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Completing a mental detox is one of the best ways to clear your head of the “toxins” that come from dealing with day-to-day life.
We joke — but as much as a mental detox can wipe away irritation and stress from your daily life, it’s not so much about intentionally forgetting but more so about thinking in less unhealthy ways.
If you feel like your mind has done the equivalent of a mental illness muckbang over the past few months, you may have started to see some unpleasant signs of stress, anxiety or depression or develop a negative view of the world around you. This is where the idea of a mental detox can shine.
The juice you need to binge on to make a mental detox happen isn’t juice at all — it’s an empty brain.
How you get there depends on the strategy you choose. But before we lay out lemon juice and cayenne pepper recipe for mental detoxes, we’ll stop making bad food puns and walk you through what constitutes a mental detox.
The best way to understand a mental detox is to take these dietary references and use them to actually explain how your brain works, so let’s start there.
Like the digestive system, the brain processes many things over the course of days, weeks and years. Some things, like water and protein, we need. Other things, like sugar and fat, we need in limited quantities.
Your brain is essentially the same type of machine. The only difference is that instead of foods, nutrients and sources of energy, it processes thoughts.
Our brains know what to do with our thoughts. They assess threats of real danger, they turn desires into motivation, and they make connections that help us remember important habits. For instance, turning off the space heater before we leave for the day prevents us from coming home to all our stuff being destroyed in a fire.
The thing is, the brain can start to malfunction and process thoughts wrong. Sometimes, too, we start having an unbalanced diet of negative, anxious or sad thoughts.
In the same way the stomach can only do so much to keep you healthy when all you’re feeding it is cheeseburgers, your brain may struggle to keep itself mentally stable when every thought is anxious.
Experts sometimes refer to this as being stuck in a groove, except it’s not always very groovy, you know?
So what does a mental detox do? It gets you out of your negative groove. Depending on the type of cleanse and the duration of the cleanse, it may help you fill in that old groove or even wear a new one.
Here’s the thing, though: like the detoxes you see advertised on social media or in magazines, there’s not a lot of formal clinical work or government approval for these detox techniques.
In fact, most of the reliable primary sources out there don’t even recognize the idea of a “mental detox.” Your first page of search results at the NIH (National Institutes of Health) is going to be about toxicity reports, not patterns of thought.
The only place we can really point you is to a specific type of mental detox: the dopamine detox. It claims to help “reset” your attention, your addictions or your compulsions by detoxing your brain — going cold-turkey — of the dopamine those activities rewarded you with.
The problem is that there’s really no process here — it’s just a repackaged concept: giving up something you feel an addiction or compulsion to.
It’s essentially exercising self-control.
Want to complete a mental detox? You can create your own safe version one in order to achieve the desired effect.
Mental detoxes can be momentary (like meditation) or permanent, like a cold-turkey addiction break.
You can think of meditation as the mental equivalent of cleaning up physical clutter. Breathing exercises in a peaceful environment can make for a “mental health detox” session of its own.
To complete a mental detox, you simply need to follow three steps:
Select a detoxifying exercise from those we’ve mentioned. That may include a simple and short meditation or breathing exercise, or your mental detox may be built around a longer, day-long disconnect from technology and other mentally cluttering ideas.
If you’re performing a digital detox, this is the time to wrap up loose ends and communications before putting phones in drawers for the day.
The actual detox can be a very simple process—so simple that you might simple just practice “existing” as your detox.
When you begin your mental detox, the point is to be present, and this is why meditation is typically the go-to detox process for many people. Meditation is about being present, practicing the control to keep your thoughts from wandering to projects, deadlines, or thoughts of the past or the future.
Want to learn how to meditate? Check out our guide.
At the end of your meditation, your self-care day, your digital disconnect or your morning of reading in bed, the final step is to transition back into whatever world you were detoxifying yourself from with newfound purpose, intentions and drive.
It misses the point of detoxes and meditation to end a five minute session of meditation by returning to the stressed and anxious state where you began the day.
Instead of reacting to the missed emails or the now-even-closer deadline with worry, make a commitment to be accepting of your limits, to prioritize what is essential and important, and to let self judgment for anything beyond the scope of what you are capable of be left behind.
At the end of the day, the problem is in the idea of detoxing. As Psychology Today explains, detoxing or fasting from dopamine is “misconstrued,” as definitions go. What you’re really fasting from is stimulation.
Stimulation needs self-control to function. But experts generally agree it has more to do with habit and interrupting those habitual cycles to prevent an ingrained behavior from being repeated.
Want to cut back on smoking? Just restrict your access to cigarettes or agree to replace a certain number with gum or patches.
Want to have fewer anxious spirals throughout the day? Start reminding yourself not to give those thoughts space to expand in your mind.
Want to stop scrolling mindlessly through social media? Take the apps off your phone or restrict the time you can spend on them each day.
It’s not very interesting or flashy, but this interrupting approach does work.
As for mental detoxes, most experts agree that the closest thing is meditation. And even that has various forms — sitting, laying, guided, unguided — that can vary in effectiveness based on what you’re trying to achieve. In this case, the goal is to detoxify your mindset.
You should be talking to a healthcare provider.
A mental detox can be a great way to refresh yourself when you’re feeling out of sorts, but if that feeling has been around for a while, it may be time to look at the bigger issues that might be at play.
Detoxes may temporarily alleviate symptoms of things like anxiety disorders, depressive disorders or other mental illnesses, but they’re not going to “flush” those “toxins” from your brain indefinitely.
Experts generally agree that you can only do this with therapy, medication and paying more attention to your health.
There are many benefits of therapy. It’s almost like a guided, medically proven mental detox and may be a great next step for someone wanting to detoxify.
If you’re looking for next steps, consider talking to a professional today.
The Hers online therapy platform is a great place to start. Our mental health professionals are available 24/7, and with an internet connection, you can start your post-detox healing journey anywhere, anytime (the same goes for our mental health resources).
A detox is only good if you never re-tox, and that’s awfully hard to avoid doing if you have a job, look at screens or feel emotions.
Make a bigger plan for managing your mental health today, and talk to a professional.
Kristin Hall is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with decades of experience in clinical practice and leadership.
She has an extensive background in Family Medicine as both a front-line healthcare provider and clinical leader through her work as a primary care provider, retail health clinician and as Principal Investigator with the NIH.
Certified through the American Nurses Credentialing Center, she brings her expertise in Family Medicine into your home by helping people improve their health and actively participate in their own healthcare.
Kristin is a St. Louis native and earned her master’s degree in Nursing from St. Louis University, and is also a member of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. You can find Kristin on LinkedIn for more information.
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