Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Psychological Hygiene

We brush our teeth twice a day (and some of us even floss) to prevent our teeth from decaying. We wash our hands before eating to avoid getting bacteria on the food. Many people take vitamins and food supplements to stay healthy. Those of us who do sedentary jobs often engage in some form of physical activity in order to preserve our health. We are taught to do these things since early childhood as a way of taking care of ourselves. All of the activities I listed, however, are aimed at preserving our physical health. Very few people in our Western Civilization are taught similar measures aimed at preserving their mental health and psychological well-being.

Pharmaceutic companies benefit greatly from this profound illiteracy that characterizes most of us in what concerns psychological hygiene. Constantly depressed, burned out, anxious people who have no idea why they feel as miserable as they do provide eternal customers ready to swallow handfuls of pills that promise them some relief. Of course, pills always end up requiring more pills to deal with the side-effects of the initial round of pills. And then there is also medication that helps you take medication. And so the vicious circle is created. 

As somebody who views with horror the American culture of popping pills whenever you feel sad, shy, sleepless, nervous, listless, agitated or anything else in between, I take care of my psychological well-being through psychological hygiene measures. Of course, different things will work for different people but I'll just give some examples of what I do to take care of my mental health.

We are now in the last week of the academic year, which is always a very difficult moment. There are endless meetings, tons of paperwork, dozens of emails and visits from students, final exams that need to be prepared, and a lot of grading to do. I have so much stuff to grade that I can't even bring it all home because it's too heavy for me to lift. So I just bring it home in smaller batches. Obviously, this is a moment when one runs a big risk of feeling stressed out, exhausted, miserable and suffering from a burnout. Since I know how dangerous this last week of classes can be to one's psychological well-being, I have planned very carefully my psychological hygiene measures for this week.

Every day this week, I stop working or doing anything work-related by 5 pm. Then, I take a nap. After that, I do things that help me unwind. On Monday, I read an entire mystery novel in one evening. On Tuesday, I spent 4 fours playing Civilization V, which always takes my mind completely off any problems, issues, or work-related concerns. Today, I will reward myself for doing a massive amount of grading by watching several hours of Top Chef reruns and cooking something complicated. Tomorrow, I'm planning to spend several hours chatting on the phone while walking around the neighborhood. Friday will be especially brutal because of all the meetings I will have to attend. Forced sociability always exhausts me like nothing else. So I envision some serious Internet surfing while listening to Latin American rap on Friday evening.

I know from experience that after I do all this, I will wake up on Saturday feeling fresh, happy and ready to leave this academic year behind.

I also have experience of staving off depression successfully. I was told at some point that I had to abandon all the work I had done on my doctoral dissertation and change the topic completely after spending over a year of working on it. (That was a year since my prospectus had been officially approved.) I had most of the research done and had written a chapter and a half. Having to change not only the topic but even the time period I was working on felt like a complete disaster. And, of course, my boyfriend choose that very moment to dump me. And a huge, completely unexpected bill surfaced on that same day. And a very close friend told me that I deserved all this anyways.

Of course, I felt like plunging into the depths of complete and utter misery. However, a new dissertation topic that had to be selected, and I knew I had to start working on it immediately if I was going to graduate when I had originally planned. There is this writer who writes completely trashy and goofy mystery novels in Russian. They are of the kind where you forget the names of the main characters and the plot two minutes after you finish reading. So I took to my bed for three days and  just started reading these novels. I read twenty-two of them over the course of those three days. I did absolutely nothing else. I didn't even shower or wash my face. The novels were so completely silly that they took my mind off everything else. Three days later, I got  up feeling completely rested and ready to start working on my second doctoral dissertation.

Feel free to share your own psychological hygiene methods.


Leah Jane said...

I'm neck-deep in exams and finals right now, with 5 of the 9 projects/essays I have to turn in due this Monday, and I'm stressing out over moving, getting together my paperwork for transferring to UVic...
But I always make an effort to make sure that I have at least one day out of the week to relax. I'll usually read a book (Working through the short fiction of Yann Martel now) eat a home made dinner. That may not seem like much, but since I'm too busy the rest of the week to cook, it's lovely to purify my thoughts and my tummy by creating a culinary masterpiece for one day of enjoyment.

reader said...

To help with general listlessness, I have 2 things that help:
- taking a long walk. Doesn't matter where: a market, a library, a food shop.
- turn on music and vigorously dance at home.

I love reading books and blogs too, but because of sedentary lifestyle sitting near a computer or reading on a bed just doesn't clear up the head like movement does.

Pagan Topologist said...

This country is steeped in the Puritan ethic which says that such things are bad. Churches promote this to keep their membership up, since going to church is often seen as the only psychological outlet that is permissible.

I read novels and attend theatrical performances. When I think to take a walk or something it helps a lot, but I have not generally done it consistently. Thirty years ago, I was seriously running; about thirty to forty miles a week. I stopped when it began to cause me knee joint pain, and I have not found anything I like as well.

Rimi said...

I go to the next room and chat with my parents :-)

After moving out, I'd see if a friend was free to talk, then take my phone, keys, some change, and take a long, chatty walk. I also completely clean up my workspace, take a shower followed by a cup of hot chocolate, and take a nap. Sometimes, if I'm not actually tired enough to sleep, I take a sci-fi or fantasy book from my childhood, and have a nice, long, leisurely read in bed. And if I have some time on my hands, I go out with my camera. I love street photography.

