What is mental hygiene?
I’m going to define mental hygiene as two things. The first being the practice of being careful what you let into your mind. And the second being the process of clearing out of your mind, what is no longer useful. And psychology has consistently shown that mental clarity will happen naturally if mental input improves. In the same way that a body detox often occurs when the right environment (nutrition) is introduced. The goal of this article is to approach the mental hygiene subject from a different perspective than typical mental health articles. And to move beyond mental resilience and into flow states.
In mental resilience enough?
Mental resilience, or the ability to bounce back from stressors and adversity, requires moving towards something to be sustainable. In NLP or classic psychology there are two forms of motivation. Moving away from and moving towards motivation styles. Most people have both, but one is dominant. If you put things off and wait for things you don’t want to force you away from them, then you better make friends with stress. On the other hand, if you have clear exciting goals that pull you toward them, then stress will be less frequent and life ultimately more enjoyable. And so, mental hygiene is about more than getting things done. Because mental resilience isn’t enough unless you tip the balance and plan how you want to feel and perform. Mental resilience requires the management of your mindset.
And in line with the goal of this article, I’m going to make a bold statement. This statement will then be extended to make more sense. And then I’m going to show you why I think this statement is true and give you ways to use it.
What is the goal of mindfulness and gratitude?
Here’s the statement that I will build on: The goal of mindfulness and gratitude practices., is to get you into a flow state! And flow and happiness go hand in hand.
It’s no surprise therefore that mindfulness and gratitude practices are two of the most widely recommended and used mental hygiene practices in the world. Why are mindfulness and gratitude important topics when discussing flow and peak performance? Because focus drives flow. And being mindful and grateful drives focus. Studies show that people in flow states are about 500% more productive. So, this isn’t just a nice state to be in. It can change your life very quickly.
What is a flow state?
Flow is often referred to as being in the zone. And is related to peak performance. Author and speaker Steven Kotler defines flow as an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best. In flow, concentration is laser focused. Flow is where creative genius happens. Everything else falls away in comparison. Action and awareness become one, and our sense of self and consciousness completely disappears. Our perception of time changes., either slowing down (like the freeze frame of a car crash) or speeding up (like hours seeming to pass in minutes). And all aspects of performance are heightened.
Steven has studied and written extensively about flow states. And one of those subjects is what he calls flow blockers. If focus drives flow., then distraction breaks it. So, when we talk about flow or mental hygiene, we are talking about the skill of ignoring as much as the skill of focusing. The ability to avoid distraction and spontaneity is an integral part of mental hygiene and flow states.
How does flow relate to PTSD?
Flow also assumes an element of skill in the task at hand. In the scientific study ‘The first few seconds of flow’, the similarities to psychedelic states (including the downregulating of the Default Mode Network (DMN)) and out of body experiences are explored. Also, the relationship with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Which is an interesting comparison. The main difference being that in the face of an unexpected situation, previous skill will likely result in a flow state. And indeed, a positive effect of trauma called post traumatic growth. While a lack of skill is more likely to result in a fearful experience and potential PTSD. Thus, when talking about mental hygiene, the importance of skill building and increased cognitive control is crucial.
Beyond mental hygiene into peak performance
And now., here’s the extended version of the statement I made earlier about the goal of mindfulness and gratitude.
The goal of mindfulness and gratitude practices is to help you feel good and focus in the present moment. And feeling good and focusing in the present moment is the precursor to entering a flow state or being in the zone. Entering a flow state releases a cocktail of neurostimulation chemicals like dopamine. And dopamine is basically a focusing/pattern recognition drug which enhances pattern recognition, concentration, and creativity. And pattern recognition, concentration, and creativity feel great and again enhance focus in the present moment. Which then gives you another hit of feel-good neurochemicals like dopamine. And so, the cycle continues. Flow creates flow creates flow…
The ‘secret’ then., is how do you get back into that flow cycle when life spits you out?
If all you get from this article is the above paragraph., you have enough to live a life of happiness and achievement. This understanding is what will take you beyond mental resilience, and into a life of peak performance. Maybe you’re not interested in peak performance. But I bet you ARE interested in feeling good and being resilient to the stressors of life. And this balance of flow and mental hygiene is really the basis of a growth mindset. Something that has gotten a lot of press over the last decade.
