Mental Hygiene

Mental hygiene. It's critically important to healthy and rational emotions. We make assumptions that chemistry causes emotions, but chemistry is altered in the brain by our thoughts. Emotions are created by our thoughts. So, let's start with the source of chemical shifts. Thoughts.

If we cross a bridge and think the entire time "It's going to break, I'm going to drown," we will send out the chemical release of adrenalin.

I have been actively in the field of anxiety disorders for over 20 years sponsoring folks as they recover. The tools I have shared with them changed my entire life. I now know what extremes of emotions are created by cognitive distorting thoughts. I will share with you now, the handout I give to people when they tell me they are having issues. I honestly wish this was taught in school. It would change the world and so many human issues.

Mental Hygiene
(They Don’t Teach You This In School, Why?)

4 people get a flat tire.
There are 4 different emotional reactions to the event:

One man thinks, “I get to use my new pneumatic jack,” and he’s excited.
One man thinks, “My boss is going to be mad I’m late,” and he’s anxious.
One man thinks, “This always happens to me,” and he gets angry.
One man thinks, “This is a bad part of town,” and he is afraid.

Basic tenant of mental hygiene

You cannot have an emotion without first having a thought that is either illogical (creating out of proportion emotions) or logical (creating an appropriate emotional reaction).

Suggested reading:
A New Guide to Rational Living by Albert Ellis, Robert Harper and Melvin Powers.

The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns, M.D. (I used this one as the guide book for my anxiety self-help group-well written, great exercises and ways to measure depression and anxiety).

Extremes of all emotions; anxiety, panic, depression and anger are all the result of distorted interpretation of the world and very illogical self explanatory style.

I work in the paranormal investigation realm and I can tell you that 10 investigators will have 10 different reactions to noises and shadows in their environment. Anyone who has run from a building that was supposedly haunted had an inner dialogue that included, “this can hurt me, possess me, wants to get me!” Hence, the reaction to run, which is the action that suits that inner dialogue.  We are built to evaluate a situation, determine danger and act upon it. But was there a real danger from a slamming door? Had this person said to himself, “is there an open window that caused the door to slam?” he would have gone to check and the reaction would have been a logical thought, logical emotion and logical action.

The sequence goes like this –

First, an event happens
Then, a thought about the event
Then, a resulting emotion
Followed by an action

It could go like this –
The clerk at the store doesn’t give you the usual happy greeting
You think, “she’s mad at me”
You feel sad, guilty
You avoid her line at the checkout stand the next time
Close your eyes. Imagine a lemon tree with dark green waxy leaves. Pick a lemon, hold its shape in your hand, feel the bumpy surface, the waxy peel, raise it to your nose and mouth, and take a bite into it. The burst of saliva in your mouth is the result of a thought-not a reality. This is the power of the mind. It prepares the body, whether there is true threat or not.

Simple exercise for fast perspective:
Sit down and on a piece of paper write 10 negative things you assume about yourself and leave space between these entries to write between them. These may be things you’ve assumed, people have intimidated or told you; either parents, friends, coworkers, bosses, or others, or ones you have adopted and believe without knowing why you came to these conclusions.

We are going to put your assumptions on trial and give evidence against them.

For example “I am lazy
Now, write after that all the things in your life that disprove that assumption, eg., “I do my laundry, clean the apartment, go to work every day, workout three times a week, take on charity work…” When you have filled up all the examples of why that statement is not true, now change that statement to be more accurate, “I have lots of initiative on projects of importance.”

Go through all 10 statements and give evidence against them and rewrite the TRUTH about you.

Cognitive Distortions
(your roadblocks to healthy appropriate emotions and actions).

Any time you thought about taking someone down, you likely had thoughts circulating in your head like, “how dare he do that to me!” “He’s a jerk and needs to be stopped!” or “he just wanted to hurt me.” These kinds of thoughts create extreme anger, but they are not necessarily logical thoughts or emotions. The assumption that someone should take us into consideration, do things the way that is “right” or jumping to conclusions about their motivations are cognitive distortions that lead to extreme emotions. The same goes for depression, believing “I am worthless” is a sure cognitive distortion to lead to self-destructive obsession.

Cognitive distortions include things like black and white/all-or-nothing thinking, minimizing the positive, jumping to conclusions, and many more. In the books mentioned in the reading list, you will find the list of all the kinds of ways we can cognitively distort things.

Example of taking our thoughts too seriously:

I remember one time when I was in the thick of panic attacks, I went to wash my hair after my workout. I looked down into the bathtub and saw a ton of hair. My first thought was, “why is my hair falling out? Am I sick? Do I have some kind of cancer?” (jumping to conclusions) I rushed in my mind to remember every health issue I’d had lately to determine what kind of cancer I had. By the time I left the shower, I was feeling weak and frail, gripped the counter, and looked at my face in the mirror, searching for signs of gauntness. I then looked down and found my hair scrunchie, tied up with tons of hair. I had ripped it out to take a quick shower, and it had taken my hair with it. In the matter of minutes, I went from fear of dying to relief. But, it was in those moments of thinking I might be dying that I gave my own thoughts so much credibility, I accepted them as fact without all the evidence.

