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How to Take a Mental Health Day Without Staying Home (And How to Decide If You Need One)

We all have those days, right? The ones when you feel like everything requires more effort than usual, when you feel exhausted before even starting your routine, when you just don't want to move. You go back and forth in your mind on whether to call out of work or skip your classes, mentally debating the consequences of taking the day off.

So how do you know when you should push through or give yourself a break?

Unfortunately, there is no “right” answer. You have to be the judge of your own capacities. But there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • How many “mental health” days have I already taken this week, month, year?
  • How many days off am I able to take? (If you're working, how many PTO days are you allotted? If you're a student, how many absences are included in your grade?)
  • How significant are my symptoms right now? Try rating this on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 = “I feel great” and 10 = “There is no way I can go to work/school today.” Again, you are the judge on what number in the scale determines “try to get moving” or “I need a self-care day.”
  • Do I have any immediate deadlines? If so, do I have time to take the day off?

In considering the answers to these questions, focus on the first answer that comes to mind. Don't spend too long trying to work out the best and worst case scenarios — that is likely to exacerbate your symptoms, rather than soothe them.

If you feel that you're able to proceed with your schedule as normal, reward yourself with something you enjoy to encourage positivity. Play upbeat songs on the ride to work, or grab a frozen yogurt in between classes. If you feel that your symptoms are overwhelming you, keep reading for strategies on how to improve your day without staying home.

Go for a walk/run/hike.

I recently shared a blog post about ways to relieve stress in 10 minutes or less. I discussed the importance of getting outside when you're feeling stressed or anxious and how being in nature improves your mental health. Use this opportunity to put it to the test.

Spend your morning outside. Walk around your neighborhood, or find a new running trail. Get your body moving, your blood flowing, and your mind relaxing. If you do this as your first activity on your day off, by lunchtime, you will have already been productive.

Be mindful of your body and your surroundings.

Notice how you feel. Are you regulating your breathing while you're walking/running/hiking? Are your muscles becoming sore as you're exercising them? Are you allowing your thoughts to wander or are you focusing on being in the moment? (Note: if you're worrying about things at home, school, or work, give yourself permission to set those things aside. Taking the day off means you're also taking a break from your stressors!)

Notice what's around. Are there other people out walking their dogs? Do you hear children laughing on a playground? What color are the leaves on the trees you're passing by? Do you smell an ocean breeze or autumn air? Are you strolling through a quiet path in a park or walking down a busy city street?

Enjoy a visit to the spa.

What better way to de-stress than to schedule a 1-hour massage? Before you start thinking that you shouldn't, consider the physical and mental health benefit of easing your muscles and mind. There's a reason people enjoy massages: they're relaxing. They work out the knots in your shoulders and back, and they allow you to temporarily forget about anything that is stuck in your head.

If massages aren't your thing, consider booking a facial or a pedicure. Men, if you're reading this and thinking, well this one is really for women, I'll skip this, you're wrong. This one is for you, too — perhaps even more so if you're less likely to do it!

Take your ‘current reads’ outside.

Sure, you could stay home and sit on your couch while you read the book you’ve been in the middle of for months. But if that's what you normally do, try to switch it up.

Changing your scenery for the day can offer a new perspective.

Find a park bench, a tree, a gazebo, a swing, anywhere you can sit and enjoy the fresh air. This doesn't only apply to tangible books — plug in your headphones and listen to an audiobook or podcast while you walk. It'll get you moving and thinking about something other than what's usually on your mind.

You can take this a step further by bringing a notebook with you. Write down 3 quotes that resonated with you from the section you read/listened to. Write down 3 thoughts you had while reading/listening about the content. Write down 3 emotions you experienced while reading/listening. Challenge yourself to fully absorb the content.

Complete a photo series.

A great way to spend time outdoors and be mindful of your surroundings is to get up close. You don't need to have an expensive camera for this — use whatever you have, even your phone. You can find photo series prompts online (for example: 10 photos of leaves, 5 photos of people, 15 photos of something blue) to help give you inspiration, or you can create your own ideas.

Consider your angle. If you usually shoot photos at eye-level, try laying down in the grass and pointing your lens up. Or experiment with a flat-lay, arranging your objects in the frame. You may also try capturing the scene at hip-level and noticing how this changes your composition.

Consider your subject. If you typically focus on human subjects, take a few shots of nature. If your gallery consists of flowers or plant life, add some portraits to mix it up. Modify your focus, as well. Compare what the same composition looks like when you focus on the foreground versus the background.

Eat at a favorite restaurant.

I'm sure you’ve heard people say, “What you put into your body is what you get out.” When you eat fast-food, you probably don't feel the healthiest. While it may be quick and easy for those days when you're on-the-go, take an hour of your mental health day to enjoy your favorite foods.

Today is about slowing down and giving your mind and body a break.

Choose to be outdoors if the restaurant has outside seating, and appreciate the fresh air while you have your meal.

Socialize.

Call a friend or family member to check what their schedule is for the day. They may work nontraditional hours (i.e., not 9am-5pm) or have the day off. Invite them to join you for one of these activities. Ask if they'd be interested in getting lunch with you or taking a walk together.

When you're having a difficult time emotionally, the best thing you can do is get support.

If your friends or family are not available, visiting public places will reduce isolation. Drive to your nearest coffee shop and find a comfortable seat. Head to a local farmer's market and look at the different produce. The important thing is to be around others, whether they are your closest friends, or complete strangers. Being in the presence of other people, even for a short period of time, will feel more worthwhile.

 

Throughout all of these strategies, it is important that you be easy on yourself. If you're feeling overwhelmed enough to take a day off, don't make it harder by feeling guilty and judging your decision. We all need mental health days sometimes — it’s normal.

Give yourself permission to focus on what makes you happy and do activities that you enjoy. You will come back to your job or classes feeling refreshed and better able to concentrate on your tasks.

What are your favorite things to do when you take a mental health day? Let us know!

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