What is the role of Dopamine in mental hygiene?
Entering a flow state releases a cocktail of neurochemicals including norepinephrine, dopamine, endorphins, anandamide, and serotonin. Out of those, dopamine is the most interesting for this topic. Dopamine is known as a neurochemical reward drug. Because when you do something significant or enjoyable, you get a hit of it to encourage you to do more. As already mentioned, Dopamine increases pattern recognition. And pattern recognition is the basis of creativity and genius. Taken to an extreme, an excess of dopamine can contribute to schizophrenia as the person starts to see patterns in everything. Dopamine drugs given to people with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s often lead to renewed creativity and desire to pursue new things. There are artificial ways to create dopamine with drugs, but the process is only useful in predictable moments of time because of the slow speed of effect. This makes drugs not a viable option for most flow state situations like sports.
Rapid fire flow in sports
Top sports performers live on the edge of flow during a game. For example, in football there are two stages. One stage has set plays, expectations of field position, and boundaries. The second stage is once that set move is over, improvisation is required. So, sports people need to go in and out of flow consistently. And this can’t be done with externally ingested drugs.
Interestingly, people who are slightly under the influence of alcohol are actually better at creativity, problem solving and flow. This explains why I always played pub table pool better after a few drinks and then it all went south after a few more, haha. Dopamine has many roles including movement and time perception. The latter being the reason why in an unexpected situation time can slow down.
Does dopamine fasting work?
Dopamine fasting is impossible if you take the meaning literally. Dopamine is always present and as mentioned is linked to focus. So, the goal is dopamine re-sensitization rather than fasting. Because over time we get hits of dopamine from too many environments and behaviors. And the result of this is a desensitization of the dopamine receptors in the brain. Effectively what happens is activities like social media (as an example) become more likely to give you the reward of dopamine than your work or goals of self-improvement. Thus, it’s harder and harder to be focused on the things that will bring you long term fulfillment because they don’t excite you as much as the in-between activities. The practice of ‘one thing at a time’, and having breaks of less stimulating activity., are the answer to this issue. This means active recovery needs to be part of your ‘to do’ list. Or burnout is the likely result. More on active recovery later.
Is mental hygiene the same as mental health?
Mental health and how it relates to longevity has never been a more important topic. Stress and the rate of change in the world are accelerating exponentially. AI and technology will change the world whether we are ready for it or not. And this fear of the unknown just adds to the stress (*see note below). There are of course parallels between mental hygiene and mental health. Although the term mental health has come to have some negative connotations attached to it. In fact, mental wealth would be a better term. And a lot of unnecessary shame and embarrassment has been linked to mental health. Mental hygiene on the other hand brings up thoughts of cleanliness and acceptance. We all accept hygiene as important and desirable. The practice of mental hygiene was introduced by Clifford Beers in 1909. Clifford experienced a life of family tragedies related to mental health and even spent time himself institutionalized. Inspired by his experiences he wrote a widely accepted book and spearheaded a major shift in attitudes toward mental illness.
*NOTE: As a side note in current times, a cautious approach to Ai is missing from what I can see. Because there are potentially big challenges with being the least intelligent of two entities., Ai and humans. Intelligence is no longer just a mental game. Speed and access to information is now the biggest driver of intelligence. Both of which Ai can do millions of times better than humans can.
Why is mental hygiene related to peak performance?
Are mindfulness and gratitude the only ways to peak performance and flow states? Of course not. But they are easily relatable and easy to adopt. I was listening to an interview with a well-known and successful speaker recently. And he said this about the realities of life. “Life is hard. In fact, life often sucks.” “And life’s going to suck whether you’re going for that big optimistic goal., or sitting in front of the TV watching re-runs of coronation street.” And he’s right. I think there is a real danger in just aiming to feel ok with where you are. We are not built for that. The reason we get hits of neurochemicals in response to things like pattern recognition and creativity is obvious. Because those traits are what ensured our survival as a species! From simple recognition of seasons and animal movements., to the creation of farming. And there is nothing that comes even close to feeling as good about yourself and life as progress and achievement.
