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How to take a mental health day to really reap the benefits

Pay attention to the early signals that it’s time to care for your mental health. Experts share the strategies that will leave you rejuvenated and refreshed.
Portrait Of A Young Woman With Her Eyes Closed Sitting Against Wall
A lot of conventional wisdom says that “me” time means alone time. But the focus should be on what you find restorative. Kay Fochtmann / Getty Images

It’s one thing to know you should take some time to focus on your mental health. It’s another thing to actually do it, and to do it in a way where you emerge restored and replenished.

According to a new poll, 32% of American adults are so stressed by the pandemic, they sometimes wrestle with daily tasks, such as choosing what to eat or what to wear. You might feel like you have 1,000 things to do — so scheduling a day that doesn’t get any of them done can feel like a step backward. But caring for your mental health is crucial. Plus, it can put you in a better position to tackle that to-do list afterward.

“I think as a society, we tend to push stress away. We think, ‘I’m not that stressed. It’ll be fine. I’ve been more stressed before,” Shannon Brogdon, assistant program director at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Western Psychiatric Hospital, told TODAY. But that’s not healthy.

A mental health day can help you avoid hitting the point where you’re unmotivated and overwhelmed. Neda Gould, PhD, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Anxiety Disorders Clinic in Baltimore, told TODAY, “What we know from the science is that people who burn out don’t take breaks.”

Signs you might need a mental health day

Pay attention to the early signals that it’s time to care for your mental health. “Intervening early is ideal, so that you don’t wait until there’s a diagnosable depressive episode or anxiety disorder,” Gould said. She suggests checking in with yourself regularly and asking:

  • How am I feeling?
  • Am I functioning at my best?
  • If not, what would I need to get there?

And watch for:

  • Feeling tired.
  • Feeling stressed.
  • Being unmotivated or unenthusiastic.
  • Becoming more disorganized.
  • Struggling to get small tasks done.
  • Changes in your eating or sleeping habits.

“All of those things are our body’s way of saying to stop and check in,” Brogdon said.

When you see these signs, block out a mental health day on your calendar. “Even if you’re not feeling burned out, [a mental health day] will help you from getting to that point,” Brogdon said.

Give yourself permission to take time for you

You might feel guilty about taking a mental health day when there’s so much you feel like you should be doing. “One way to work with that guilt is to be prepared that it’s going to be there, and to do it anyway. Say, ‘Yep, there’s my guilt, and I’m still going to lay on the couch today and watch TV’,” Gould said.

Gould admits that she struggles with guilt herself when she needs to take time off. “I feel like I should always be doing something. So I’ll say to myself, ‘If I’m not going to take this break for myself, let me do it for the people around me, because then I’ll be refreshed, and I’ll be more likely to have positive interactions with them.’”

How to communicate your day off

Some organizations promote taking time for yourself, especially now that people are realizing the mental health impact of COVID-19. “Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re at the place where all organizations are open to the idea of a mental health day,” Gould said. “Though truthfully, everybody needs a mental health day at some point.”

If your organization isn’t supportive of mental health days, you can call it a day where you’re taking care of your health. Or request the time off without explaining why you need it.

What’s important is making sure workplace stressors don’t pile up when you’re out of the office. “Anticipate challenges and think about how to address them,” Gould said. “Let people who are covering for you at work know — the more notice you can give them, the better.” Set up an out-of-office reply that gives a colleague people can contact for anything urgent.

You’ve blocked off a mental health day on your calendar. Now what?

Ask yourself what you need most from this day off. You may want to plan rejuvenating activities, or you might want to take some time just to be and not have anything scheduled. “There’s no one right or wrong way in terms of what a mental health day looks like, and it’s going to look different for different people,” Gould said.

Think about how you’ll spend your mental health day before it arrives. What fills your cup and brings you joy? Waiting for the day to come without a plan can backfire. “If you take a day off and it feels amorphous, it can leave you with rebound anxiety,” Gould said.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Get outside and move your muscles. A lot of people find that spending time walking or hiking outdoors can be rejuvenating.
  • Stimulate your mind. Taking a class or attending a seminar might also replenish your energy and enthusiasm.
  • Create a calm home or office. You can tackle some tasks and projects if you feel like completing them will give you a boost. “There are times where you’re so overwhelmed that you don’t have that space to stop and get these little day-to-day things done,” Brogdon said.
  • Just relax. You might want to rest your mind and body with a day on the couch catching up on your favorite shows.

Make a plan, but keep it simple. Don’t try to accomplish 15 things. Maybe a morning hike, lunch with a friend and an afternoon nap is your perfect mental health day. “Don’t overwhelm yourself. Give yourself some grace,” Brogdon said.

Does a mental health day mean you should spend the day alone?

A lot of conventional wisdom says that “me” time means alone time. But the focus should be on what you find restorative. “If you need time away from people, spend that time with yourself,” Gould said. “If you’re yearning to see a good friend to sit down and have a conversation, spend an hour with them at lunch.”

If you can’t make a day work, take a shorter break

It might not be realistic for you to take a whole day to focus on your mental health. And it might not even be best. “If you have just one full day every six months and the rest of the time you’re stressed and overwhelmed, I’m not sure how effective that will be,” Gould said. “You can refresh and reset in smaller doses.”

An hour a week, or even 10 or 15 minutes a day, can make a difference in your mental health. Even with these short breaks, planning is essential. Decide whether you’ll take that time to read, practice mindfulness or meditate, breathe deeply, walk, listen to music or practice yoga.

“Ten minutes is better than zero minutes,” Brogdon said.

Gould suggests trying different timeframes until you find the balance that works for you. Try 10 minutes a day, or one hour a week, and see if that is enough to feel reset. If not, try a day. “Play with it and see what’s feasible and how you feel,” she said.

The important thing is to make the time to focus on your mental health — especially when you feel you have no time to spare. When you create space for a mental health day you can fend off burnout and regain your energy and enthusiasm.