"Running on empty is never a good idea, especially when it comes to mental health," says therapist and anxiety specialist Laura Rhodes-Levin, LMFT. "I encourage my clients to get used to filling their gas tanks when they are between half and three-fourths empty." Taking a day off can help refill your mental tank, so to speak.
Of course, there are a lot of barriers that prevent people from truly taking a day off for the sake of their mental health, from enduring stigma that makes it hard to be open about needing help to company policies that don't support taking mental health days (much less sick days).
However, if you're in a position where you are able to miss a day of work in order to recuperate, you might wonder how to best optimize that day for your mental well-being. Here, mental health professionals explain how to know when to take a day off and how to structure it so that's it's truly time well spent and you go back to work feeling more refreshed.
When to take a mental health day
The short answer: When you need one. More specifically, Jill Sylvester, LMHC, author of Trust Your Intuition, says you should consider taking a day off when you're feeling increased difficulty getting through the workday (but not so much that it's a critical issue). "Someone should take a mental health day from work when they are sensing a building pressure in their body, feeling like they are burning the candle at both ends," Sylvester says.
A way to tell how full your "tank" is, to borrow from Rhodes-Levin's earlier analogy, is to listen to the way your body feels in the environment you work in. Does your anxiety build as you walk through the door of your workplace? Do you find yourself tensing up throughout the day? Are you just going through the motions when your job used to excite you? These are all signs to take a mental health day.
Psychologist Marianna Strongin, PsyD, adds that if you're going through more severe stages of anxiety or depression, you could also benefit from time off for emotional self-care. This is especially true if you're in the midst of dealing with something hard, like the loss of a family member or the end of a long-term relationship. While bouncing back from a difficult experience won't happen overnight, taking time to process can be beneficial.
How to best spend a mental health day
When it comes to structuring your day off, all the experts say this will vary from person to person. "If you are already close to an empty tank, just relaxing may be all you can do," Rhodes-Levin says. This can be similarly true for someone who is taking a mental health day because of a particularly bad bout of depression or anxiety; sometimes doing anything besides rest is too difficult—and that's okay.
If you do have the energy to be out and about, all the experts say the best way to spend a mental health day is doing something that lights you up. "Whatever gets you a little excited but isn’t exhausting," Rhodes-Levin says.
Sylvester also recommends doing something that will be inspiring. This could mean digging into a self-help book that's been on your nightstand for weeks, watching an inspirational documentary, or tuning inward and connecting more to your personal passions and goals. She also recommends activities that are scientifically linked to boosting happiness, such as being in nature, working out, or spending time with a friend.
Dr. Strongin emphasizes that the day should be spent focusing on yourself. "Personally, I like to do some self-care, whether it's a facial or hair cut," she says. "It makes me feel like I'm giving back to myself, which allows me to give back to others later." Sometimes, Dr. Strongin says, it can be beneficial to spend a mental health day taking care of personal chores that are causing you stress. "Organizing your home can also help create a healthy environment at home and can be extremely therapeutic," she adds.
What not to do when taking a mental health day
The number one thing to remember: "Don't take a mental health day to just work from home," Sylvester says. If you spend your mental health day buried in your inbox, you are less likely to return to work recharged than if you spend it resting or doing something that fills you with joy.
"A mental health day should be a real break," agrees Dr. Strongin. "I strongly suggest that people use that time to focus on themselves rather than the demands of everyday life. The only way to get a real emotional break is to actually take one."
Rhodes-Levin emphasizes that a mental health day should focus on you. "This is a day to help yourself, not others—including your kids, parents, or spouse," she says. "This is not selfish. This is self-love. You cannot give from an empty fountain. Fill your own fountain. And for goodness sakes, whatever you do, don’t feel guilty about taking your day!"
How to recognize when you need more than just a mental health day
While mental health days are beneficial, it's also important to realize when to seek professional help or a bigger life change should be made. "A mental health day is not enough when someone continues to feel drained and depleted on a daily basis even after a day of relaxation," Sylvester says. "Maybe it's time to change your job, your relationships, your habits, or to schedule a session with a mental health professional who can guide you further on a consistent basis."
If you go back to work and you're unable to focus, or frequently feel tearful, nervous, and unable to calm down, these are all signs Dr. Strongin says it may be helpful to see a therapist regularly. "The ritual of taking time for oneself and going to therapy can be incredibly healing and can have a more impactful effect on mental health than just a mental health day," she says.
What's most important is recognizing your emotional needs. "Dealing with our emotions and stressors should be part of our regular care," Rhodes-Levin says. "Don’t wait to you’re close to a break down to take care of yourself."
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