Can stress and anxiety lead to flow states?
In general, the state of anxiety is the opposite of flow and peak performance. Because anxiety requires you to not be thinking in the present moment. And so, anxiety relief is a valuable goal. However, anxiety and stress can be a trigger to entering flow states. Because the feeling of flow is at its best when the task at hand is just beyond your current real or perceived ability. This is known as the challenge/skills ratio. And this is where mental hygiene meets mental resilience. Mental resilience is the ability to bounce back and use the lessons from stressful situations to move forward. The opposite of which is avoidance and paralysis. And avoidance and paralysis are the basis of the fight, flight, or freeze sympathetic nervous system response. Flow states balance the autonomic nervous system. IE both the sympathetic and parasympathetic (rest and recover) nervous systems are activated at the same time. Our brains run on prediction. This means that we are constantly trying to predict what is about to happen. And when that prediction is wrong, we get an error message that causes a small amount of anxiety. This is good. And is the basis or curiosity. However, curiosity becomes general anxiety when error messages become too common.
Action precedes motivation – the basis of mental hygiene
Focus precedes flow. This understanding is fundamental to mental hygiene and peak performance. You cannot wait for motivation to kick in before you take action. Because the nervous system and brain don’t work like that. That is unless there is an existing conditioned response/anchor., or a real or perceived danger. We’ll get to the flow cycle soon. For now, recognize that doing something with purpose starts the cycle. Flow states and motivation are closely linked by reward chemicals like dopamine. Motivation creates motivation. And it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective that the brain would reward us for focus and action. Waiting for life to motivate you puts you at the mercy of everyone else’s goals. And this lack of control is the basis of anxiety. Because being in a fight or flight anxiety response regularly is exhausting. And unfortunately, a large proportion of humanity is tired from living in a world propagated by fear and control. And when people are tired, they want someone else to tell them what is real and what to do. Which leads to re-action instead of action. And the result is less flow and more stress. Am I talking about willpower? Not really. But you do need to have mental hygiene routines and triggers that draw you into a flow state.
What are mental hygiene and flow triggers?
At the beginning of this article, I said: The ‘secret’ then., is how do you get back into that flow cycle when life spits you out? And this is also the basis of mental hygiene. Life will serve you up things you don’t want. Shift happens! And so, the answer is to embrace the shift 😊, and have ways to shift on purpose. Life is full of triggers. Some of them make us feel and act negatively, and others make us feel unstoppable. A trigger is nothing more than a conditioned response, anchor, or routine that gets you into a specific state of mind and body. Some triggers you may be at the mercy of. Like strong smells. And others you create yourself because you want a consistent result. Like playing your favorite music. The main flow triggers being clear goals, immediate feedback, novelty, complexity, unpredictability, risk, insight, curiosity, passion, autonomy, mastery, purpose, and overall., the challenge-skills balance.
What are examples of using flow triggers?
Clear goals make having certainty about your ability to get something done more likely. Without direction, positive mental hygiene will be random at best. And part of having clear goals is getting feedback on how you are doing in their achievement. However, there is a balance to clarity. Without novelty and some unpredictable challenge, life becomes boring. And so, not only will there always be some risk in whatever you do., it is needed for flow and mental resilience. This is where a level of passion and curiosity about what you will find on the journey is valuable. So, choose wisely what you go for! If it is something that excites you and gives you a sense of purpose, then as long as you have the autonomy and ability to do what is needed, you will achieve mastery and the ultimate prize. And what is the ultimate prize? Self esteem in the form of getting things done that matter to you. As you can see, this is a package deal when it comes to mental hygiene and flow. One success in one area filters through into other areas and feed off each other building momentum.
What is the challenge/skills balance?
The challenge skills balance is an important concept to keep in mind. This is the tipping point between something being too easy and therefore boring, and too hard and therefore demotivating. And this is the easiest way to enter a flow state and have this be part of your mental hygiene routine. Because having a task or activity just beyond what is easy creates excitement and learning. You know enough to apply what you learn to what you already know. But there is an edge., a slight sense of nervous curiosity as to what will happen next. There is a type of underlying stubbornness with flow states too. Like the funny but relatable saying of “Hold my beer”, after someone says you can’t do something or challenges you to do it. Not arrogance, but determination and confidence. And the result of this from a mental hygiene perspective is momentum. Because small wins lead to big wins.
