coping mechanisms: journaling, having a bath, walking your dog, chatting with your friend, making an elaborate ritual out of teatime, screaming into a pillow, punching a heavy bag, meditating, cleaning–these are all safe, positive ways to deal with scary/sad/bad feelings.
-when you go for a negative coping mechanism instead, understand the miracle of poor coping mechanisms and come up with a better plan for next time

Fake It Til You Make It
-don’t isolate yourself. Many mental health challenges try to trick us into isolating ourselves but that just makes it worse.
-if you have crazy-brain happening (ED, PTSD, depression) don’t trust it. Ask a trusted friend or family member if what your brain is telling you makes sense. When you’re stressed out and tired and scared your brain telling you 800 calories a day is enough may sound reasonable, but your best friend is going to tell you that’s just crazy-brain talking. (DISCLAIMER: only take your crazy-brain questions to people who aren’t battling their own crazy brain.)
-don’t wallow. This is a hard one. Many mental health challenges rely on and reinforce negative views of self. We feel bad so we tell ourselves how bad we are which makes us feel worse. Stop that. Here’s my script: “Hey! That’s not a very nice thing to say. You’re not ______(bad/stupid/worthless) you’re having a hard time and healing from _______ (ED/physical health stuff/trauma/depression). These voices are normal but they aren’t right.” Say it until you mean it. Then keep saying it until you believe it.
-keep a regular schedule. For some folks depression leads to staying up all night then sleeping all day which leaves you disoriented and socially isolated.
-act like the healthy, happy person you want to be: get enough sleep, don’t engage in negative self-talk, exercise, etc. etc. Some days it will seem impossible. Do ONE THING. Make yourself a meal, even if that’s toast with butter. Clean your bathroom sink. Phone your grandma to wish her a happy birthday. When crazy brain is screaming, ask yourself “what would a happy, healthy person do right now?”
-have hope. Even if you feel like you have no reason to have hope right now, do it anyway. Do it because some stranger on the internet told you to. Do it because continuing on like this is too hard. Do it because you deserve better. Do it because it will be sunny one day.

If you have other ideas, feel free to leave them in the comments! Take care of yourself and each other.

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3 thoughts on “A Primer on Mental Health Hygiene

  1. Thank you for this. A lot of the guidelines here seem so obvious but are easy to forget – I tend to think I don’t really “need” them, since most of the time (!) I consider myself fully recovered from my ED. But on down days, this is the kind of advice I need to take to heart. Being reminded of these principles for “mental health hygiene” helped me recognise some patterns of behaviour and reaction which still plague me occasionally.

  2. Thank you– especially for the “consistency could use some help” part. I know the basics, but struggle to carry them out. Why is keeping a set schedule so hard??

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