When and How to Take a Mental Health Break

Amaan Akhtar gives some calming advice on when, how and why to take a break now and again. He emphasises our high-pressure, ultra-efficient lives, and how these mean that we often neglect our mental health. He recommends taking the odd day off and making sure you schedule half an hour a day to dedicate to something you enjoy.

Growing up in an environment dominated by a workaholic culture made me realise that we always have high expectations. We expect ourselves to always focus our time on things that are productive and useful. We expect ourselves to constantly strive for success, both in our professional and personal lives. We expect ourselves to maintain physical fitness and opt for healthy lifestyle choices. Yet, many of us don’t expect ourselves to keep our mind and wellbeing in a healthy state.

Instead, it gets nudged to the side again and again, as we finish our prioritised tasks and projects, eliminating the stressors of the day for now. Yet when we don’t finish our workload for that particular day – those stressors increase tenfold and our mind suffers for it.

On top of this, when we don’t meet the criteria of our expectations in those other areas of our life, the stress hormone cortisol runs rampant through our body. It heightens our sense of crippling anxiety, fear and loathing, which then builds in our head for the entire day, week, or even a month. While we do all we can to tackle the stress by accomplishing that goal before the sun rises the following day, sometimes we need to take a step back and assess our headspace. We must ask ourselves why we are so worked up about that particular deadline, or that dreaded appointment or meeting. Because, truthfully, most things in life don’t matter as much as we think they do. 

Our culture has conditioned us to focus on efficiency and having that competitive edge in the workplace, but, realistically, this idea evokes a thunderous cloud of misery and frustration over our heads. We keep neglecting our own wellbeing and state of mind, which unfortunately allows mental illnesses to seep in and develop.

This is why you should start considering a mental health break. Life can ultimately be a pain in the ass: where it can be a joyful adventure full of wonder and opportunity, but at times also relentless and unforgiving, so, we need to make time to recharge ourselves, especially when our life becomes draining and makes us emotionally/mentally drained.

No matter what anyone else thinks, this is a legitimate reason to take a day off – an equivalent to being physically ill with the cold or flu. 

It is imperative for us to schedule special time to unwind and de-stress as often as is necessary. While most people are in tune with themselves and understand when they need to relax and have fun, sometimes we struggle to see the signs. So, here is a little checklist to help you assess whether you need that long overdue break:

·       You dread the thought of going to work/studying

·       You sense that your mental health will impair your work performance

·       You have begun scheduling professional appointments regarding your mental health

·       You struggle to make the trip to your workplace/study space

·       You’re scared of taking a day off because you feel that it is not productive

If you have experienced one of these things recently, then maybe consider taking it easy for a bit. It does not have to be a drastic week-long vacation (unless you need that much time), but maybe a day, a weekend or even just the odd 30 minutes here and there. Ultimately, it is about asking yourself whether you think you will do a good job, feel better or worse if you go in, and really evaluating if you need to be working/studying today.   

After evaluating whether your mind needs this vacation, the next issue is getting the time off. Although there remains an underlying stigma towards mental illness, it can only best be tackled by being honest and open about it. If you’re in a workplace, it may be worth speaking to your boss about the matter personally by sending an email to discuss the issue in private. Now that mental illness is considered a disability in the Equality Act 2010, mental health issues are a valid reason to request time off work. However, if there is still a problem, it is possible to raise the issue with the HR department as well. The same circumstances are also valid for students at university, so always speak to the appropriate member of staff to sort the issue out.

In terms of how you choose to spend your break - that is entirely up to you. You can be proactive about treating your mental health, by considering a change of scenery – enjoy the wonders of nature and explore the outdoors or treat yourself to a luxurious spa day. Do some retail therapy and buy something you’ve always wanted. Plan an activity to do and maybe invite someone to join in on the fun. Whether you decide to try a yoga class/routine at home, a guided meditation, or even just spend time on the couch all day and relax by watching your favourite movie or TV show; just make sure it is something you enjoy. The only rules here are to get a head start by planning your break in advance, and making sure you’re not interrupted by anything once it begins. This is your personal time, and nothing should spoil that.      

Once you get used to these kinds of mind breaks, consider sprinkling them throughout your usual weekly routine. Incorporate relaxation into your daily life by spending at least half an hour a day doing something you love and enjoy. And if you end up stuck at your desk/workplace for the majority of the week, there are other ways to find a break: check out this website, which provides weekly emails for practical and engaging work strategies that create mini mental health breaks throughout your day. 

Hopefully by taking such a break, the benefits will be clear – you will come back to work fully refreshed with a clear head, renewed inspiration, and perhaps a change in perspective. By taking the time to be mindful again, we can once more appreciate the beauty and wonderful experiences that come with it.