You know that feeling you get at the end of a really long week, when you just want to curl up in bed and sleep for 16 hours? Well, when that feeling doesn't go away by Monday morning (or longer!) it's called "burnout." It's a perfect storm of physical exhaustion, mental fatigue, and emotional upheaval caused by stress and overactivity. It ain't pretty! And when two-thirds of American adults report having high levels of stress, anxiety, and fatigue, it's time for a serious intervention.
We've been conditioned to accept the fast pace of modern life, with its heavy workload, hyper-communication and ever-present devices that keep us hooked in and worn out. But keeping all those balls in the air takes its toll, in the form of chronic diseases that pop up when you don't take care of yourself. Depression, digestive problems, autoimmune conditions, the big C…all linked to stress and burnout! Luckily, if you feel like you're headed down that road, there's time to pull over and reroute. Welcome to your own personal Mental Health Day. A properly designed day off can work wonders for your body, mind, and spirit. Don't wait until it's too late—use this roadmap to create your plan of in-action, restore your sanity, and nourish yourself for the path ahead.
Warning: You are entering the no-stress zone.
Remember how toxic stress is to your overall well-being? Taking a mental health day means avoiding stress at all costs. That includes stressful phone calls, people, tasks, chores, and thoughts, too. Any time that your thoughts take you to a stressful place, you should gently remind yourself that today is not the day for that and pull your thoughts away. Beware of all the tasks you'll be tempted to sneak in on your day off—laundry, bill-paying, organizing your closet… Just say no to anything that isn't a radical act of self-care.
1. Sleep. Beautiful sleep.
A healthy dose of sleep restores brain chemistry, regulates insulin, boosts your immune system. Not enough sleep can literally shorten your lifespan, according to researchers at Harvard Medical Center. You can't have a mental health day—or any other great day—if your brain is running on insufficient sleep. Screens off, blinds drawn, showered and relaxed, a cup of hot tea, then a minimum of seven to eight hours of sweet, uninterrupted slumber will start you off on the right foot. Use your mental health day to initiate better sleep habits: declutter your bedroom, turn your phone off 30 minutes before bed, create (and stick to!) a regular bedtime.
2. Keep moving.
I know, I know. Who wants to sweat it out on a day off? Some light exercise to get your blood flowing is a key ingredient in the recipe for relaxation and rejuvenation. Exercising reduces the stress hormones that make us feel bad and produces the endorphins that make us feel good. The Department of Health recommends 30 minutes of aerobic activity per day, but everyone is different. On your mental health day, put it on the day-plan and do what you can. If you're not feeling up to a run, go for a walk. If you can't make it to yoga, pull up a yoga class or YouTube channel and do a few vinyasas in your living room. Take time to be present in your body and listen to what it's trying to tell you.
3. Go au naturel.
Ever feel like you spend more time in the glow of a computer screen than in the sunshine? You're not alone—outdoor recreation has decreased consistently for decades, very much to our detriment. City dwellers, video-game players, email addicts, and workaholics can all attest to the shrinking window of time we all allow ourselves to "just be" in the great outdoors. Would you believe recent research that shows that 75 percent of children in the United Kingdom spend less time in nature than prison inmates!? It's scary. Taking time to tune into the natural environment is restorative on so many levels and should be No. 1 on your list of priorities to consider on your own Mental Health Day. Besides de-stressing and relaxing your brain, research shows that time spent in nature can decrease the incidence of depression, migraines, asthma, and even killers like heart disease and diabetes. Get outside, sit in the grass, walk among the trees of your favorite park. Immerse yourself in the color green; pretty screen savers don't count! Nature is a powerful healer, but you have to meet her where she lives: outside.
4. Reflect on the journey.
Burnout happens when we overload our conscious brain with goals, problems, tasks, and to-do lists. We're so busy trying to "get it all done" that we don't leave ourselves the time and space to reflect upon what is happening in our lives. When we're so caught up in what's going on, how can we see where we're going? Keeping a written record in a diary or journal helps you refocus your sights on the journey, not just the destination. It helps you de-stress, clarifies your thoughts and emotions, and gets you present to how you're really feeling and thinking, so you can sort out your thoughts on paper instead of keeping them jumbled up in the crazy filing cabinet of your mind. Studies show that people who journal regularly are happier and cope more effectively with stress, so why not give it a go? On your mental health day, give yourself a healthy dose of free-writing and see how cathartic it can be to get it out! Warning: It may turn into a healthy habit you enjoy for years to come.
Bonus: Writing down your feelings gives you a chance to set the tone for how you talk to yourself. Are you being nice, or are you too hard on yourself? You literally FEEL different when you give yourself some love and affirmation. Your first assignment—take a piece of paper and write "today I feel physically strong and mentally peaceful" 20 times!
5. Feed your soul.
Imagine your soul is a deep well, filled with your inspiration, energy, and life force. You dip into that well every day to work, play, communicate, create, solve problems, make plans, etc. Perhaps this gives new meaning to the experience of "feeling drained"! This well is not an infinite resource; when it runs low, it's your responsibility to replenish it. You do this by engaging in activities that inspire, nourish, and fill you with energy. It can literally change your mood and your mindset. Some people fill the well by painting, drawing, making collages. For others, it's the relaxing process of cooking a beautiful meal with friends. Some people recharge with a good book, or a long swim, or a phone call to an old friend. On your own Mental Health Day, give yourself the gift of an activity that's just for you, that feeds your soul exactly what it craves. Then pay attention to the energy that surges through you (and fills you up!) when you do something you love to do. Powerful stuff!
Remember: Self-care is health care.
None of the suggestions above are particularly difficult or time-consuming, and they don't cost any money. And yet, we relegate them to the long list of things we'll do "when we have more time" rather than use them as tools that improve our daily function. I used to be the type of person who never took a break, never said no to a request or invitation, never stopped to think about the effect a hectic lifestyle could have on my body. A few health crises later (oh, you know, just a thyroid disorder, Celiac disease, colon failure…) I'm no longer a believer in the "more is more" philosophy that is making so many of us sick. When you make self-care your No. 1 priority, you show up as the best version of yourself in all other aspects of your life. Listen to your body, check in regularly with your spirit, and, by all means, take a mental health day when you need one!