Mental health and emotional hygiene

Just as we look after our bodies, we need to look after our minds. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash


When we are suffering from anxiety, we often have the feeling that something needs to happen now to relieve our distress.  We look outside ourselves for the solution, hoping that our environment will provide us with the change necessary to reduce our pain.


When we were babies, this was appropriate.  No one expects a baby to sort out its own discomfort.  We expect its carers to attend to its needs.  In the same way, if a crop in a field is ailing, then it is up to the farmer to do what is necessary to rescue it.  However, as adults, we are not just a plant crop, not just a helpless baby.


When we are older, we take over a fair degree of the responsibility for resolving our own distress.  We can still encounter triggers – elements in our environment which can transport us into a high-anxiety state.  But we are more capable, than when we were babies, of responding to our situation with an urgency-reducing behavioural change.


If we have not learned this skill, or if we have difficulty managing ourselves, we can regularly be shifted into a helpless, high-anxiety response.  In order to get the outside world to pay attention, we send out distress signals.


This behaviour is exacerbated by the lack of subtlety in mental health support services.  Due to a lack of resources, many such services are unresponsive unless and until a person exhibits life-threatening behavioural alarm signals.  In short, our society often waits until a person is suicidal before responding with support.

Mental health thus becomes associated with emergencies.  Anything less than an emergency, and the person is left to themselves.  For those who have learned to manage themselves this isn’t such a problem.  But for those with limited skill or capacity to manage their own anxiety, this can be socially disastrous.  People can be pushed into years suffering a cycle of disability interspersed with occasional life-threatening emergencies.


What’s the answer?  We need better educational support for those suffering anxiety and other mental health issues.  And this support needs to come earlier, before things get urgent.  Many people have had childhoods in which emotional education was limited or absent.  They may have had parents who were not good at conveying how to survive emotionally.


The subject that needs to be taught is what the Dalai Lama calls ’emotional hygiene’.  He described it as analogous to physical education.  Just as we go to a gym for our physical health, so we should be able to visit a ‘mind gym’ for our mental health.  Just as we do physical exercises for our health, so we should do mental exercises.  We can learn techniques which provide our minds with the maintenance they need to avoid high-anxiety emergencies.


What kind of things does emotional hygiene involve?  Here is a video (17 minutes long) on the subject of emotional hygiene.

Guy Winch on ‘how to practise emotional hygiene’