How does mental hygiene relate to physical performance?
We’ve established that mental hygiene can be related to the management of flow states. And flow states are best known and studied during physical performance. What can we learn from physical performance that applies to mental hygiene then? Because the parallels are interesting. Every athlete or serious exerciser knowns that a big part of improving performance is training and recovery. Athletes train far more than they perform. And they know that if they keep training without rest, they will burn out, injure themselves, lose sleep, and be constantly tired. The same applies to mental training and work. But most mental performers have it reversed. They almost never train, are always expected to perform, and hardy ever get enough recovery. And research shows that changing this has a major impact on productivity. Because productivity and busy-ness are not the same thing! Busy-ness results in diminishing returns, work dissatisfaction, and burnout (the mental equivalent of overtraining).
So, what’s the answer? How do you become a mental athlete? There are 4 keys…
What is a mental athlete?
Training to be a mental athlete involves 4 steps.
- Making recovery part of your workday: Consider performing at work to be like training. And this means that you need to alternate between work and activities for recovery and growth. Another way of expressing this is ‘the balance between stress and recovery’. Both are needed to improve and be at your best. Recovery must follow stress or energy expenditure. Because the alternative is a life of sub-par performance. So, the answer is…
- Actively recovering: This is different than just chilling in front of TV or drinking at the pub. This is actively scheduling and engaging in activities that will accelerate mental recovery. And this might be time in nature, exercise, cold exposure, meditation, breathwork etc. And this works best when…
- Work hard, play hard: What this means is that when you are working, you are working. No distractions. And when you are doing recovery or rest day activities, you are not thinking about work or answering emails. This is about total separation of work and play. And this will do more to improve your mental hygiene than anything else. Unfortunately, most people are usually in an in between state of not really doing either by trying to do both!
- Learn how to get into flow: Use the skills you are learning here to get yourself into a flow state more often. Practice creates mastery. And the more you practice getting in and out of peak performance states, the more your mental hygiene and health will improve.
What are the four foundations of mental hygiene?
When talking about flow and peak performance, Steven Kotler lists four pillars of flow. Those are: Eliminating flow blockers, flow proneness, flow triggers, and the flow cycle.
I’m going to rename them for the purpose of discussing mental hygiene. And so, the four foundations of mental hygiene are as follows.
- Focus: Foster the ability to eliminate distractions and focus on the task at hand. Use your environment to support this. Remember that focus is the beginning of flow and mental hygiene practices. And focus and therefore flow are trainable. It’s important to recognize however, that purposeful distraction is part of mental hygiene (see below). Your chance of getting into flow is slim to none if you are battling against distractions. And what’s one of the biggest distractions? Your phone! Leave the phone alone for the first few hours of the morning and watch how much you get done and how much better you feel. Steven and his team call this ‘Flow before phone’.
- Environment: Set yourself up to succeed. Make your surroundings, friends, and habits work for you. Make mornings your time to feel good and do things that benefit your mental hygiene. The more you get done first thing, the more you can relax the rest of the day. Tell the people closest to you or work colleagues that until midday, you are out of contact. The other bonus of doing things as soon as possible after you wake up, is that you are already in a brain state (Theta/Alpha) where flow occurs.
- Positive triggers: Learn multiple ways to put yourself in a peak state and use them. There are natural activities that promote flow like playing music or video games. The trick is to hover in the sweet spot between boredom and anxiety. A small amount of challenge in a task you are pretty good at already. Which is why sports are so good at triggering flow. Because you are always encountering new situations that challenge your existing skill. Set yourself tasks that are just a little more than you’ve done before if you’re bored. Or if you’re anxious, chunk tasks into smaller pieces and do one at a time. Find your balance.
