How A Psychologist Recommends Spending Your Next Mental Health Day
The concept of a mental health day may be foreign to some, but essential to others. Whether you call it a wellness day, a bounce-back day, or just a day off when you’re feeling down, the idea behind it remains the same: One day to do nothing but focus on your mental health and feeling better by the end of it than you did at the beginning. Think of it like a vacation for your brain.
To make sure you get the most out of your mental health day, I asked a psychologist for ten steps you may want to consider adding to your agenda. Cheers to better mental health and dedicated self-care.
But first, where did this idea come from?
Taking a day off to tend to your mental health isn't a new concept. However, more social media users have been sharing their versions of a mental health day—with plenty of good tips, I might add—so the topic is getting more air time.
Influencer Madison Wild calls it her “happy brain routine,” on TikTok, sharing her must-do activities to keep her mood high. Model and influencer Sierra Brave takes her followers on a journey to “cure her brain” in her TikTok vlog, reminding followers that while she likes to keep her content positive, she too, struggles to get out of bed sometimes—and that’s okay. Another user, Kate Speights, also made a list of her go-to feel-better activities, especially for those with anxiety or people who are short on time.
This trend of normalizing bad days on social media is certainly a step in the right direction, helping to remind everyone that needing a day to get your brain back on track is normal, and more people do it than you might think.
10 tips to optimize your mental health day
Ready to take a "brain vacation" of your own? Here are 10 top tips from psychologist Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D. on how to optimize your mental health day:
Make a list of things that make you happy
First things first: try to make a list of things that make you happy next time you have a few minutes. This way, you’ll have a menu of sorts to choose from next time you’re feeling down. Trust me, it’s a whole lot easier to do this before the bad day arrives if you can swing it. Stuck on where to get started? Give this self-soothing activity list a glance for some inspiration.
“You’ll also want to make sure that there’s nothing on your list that’s like the junk food of self-care,” Carmichael explains. Things like binge drinking or endless scrolling on social media may feel decent in the moment, but won’t contribute to better mental health over time.
Start with movement
Even if you have a list in front of you, knowing where to start can be tricky and delay your mental health day from commencing in the first place. Charmichael’s suggestion: Start with movement of some kind.
“I don’t think anybody ever regrets going to the gym,” she says lightly. Plus, the endorphin boost is pretty much guaranteed to make you feel better afterward, so there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
But you don’t have to do anything you don’t enjoy. Any type of movement works—consider walking, running, pilates, yoga, strength training, or HIIT workouts if that’s your thing.
A common thread I saw in the video diaries of content creators was getting outside in one way or another. This could mean going for a hike, laying in the sun (please wear SPF), having lunch outside, or just walking to your local market or coffee shop.
Simply being in the sunlight may just make you feel better, especially if you’ve spent the last few hours or the last day tucked away inside.
Make or get your favorite healthy food
Some people feel better crafting up a healthy homemade meal, while others despise cooking. Know yourself and what makes you happy, and go with that. If you find joy in ordering sushi and it makes you feel good at the moment (and afterward), then do your thing.
If you want to try a new recipe or make one of your classic DIY dishes, go for it. No matter what you cook or order, make sure it’s a meal that will make you feel better now and in a few hours. Here are some ideas from a nutritional psychiatrist.
Consider taking a cold shower
When the ice-cold water touches your skin, it also takes you out of any negative thought loops you may be having. “It can force you to be 100% in the moment,” Carmichael says.
But that’s not to discount a hot shower, either. “Warm temperatures can evoke relaxation,” she says. So it’s really up to you which option you choose. As a rule of thumb, go for the hot water first and finish with the cold for the most benefits if you're switching back and forth.
Connect with someone you care about
It can be difficult to decide if you should be social or secluded on your mental health day, and the best option will vary for each person. One universal tip Charmichael can suggest on this topic is to have a call list of people who you care about and care about you.
“Keep a list of five friends or family that are good supportive influences,” she says, and consider giving one of them a call or meeting up with them on your mental health day.
This can be helpful to scratch that itch for social connection without overextending yourself or spending time with the wrong person who may bring you down.
Ramp up the self-care
We often cover the topic of self-care on mindbodygreen and that’s because we truly see it as a beneficial practice, not a meaningless indulgence. This is even more essential on days when you need a little boost.
Whether it’s face masks, a deep house clean, or a good “everything shower,” engage in an activity that you know will make you feel fresh.
Keep your social media usage positive
Social media isn’t toxic for everyone, but the overuse of it can be. There’s no hard and fast rule saying you should go without your phone for the duration of your mental health day, but Charmichael recommends tailoring your usage to something positive.
Maybe going on Instagram makes you feel connected to your loved ones, or maybe it makes you wish you were spending summer in Europe like everyone else seems to be. Maybe Pinterest makes you feel inspired and motivated, or maybe it makes you feel self-conscious about your taste.
The moral of the story is this: You have control over your social media use, even if sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. On days when you’re struggling with your mental health, be intentional with where you choose to spend your time online. If it makes you feel worse, turn it off.
Journal, but only if you want to
Journaling might help some people empty out intrusive thoughts or tap into a creative side. If that’s the case, then journaling may be a good practice on days like this.
On the flip side, it can also make you feel unproductive if you can’t come up with content to put on the page or pressured to unravel trauma you’re not ready to deal with.
Remember that you don’t have to journal in the classic dear diary style. You can make up a story, write about your happiest memories, write about what you see or hear, etc. Feel free to save the deep personal work for a later date if you don’t feel like diving into it. Or, opt for another hobby that makes you feel relaxed and in touch with yourself.
Go to bed early if you can
After a long day of self care you may be able to fall asleep earlier than normal, so take advantage of that. Think of this as the icing on the cake. You’ve worked hard throughout the day to nurture a positive environment in your mind, so don’t let a late-nighter unravel your work if you can help it. These tips for falling asleep faster can help if you find yourself struggling.
Taking a day to tend to your mental health can be daunting if you don't know how to spend it. Start by making a list of things that make you happy, get some movement on your schedule, spend time outside, connect with people who lift you up, and remember that you aren't alone.
At the end of the day, choosing to dedicate any time to focus on your mental health is better than ignoring it. Do what brings you joy and peace, and remember that everyone has bad days, so you're not alone. If you find yourself in a recurrent loop of sadness or anxiety, though, you may want to consider talking to a therapist who can offer more support. Here, a few affordable therapy services to help you out.
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty & Health Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including skin care, women’s health, mental health, sustainability, social media trends, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends and innovations, women’s health research, brain health news, and plenty more.