The first and primary foundation for mental hygiene is proper breathing. Rather than a shallow breath in the chest, the best breath is a deep diaphragmatic breath into the abdomen. This is how the body was designed to breathe 95% of the time. It is how a baby breathes. The other 5% is how our breathing changes in synchrony with fight or flight responses.
Stress can induce shallow breathing which helps initiate release of the hormone cortisol as well as spiking blood sugar levels and producing adrenaline. The heart rate increases and the muscles tense. Continuous production of this stress hormone is toxic at every level and it interferes with the production and reception of more ‘positive’ hormones. Unfortunately most of us have trained ourselves to hold this shallow breathing pattern. Deep breathing will switch over the production of stress cortisol, adrenaline and its resulting blood sugar imbalances, with ‘feel good’ hormones like prolactin and oxytocin, resulting in blood sugar balance and peace of mind. The heart will settle and the body will relax. Depending on how we breathe, we either anchor a reality of perpetual struggle and continual conflict, or we secure an embodied balance, peace, and clarity.
There are books, videos, and practitioners who can properly reacquaint one with this natural way of breathing. You can start by putting one hand on the abdomen and one hand on the chest, and breathe so that the lower hand rises higher than the upper hand. The chest can expand too, but only after you’ve really brought air down into your core. Practice breathing through the nose. Practice exhaling all at once, really letting it go. Breathe like your life depended on it! All this work with the breath will bring about benefits too numerous to count in every area of life. It is the foundation of physical resilience, mental hygiene, and spiritual nutrition so it is something we will return to in future posts.
The second foundation I want to mention is presence, or living in the moment as they say. Nothing classifies bad mental hygiene like the misery of lamenting the past or fearing the future. A lot of physical and mental degeneration results from having to process hormonal chemicals and neural peptides that are released in accord with negative thoughts. The body exists in the present moment but our thoughts are often disassociated from present circumstances.
Scientists have shown that a given activity and the mere thought of that activity will stimulate the same areas of the brain, initiating many of the same biological responses. By pushing the body to metabolize and respond to events that aren’t even happening, our bodies and minds are unnecessarily burdened and I would posit this as a significant source of dis-ease. The more we arrive in the present moment the greater our freedom. We can even take refuge in awareness itself; that awareness that is present during every thought and in between thoughts. The more we rely on awareness, the less power thoughts have over us! This is ecologically critical to thinking clearly, maintaining peace, and realizing lasting happiness. The breath is supremely useful in this practice.
The third foundation for mental hygiene I want to share is the importance of listening to one’s conscience or even following one’s heart. We know more about who we really are, how we really feel, or what we really need, than we might think. We know the difference between right and wrong. Unfortunately we find many ways to not act on our conscience or even go against its council. We might do things that aren’t good for us or others, or say things that aren’t honest or kind. We might remain silent when we know we should speak. We might hold back out of fear. Our conscience always has our best interest at heart. It is not the same as the relentless dictator in one’s head who criticizes everything and is rarely satisfied.
At its core health and wellness follows what is natural, follows authenticity; it follows truth. We each have our own truth and our heart is telling us this truth every day. It is much more about being authentic than maintaining some ideal state. Dr. Candace Pert talks about different cases where a spontaneous outburst of anger initiated full cancer remission. Anger may not generally be good for our health but suppression of what we truly feel is much worse. This foundation is simple and obvious but it often isn’t easy. Be compassionate and patient, but really challenge yourself to do the right thing, for yourself and everyone around you.
Breathe deeply, stay present, and listen to your conscience. Duh right?