- Routine and rest: You can’t always be in a peak state. There is a natural cycle to flow states that includes downtime and variety. Having a set routine that you follow will take advantage of that cycle. And knowing that purposeful distraction is part of the flow cycle and mental hygiene is important. Purposeful distraction is when you do something unrelated to your goals and easy to do. For example, mowing the lawn, having a nap, or doing grocery shopping. In creativity, this is called an incubation period. Where the mind gets a chance to wander and present spontaneous ideas to you consciously. Like the typical saying of “Lets sleep on it”, when searching for a solution.
What is the flow cycle?
The flow cycle ties in nicely with the idea of mental hygiene. One of the challenges that people face when trying to ‘feel better’ is that they believe they should always feel good. This is simply not possible. Without levels of ‘good and not so good’, there would be no contrast. And without contrast, there would be no way to define what good is and the idea would not exist. That’s a bit of a mind bender I know. But it’s true. Because there is no concept of warm without cold. The flow cycle is best seen as four stages. No one stage can be maintained long term. And each stage primes the next leading to a healthy way to be at your best and get things done. Again, I’m going to rename them from flow psychology. And in fact, I’ve purposely made them all start with the letter R. The cycle goes like this…
The four R’s of the Mental hygiene flow cycle.
- Resistance: First there is struggle when you haven’t yet got moving enough to get momentum and it’s easy to give up. And most people spend most of their lives never getting past this stage. Getting past resistance means training yourself to be persistent and focused. And this can be done by adding a little more time each day to performing a common task. Like reading a book or meditating. Because training yourself to be persistent and focus for longer periods of time in easier tasks like this, will make it easier to be persistent in harder tasks. This stage is dominated by an excess of norepinephrine, causing frustration and anxiety.
- Release: Then once you’ve pushed through this struggle, there’s a releasing of resistance and a release in the brain of certain neurochemicals like Dopamine, Serotonin and Endorphins. This stage is the basis of motivation. And as we’ve established, Dopamine enhances pattern recognition and the desire to keep doing more. This stage is dominated by the release Endorphins which act like pain relief. Which triggers you into…
- Reward: The reward stage is where flow and creativity is heightened and decision making is easy. Because action results in reward for action., which results in more action. Flow follows flow! These reward-based neurochemicals downregulate the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for time. ‘Time flies when you’re having fun’, the saying goes. And a lot gets done. This stage is dominated by Dopamine and Serotonin which keep the flow going.
- Recovery: And finally, after the flow state there is a need for rest and recovery. Because this cocktail of neurochemicals and activity is taxing on the system just like physical activity is. So, recovery is needed.
Why you should quit while you’re ahead for optimum mental hygiene.
What’s the best way to get back into the peak performance zone next time you want to?
Quit while you’re ahead!
That seems counter intuitive so let me explain what I mean by that. It will become obvious where you are on the mental hygiene cycle especially if you try to push one stage too far. And the temptation is to ‘milk it for all it’s worth’ when you are in the zone like this. The problem with that is that if you finish a task tired and out of inspiration, you’re teaching yourself to associate tiredness, boredom and a lack of motivation to that task. In much the same way as some relationship experts would say never go to bed angry at each other. Because guess how you’ll wake up!? The best way to easily get back into flow the next time you do a task, is to stop while you are still in that state. IE: Don’t wait until you have exhausted yourself and no longer feel in the zone. Stop while still in it. Because the next time you return, that state will be attached to the task like a type of anchoring or conditioned response.
Mental hygiene and heart rate variability
Heart rate variability (HRV) is a popular and effective measure of your ability to change rapidly between being active and relaxed. Measuring and improving heart rate variability for entering flow is making a big impact on both sports and academic performance. Having a healthy HRV score will have a dramatic positive effect on your mental hygiene. Your ability to adapt to changes quickly and reliably in your environment will ease stress significantly, reduce depressive feelings, and help focus. And HRV is easily improvable with consistent practice. It’s no surprise that most of the ways of doing so are just good health practices anyway. Like good sleep habits, a healthy diet, meditation, and breathing techniques.
