Make Your Mental Health Days More Meaningful
Finding new ways to spend your days off with Dr. Caroline Leaf
If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that life can become overwhelming at times. When it feels like one big balancing act between your professional, home, and personal lives, it’s easy to become inundated with tasks as each stressor piles onto the next. Sometimes you just need a break — you know, a “mental health day.” Not a vacation, not time off to run errands, or to bounce between appointments, but a legitimate day off to nourish your spirit in the name of your mental health.
The Power of Taking a Pause
Stress has an uncanny way of toxically seeping across every aspect of life, spilling over onto your mental and physical health. Communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf tells rē•spin, “When an individual is in a toxic thinking state, the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and homocysteine can significantly affect the immune system, cardiovascular system, and neurological system.”
The unregulated stress response can run rampant in the body, from your cells to your brains, in turn affecting cognition, mood, and memory formation. Over the long-term, it can even make you more susceptible to future health issues and diseases. It impacts the way you think, feel, and make decisions, taking a massive toll on the interplay between your mental- and physical health.
Becoming more in-tune with your body is essential to becoming more aware of the physical and emotional warning signs that your body sends. These physical cues help to indicate that it is time to carve out some time for yourself. You can learn to identify the physical signs of emotional distress from heart palpitations, digestive issues, somatic aches and pains, depression, and even panic attacks. If you’ve suffered any of these physical manifestations of stress, know that this could be your body sending you a message that it’s time to tend to the internal you (versus the external).
rē•spin the Mental Health Day
The idea of a mental health day seems simple enough in theory. Take 24 hours from your daily routine to step back from the stressors of your daily routine: Sleep-in, do some yoga, and have a “treat yourself” moment to fix the imbalance that contributed to your accumulation of stress. A mental health day well spent is filled with activities that you personally find relaxing and help your mind to escape from the normative pressures — all the things you tell yourself you should be doing — whether imposed by the self, others, your job, etc.
Now, let’s rē•spin what a mental health day off looks like, diving deeper and looking inward at how to truly nourish your inner world and get to the bottom of what’s nagging at your peace of mind and mental health.
Mind Management Techniques
Dr. Leaf refers to “mind management” techniques as tools we can implement when we notice stress levels beginning to grow. You’ll know when it’s time for a mind management technique when you learn to recognize your body’s various cues that it’s time to “slow down.” As mentioned, all sorts of changes and circumstances can trigger the body’s stress response, which impacts your biochemistry, brain function, and even genetics. As Dr. Leaf says, “You are your mind, you are always using your mind, and your mind is always with you.” Learning to recognize and tend to mounting stress is paramount to your peace of mind, and can also impact future generations through the behaviors you model to them.
First, Dr. Leaf supports taking “thinker moments,” which are times in your day to let your mind wander and indulge in a daydream. “These moments help you rest and reboot the mind, balancing the energy levels in the brain for optimum mental and physical health,” she says. Thinker moments can last for a few minutes or a few hours and her personal method is to take a moment to stare out the window for a few seconds.
“You can go three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air, but you cannot go three seconds without thinking,” she says. Thus, understanding how your mind works (and making it a peaceful place) should be a top priority––it’s the one thing you truly cannot go a day without.
Self-regulation techniques, or learning to manage elevated stress levels to restore you to your baseline, are another form of mind management that Dr. Leaf recommends. She introduces a six-step de-stressing technique to help you work through issues that might come up on your mental health day.
First, focus on your breathing. Calm the brain down by taking a deep breath. Breathe in for 5 counts and out for 11, repeating the cycle three times for about 45 seconds. After you complete your breathwork, gather some awareness of the warning signals your body was sending you—perhaps via tense shoulders or pangs of anxiety. It’s okay to recognize and accept these signs; you do not need to suppress them or judge them.
Then take a moment to reflect on how you feel by asking, answering, and contemplating why you are feeling this way. Write down what exactly you feel and why to organize your thoughts and provide clear insight into what your mind and body are trying to communicate with you. Once you’ve finished, recheck all that you have written down to pinpoint any triggers and patterns in your thoughts.
Last, but not least, take action. Create a positive statement or affirmation in order to validate your feelings, or even to create a boundary to allow yourself the time and space necessary to process your feelings. This could lead back to a “thinker moment” to retreat from outside distractions in order to focus on your inner-world. Let your mind wander to calm yourself down in the moment and reset. This will be reflected in your thoughts.
Practicing Mind Management
As you find the methods that work best to nourish your mind, body, and soul, keep in mind that a mental health day is a valid form of self-care that is more beneficial than you might have previously imagined. Take care of your mental health the same way you tend to your physical health; both tout benefits including improved stress resiliency, peace of mind, moods, emotional intelligence, sleep, digestion, clarity, and a reduced risk of cognitive decline. (Not to mention, improved cardiovascular health and a stronger immune system.)
Each and every one of us is unique, so what you do to reduce stress on your mental health day might look different from what your neighbor does. However, this is normal. Dr. Leaf emphasizes that you cannot compare one mental health journey to another. The important thing is learning what works best for you, and giving yourself permission to practice your preferred techniques in the interest of mental health.