We tend to think that because we had a thought and we are quick-minded intelligent people, that our conclusions are valid. This is why, putting all your thoughts that cause excessive emotions on trial and proving them wrong is critical to mental health. You must get all the information and not act on a thought. Remember: The thought of the lemon had you salivating and it wasn’t real.

Mental hygiene for kids

When my son was little, I played a game with him. We would be out places and see someone do something weird like yell at someone or dance across a store. I would say “why did he do that?” and my son would give an explanation. Then, I would give one, then he would give one, and we’d do this until we ran out of possibilities. The lesson here was that, we may never know why people do things and it is their own issue, not our own. Remember, they have that internal dialogue that makes them mad, sad, or anxious too!

Mental hygiene in daily situations

Joy hates her job. She hates her coworkers. She dreads Mondays. She thinks everyone hates her. They all seem to have cliques and go to lunch together. No one asks her out. It all began with Joy joined the new team at work and everyone knew each other, but her. She said to herself, “I’m an outsider, they won’t accept me.” And this made her feel sad. Then, it made her act on that feeling by withdrawing into her cubicle where she assumed there was no place for her and kept busy to avoid the loneliness. Her coworkers saw a woman with her nose to the grindstone and didn’t ask her to lunches because she already had her food spread out on her desk and ate through her lunch hour while working.

Joy’s thoughts created an emotion and she acted upon that emotion and the world then reacted to that action.

Had Joy joined the new team and opened up about her background and interests and how long she had been with the company, she would have felt relief that they understood her and they would have reacted by inviting her out to lunch to get to know her more. She might have thought, “I am excited to be meeting a new group of future friends and coworkers” and she would have smiled, been warm, and open to their approaches, excepting to make friends with them.

Obsession can disguise other issues

        I had a friend who was dating a guy who would ignore her on weekends. She couldn’t get a hold of him; he couldn’t go out and do anything. It was driving her nuts, but instead of letting her mind wander down the path of things she didn’t want to think about, like issues in the relationship, she focused instead on a bruise on her skin. That bruise, she wondered, was unusual for her. She asked herself, “am I sick?” She then preoccupied with other ailments she imagined she had, like diarrhea and tiredness. She was certain it was a sign of a dreaded disease. She went from doctor to doctor, read online reports of people with symptoms, and fussed and fretted over her “ailment” when the entire time it was a way to focus on something “real” she could “deal with” rather than the issue that was uncomfortable and one she didn’t want an answer to, like, “is he married?” 
        These obsessions can become OCD-like control of environment, control of body, fixation on a new hobby, spending, sex, alcohol, drugs, anything that can consume the mind from the REAL issue.

Some people take to drinking or doing drugs to avoid things they don’t’ want to deal with and end up with a secondary problem –addiction. For people with anxiety, it tends to be things like hypochondria.  Obsessing on one thing is a way of avoid other things. It’s often good to pull your head up and look around. What are you trying not to deal with by making something else the hot priority?

Where are you now?

Make a list of the things that are in the background of your life right now that upset you. For example:

My mother keeps criticizing my parenting.  (What do you tell yourself about this? “My mother doesn’t approve of anything I do.” That is a cognitive distortion. You are taking one incident and making it represent everything. You went from criticizing parenting, to criticizing your entire life. Become more logical. Rephrase: “My mother wants me to be the best parent I can be and she worries I will do things wrong that she did.”)

I am behind on my bills. (What do you tell yourself about this? “I don’t do anything right.” Generalizing – you have one arena you are not up to date on, but that does not mean that in all arenas you are woefully behind. Rephrase: “I would like to be as good at paying bills as I am about cleaning the house.”)

It’s important to often sit down with paper and pen or computer and word program and list the ongoing issues in your life and figure out what kind of fearful or angry things you are telling yourself about these events and then rephrase to something more realistic and logical. We often focus on what we don’t want and not what we do want. It’s important to visualize what we see unfolding in a clear and positive manner so we can open the way for it to happen. I highly suggest the documentary “The Secret.”


  1. And here I thought mental hygiene had to do with dirty minds. LOL!

  2. Hmn. Mental hygiene. Although it sounds like an antiquated term straight out of the parlance of the early days of psychology & how to keep "the machine" running smoothly without much dissidence in society, I needed to be reminded of how vital a keen mind, unfettered by assumptions & its knee-jerk, built-in defense mechanisms, truly is. Thanx, Sharon.


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