How to create a mental hygiene routine
It must be said first off that if you don’t get your nutrition, sleep and exercise sorted out., that your mental hygiene goals will be very hard to achieve. And so, with the assumption that you have these under control., how do you put all this information into practice? This is where routines can play a big part. Especially in the morning. Part of mental hygiene is preventing negative habits and behaviours. And the easiest way to prevent something, is to replace it with something else! How you start your day will play a big role in how you are throughout the day. And so instead of going through your day unconsciously on autopilot., try making even repetitive tasks conscious activities. Because this will train your focus and lead to a more mindful and grateful life. What about mindful brushing of your teeth, mindful showering, mindful eating. You’ll be surprised how doing these things on purpose will not only help you flow through your day, but also encourage you to make better choices. And small things matter! Take care and pay attention to the small things., and the big things will follow.
How do you want to feel today?
I sometimes wonder how much better people’s lives would be if they created ‘to feel’ lists instead of ‘to do’ lists. What if you started your day with the question… “How do I want to feel today?” And what can you do physically and mentally to make that happen? Have at least one physical habit and one mental habit that encourage the emotions that you want to feel on a regular basis. Because otherwise guess what!? You will feel today, tomorrow, and next week., pretty much the same as you felt yesterday and last week. And make these new habits require focus, mindfulness, and gratitude. Mindfulness and gratitude require focus anyway. And remember that focus leads to flow! And flow is the precursor to improving mental hygiene. Does this new morning routine involve getting up earlier to go for a walk or do some exercise? And what about reading or journaling? Or using a guided meditation or movement practice like Tai Chi. And let your phone and emails wait. At least until you have momentum in doing the things that are important to you instead of the things that are important to everyone else.
Mental hygiene and the roXiva lamp
Technology has created some amazing benefits to modern life. And it has also added to the demands made of us. Technology used positively can help you release stress, overwhelm and anxiety. And technology can also help you embrace flow states, creativity, and motivation. These are some of the benefits of using roXiva RX1 light and sound sessions. Having a reliable, consistent way to change how you feel is gold. RoXiva combines audio visual brainwave entrainment with the latest in brain optimisation techniques. Expertly crafted light-scapes using advanced light wave generation are combined with cutting edge layered soundscapes. These sessions take you on journeys like nothing you have ever experienced before. The result is far more than the sum of its parts. Flow states, creative inspiration, and clarity of thought replace stress and tiredness. The results can be profound. Sessions range from guided light and sound meditations and hypnotherapy to fully immersive alternatives to psychedelics and psychedelic light therapy. All with the added benefit of brain synchronisation, expanded states of consciousness, and balancing of neural activity. There are known brainwave frequencies associated with flow states and peak performance. One part of which is the border of Theta and Alpha waves. And roXiva can reliably and easily get you there in seconds.
The flow cycle and roXiva
There is a known brain pattern to flow states and peak performance. One part of which is the border of Theta and Alpha waves known as hypnagogia. And roXiva can reliably and easily get you there in seconds. When you look at the 4 R’s of the mental hygiene flow cycle, the uses become even more apparent. The first R for resistance assumes that getting started is difficult. That’s no issue with roXiva sessions. It’s one of the most enjoyable and immersive experiences you will ever have. You will look forward to doing a session. The second R for release, is inevitable. See how quickly you let go and flow with the experience. And the third R for reward. The experience is not only its own reward but produces hits of dopamine and increases in serotonin. And finally, the fourth R for recovery. Relaxation, rejuvenation and therefore recovery is again inevitable. Both on a mental and physical level.
A final word on mental hygiene
We’ve all heard sayings like ‘Whether you plan to succeed, plan to fail, or don’t plan at all., you will surely arrive.’
Most people fail to plan because they don’t have the energy or belief that they can overcome current inertia or momentum. Overcoming this life of mind wandering takes focus and getting past the first step of the flow cycle of resistance. And like training to get better at anything, the same applies to mental hygiene. It gets easier as you practice. Remember that focus, the precursor to mental hygiene and flow states, is trainable. You don’t have to do this alone either. And one of the keys to longevity and mental health is in fact connection to others. So, use this to your advantage and join or create groups of people with similar interests.
And above all, make sure you treat yourself as well as you would treat your best friend or a loved one. Are you as appreciative and kind to yourself for who you are and what you do as you are to them? The answer to this question may surprise you.