Mental Hygiene

Day 5:

The brainsparkers are failing me. I find myself shuffling through the cards multiple times a day looking for something to actually spark an idea and they just irritate me and make me want to write about other stuff. Which is awesome because it means that I have ideas again! Whoohoo,, it worked!!mh1

The other day I touched on a concept that I’ve been thinking about a lot: MENTAL HYGIENE. I was watching a lecture by renowned psychology prof Jordan Peterson on the topic of dealing with depression and suicide, where he spoke at length about mental hygiene. It has occupied a lot of my brain space lately, not because I’m depressed or suicidal (although I have dragged through some pretty dark periods of clinical depression in the past) but because as a personal trainer/coach I believe it’s part of my role to be able to coach my clients through some of life’s difficult passages if the need arises. People are dealing with more chronic stress and feelings of disconnectedness than ever before and exercise is (rightfully) one of the first places people tend to turn to as treatment for depression. Fitness professionals need to maintain a skill set that includes knowing how to coach, when to coach, and, most importantly, when NOT to coach and refer out instead.

Anyway. Maintaining good mental hygiene is the first defense against depression and it’s fairly straightforward: we have an idea of what *should* happen from day to day. If we do A, then B and C and D will happen. But, life is some messy shit sometimes and doesn’t turn out as planned…and when that happens someone with good mental hygiene deals with ONLY what is in front of them in a constructive way, where someone with bad mental hygiene might jump right over the isolated unexpected negative experience and go straight to general self-bashing.  My crap workout from the other day and ensuing hormone-induced mental spiralling is a perfect example of bad mental hygiene. To recap, I missed a couple of lifts that by all accounts I should have made (and probably would have made on another day) and instead of thinking “ok, no big deal – I missed those lifts because of solid reasons X, Y, and Z that are within my control” I went straight to “I’ll never get better at weightlifting and I’ll look like an ass in competition and I don’t deserve to be taking up space in the gym.”


So how do you get better at keeping good mental hygiene? Well, the same way you get better at anything:


You practice letting in the minimum amount of negative feedback when something crappy or unexpected happens. For example, (and this is one I see all the freaking time) someone who’s trying to lose weight will eat well and do everything right for a whole week, but when they get on the scale on Monday morning, their weight will have stayed the same or maybe even have gone up. SO frustrating, because after working away at it for seven goddamn days you expect to see some progress on the scale. You deserve to be rewarded with some weight loss after all that work! How to deal with this? Well, if your mental hygiene is good, and you know you’ve done everything right but weight loss can be a nebulous thing which depends on a million tiny variables, you accept that you just need to keep doing what you’re doing. You might flip off the scale on your way out of the bathroom but you know that next week your effort will pay off. Negative feedback minimized: check.mh4

Now if your mental hygiene is somewhat lacking (and this happens more often with weight loss than just about anything else) you might look at the lack of results on the scale and go straight to “I suck. I’m going to be fat forever so there’s no point in trying. Fuck it all.” and then dive headfirst into a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. If things are really awry you might go as far as “I don’t deserve love or understanding.” which is just up the street from self-harm and suicidal thoughts. Now you’ve opened the door for all the demons and snakes and nastiness to come swirling in like a snowstorm.

This is a pattern that just about everyone falls into from time to time…and it’s really easy to do if you’ve had something like a Tuesday morning where you sleep through your alarm, discover you’re out of coffee filters, get a flat tire on your way to work, almost get killed by some eighteen-year-old douchebag in a pickup truck while you’re jacking up your car, then get in to work late, dirty, and grumpy and then get a bad performance review – those circumstances would test even the most mentally hygienic of us. But by practicing minimizing the negative feedback on the little things – bad hair days, being the target of someone else’s road rage, etc. – we can clean up our mental hygiene for the days when bigger stuff happens. You know, like missed lifts.  mh3

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