I'll say this: having a network of friends and family close at hand helps massively in controlling stress and depression. For me anyway. I felt more stressed with less work assigned to me simply because on the awareness that I had no support networks to draw emotionally or materially from. I suppose for people an individualistic culture (like the US, for example), people don't even realise this could be a great de-stressing factor.

On the other hand, some families are made of people who either don't get along or don't really get each other as *people*. In that case, this theory fails.

Elisabeth said...

Cross stitch! As well as mindless novels, regular runs and meticulous planning of my work day. If I can feel that I'm starting to loose control of what I'm doing, I cut down on the number of hours I use on work each day and don't touch my computer after 6pm. But, honestly, it's the cross stitch that does the trick for me...

J. said...

If I don't get several mindless, unpromised hours a week to read, watch junky TV, and/or generally veg out, I become crabby and unproductive. Unfortunately, I am so addicted to electronics that I tend to spend too much of that time on the internet, and that doesn't have the same effect as the "do-nothing" time I used to spend...

The other thing that pulls me back is cooking, baking, stuff like that. Making food, feeding people. Bread is especially good, or cake--sort of combines the prosaic activity with aromatherapy. :-)

My grandmother was on Prozac for the last 20 years of her life. I gave her hell about it--she was just discovering that she was ANGRY, and somewhere around age 70 she was realizing that she'd given up way more than she ever wanted to in order to tie her life to my grandpa's (e.g. a full scholarship to graduate school) and now her life was in its declining years and she was stuck being a nursemaid to a man she wasn't even sure she really rather than deal with it or get counseling or try to work through some of the anger, she went on Prozac, and was sweet and smiley and unengaged for the rest of her made me sad. And my husband went off his depression meds about 6 years ago because he just didn't like the way they made him feel and he wanted to try to deal with it in a different way, and he got very little support at all from his doctor as well as bad advice, and suffered the most ungodly withdrawal symptoms imaginable. (I mean, REALLY bad.)

I know there are those for whom those meds are necessary and important...but in his case, the doc just dumped him onto them when he found out that my husband's brother had depression issues, assuming he'd be on them for the rest of his life. He's been off them for 6 years, and he's doing really well.

Pschological hygiene. I love this concept.

liese4 said...

I might read, take the dog to the dog park and walk around, dance, or have a night out with friends. When I get totally stressed out I go to the coffee shop by myself and take my devotional book.

Last week I was in utter ruins, science fairs, doctor appointments, poetry co-op, school, meetings, dance, a cultural show and I found out my hubby was almost blown to smithereens on his way back to his office from the DFAC. So I made sure to carve out some dance time, devotional time and crying time and I feel much better now. (He's ok, it was a close call though.)

profacero said...

I don't use mine but that is part of my problem. So we will review them:

1. Keep the same sleeping schedule except for rare exceptions.
2. Work out every day.
3. Spend at least half an hour simply staring at something relaxing and beautiful every day.
4. Every meal a nice meal.
5. Grocery shop as a ceremony Friday afternoon or Saturday, or Sunday, so it is fun and you always have food.
6. Clean the house that day too... you clean the house, then put the groceries in it, and a bouquet. Then you cook the groceries.
7. 24 hours off in a row every week, go do something fun.
8. Do things like go to movies on weeknights.
9. Seriously schedule in research time and don't let anyone incur upon it. This elevates mood.

Clarissa said...

It is great that everybody is sharing these strategies.

I wonder, is it a coincidence that the majority of people in this thread are women? Do men do this stuff or is the same thing that happens with emotions?

Rimi said...

Since no men apart from Pagan Topologist has responded yet (or maybe their comments are in queue), I'll add this:

My father retired early because his back was killing him and his work involved a lot of travel. Unlike most Bengali men, my fathr is not a social creature, and the fact that he had nothing to do except watch TV nearly drove him mad. So he started tutoring children. Many years ago he had considered teaching, but teaching then was almost unbelievably underpaid and also too sedentary for him (my father has a strong outdoorsy streak), and he didn't think it prudent. However, what started as a break from his 'real life' pretty much engulfed it, and now he is a very well-regarded tutor for those children that need help outside the classroom. He actually makes a living at it. And this makes him immensely happier at his other chores and hobbies, like making mint chutney for the family. The flip side? Ever since the time he could give to it became limited, the TV he disliked so much has become his addiction -- he loves Bengali soap operas :-)

My ex used to walk down the river and sit on the grass, staring at it. He said staring at water made him feel peaceful, and slowly 'slowed down' his brain, draining the 'stressful thoughts right out'.

My uncle, who has impeccable taste and loves re-decorating his home ever so often, is frequently asked by other people to help (re)furnish their homes stylishly. He thoroughly enjoys these 'consultations', and I've been egging him to do it semi-professionally, but he says that takes the fun out of it, and won't.

My friends variously paint 'crazy abstracts', take photographs of urban and suburban 'wildlife' (mostly birds and stray dogs/cats/cows), help out at underprivileged children's centres.

There. Does that help?