Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW
You may have heard the term before, but what exactly are mental health days? Mental health days are: “a day that an employee takes off from work in order to relieve stress or renew vitality”. (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mental%20health%20day) Importantly, you do not need to have a diagnosed mental health condition to take a mental health day. There are so many legitimate reasons that warrant a mental health day, from work stress to emotionally difficult life events. Mental health days are important for everyone because no matter what job you work, there are going to be times when you will not have the mental or emotional capacity to make it through the day. It is important that we know WHEN to take a mental health day and HOW to use it to actually regulate, de-stress, and advocate for our needs.
Let’s start with the “when” part of this question. This past week, I needed to take a mental health day. I knew I needed one because I started to have a lower tolerance during the past two weeks for different stressors in my personal and professional life. By the time Wednesday rolled around last week, I knew I needed a mental health day. Each day that week I had a bad attitude, no matter what time I went to bed. I was tired all day, and I had this level of dread to start my work day. Now, I am pretty privileged with my job situation because I typically really enjoy working with my clients. I would also like to think I am pretty good about compartmentalizing my stress during therapy sessions. Yet, on Wednesday, even though my clients did not change, I had this extra level of grumpiness and a lower capacity for the push back I can usually weather in my sessions. I also struggled to regulate outside of my sessions to the point where I was on the verge of tears when I was not in a session. Thankfully, I had a check in with my supervisor about my mood, and we realized the need for a mental health day on Friday. After I checked in with her, I immediately felt a weight off my shoulders because I knew I only had to make it through the next day and a half, and then I would have a day off. What’s more, someone else knew that I was struggling, and that helped immeasurably. This is where the WHEN for mental health days are important. These days are saved for you to take care of yourself when you need to relieve stress. How do you know you have to relieve stress? Checking in with your needs weekly is a very important place to start… Knowing what your normal level of tolerance is, how much you have the capacity for, and when you need to take a full day to re-center. For me, I know I need a mental health day when I am grumpy, snappy, have a hard time making it through each hour of the day, struggle to regulate between sessions, and only have the energy to lay down at the end of the day.
Questions to ask yourself: What is my normal capacity? How does my body feel when I am out of my window of tolerance? What emotions come up when I am out of my window of tolerance? How much time do I need to reset?
For the Friday I took off, I spent it taking a hike I love to take, going to the pool, and turning off my notifications for work. I ignored notifications for emails and texts, and I intentionally did not open any of the apps on my phone for work. I also did not get on social media. Basically, I tried to stay off my phone for the day. The reason I did the above things is because I like to know what to expect. If I did a new hike or did something out of my comfort zone, it would not help me regulate. New activities or new experiences don’t support my mental health when I am out of my window of tolerance. However, sitting in my apartment is also not super helpful because I will be more tempted to check my email, work on notes, and overall feel antsy to “do something”. I turned off notifications because I know if I get a notification, my brain will refocus on work, what I will answer that person, and think about the next week. NOT helpful for my brain during a mental health day! Use the mental health day to reset, not to get further out of your window of tolerance.
This is the beginning of the answer to the HOW part of your mental health day. It is just as important as knowing when you need to take a mental health day. If you are not doing activities that help decrease the stress response you are in, it will not be a very helpful mental health day. Another HOW that I want to include is to figure out how many days you need to de-stress. I took my mental health day on a Friday because I knew that I needed a break and a few days to take my mind off of work, so I scheduled it before the weekend, knowing I would have two more days afterwards to get back in my window of tolerance.
Questions to ask yourself: What helps me destress? Do I need to turn off work intentionally? (I would highly recommend you start there) Do I need to plan activities that I love? Or do I need to have no schedule? Can I be with people? Or do I need to be by myself? Do I need to schedule a mental health day before a couple of days off?
Mental health days are a tool put in place to support your mental health needs. They are not just to your benefit, but your employer’s as well. Do you have them at your place of work? Are they encouraged? How can we create a better work environment to take mental health days when needed?
Resources you may find helpful: