by Liberty Stembridge, Health Columnist
Published in Health on 2nd October, 2018
Over the past few decades, awareness of mental health issues and the importance of maintaining your mental health has risen exponentially. Every day new research comes out showing the toll that modern living is having on the mental health of everyday people, especially young people. Risk factors such as pressure to succeed and perform from work and school, unhealthy diets, substance abuse and an increase in the use of technology and social media are all contributing to a growing mental health crisis. With many people suffering from common mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression, or finding themselves burning out on a regular basis from chronic stress, it's important that we learn how to actually relax and take care of our mental state.
Luckily the idea of "taking a mental health day" is becoming more accepted, with some schools and workplaces now taking it as a valid reason to take time off. Unfortunately, not all of us know how to make the best of a mental health day and while it will differ from person to person - here are some key features that every mental health day should include.
Relaxing is a key component of any mental health day - but what does it mean to actually relax. You might think you're relaxing when you sit in front of a movie with a glass of wine, but chances are you're not as relaxed as you think. The wine might give you a false perception of being relaxed, but the sugar from the alcohol and the stimulation from the movie ultimately leaves you a lot more amped up. To really understand what being relaxed means, we have to look at what it means to be stressed. When we're stressed, our nervous system gets aroused, we experience tension, we're more alert and react more quickly. This response is great for if you're in danger or need to think and react quickly in a situation, but unfortunately our brains aren't that great at distinguishing between a life-threatening situation and having to do a presentation at work. As such, we often spend a great deal of our time stressed out and highly stimulated, and can't recognize what being relaxed feels like anymore.
Relaxation is the opposite to stress. It's a state in which our nervous system slows down, tension that has built up is released and our body starts to function more efficiently, but also at a more leisurely pace. When we move from a state of stress into a state of relaxation, our body stops delegating all of its energy towards the most vital bodily functions and starts operating how it should be. Our digestive function improves, and we find it easier to think things through rationally and be more positive. Our muscles loosen up and it's easy to stretch, run and feel good.
True, sustained relaxation isn't easy to attain from one mental health day, which is why it's important to practice it every day - but that's not to say that you can't relax on your mental health day. The key is to try and actively relax, which may sound like an oxymoron, but it's not. When our default state is stress, we need to go out of our way to get our bodies to chill out, which is why practices such as meditation, exercise, yoga and clean eating are so important.
As a general rule - screens should be avoided on a mental health day. It's estimated that the average American spends more time on screens than they do outside, which is pretty disturbing when you think about it. Our brains evolved over millions of years to live in nature, and the replacement of time outside with screen time can be very damaging. This is not to say that all technology is bad or that you should throw out your phone, but we do need to be more wary about how we use technology. The blue light that comes from our screens is very stimulating to the brain, which can increase stress levels and keep us awake at night, causing disturbed sleep. Add to that the fact that most of the websites or apps you visit on a regular basis are designed to keep your brain stimulated and comparing yourself to others, it's easy to see why taking a break from screens is so important for a mental health day.
Removing screens isn't enough though, actually getting outside is equally as important, preferably somewhere peaceful and in nature. More and more evidence is showing the benefits both physically and mentally of being in nature such as improving mood, improving confidence and reducing feelings of stress and anger. Many people report that spending time outside helps them to regain some perspective on life and take a step back from their problems. So if at all possible, get outside!
Eating well is key to a mental health day - filling your body up with nutritious food that truly benefits you will help not only your body, but also your brain. The term "feed your soul" has never been more appropriate, because that is essentially what you are doing. It doesn't have to be all kale salads and green tea either. There's an abundance of fun and deceptively healthy recipes out there, from Buddha bowls to homemade pizza, you decide what looks like the most fun and get about making yourself some delicious, nutritious food. Your body and your mind will thank you. Plus, if you're the kind of person that really enjoys baking, spend some time doing that. You don't have to limit yourself to cake or other not-so-healthy baking staples. Bread, fruit cobblers and pies are all healthier baking alternatives.
Your mental health day actually starts the night before, with your sleep. If you're finding that your sleep is very disturbed, that's okay - it's all the more proof that you need a mental health day. With our modern, hectic and busy lives it's easy to lose track of how much sleep we're getting and forget how important proper rest is. Use your mental health day's to re-connect with yourself and figure out if you're lacking in sleep, and how you can make up for that or adjust your lifestyle. If you feel it's needed, take a nap (just try to aim for less than three hours, since any longer can really disrupt your sleep cycle).
A good, restorative dose of sleep can help to boost your immune system, balance your hormones, balance the chemicals in your brain (especially important if you're struggling with a mental illness) and regulate your metabolism.
Chances are, if you're taking a mental health day, you've got some residual stress hanging around. Whether it be from work, school, a strained relationship, money problems, sickness or whatever else - residual stress is killer. It permeates all of our actions throughout the day and can tank a mental health day. It's totally normal and natural to have your stress affect your day, but you should be working to combat it, and there are a few key practices that can help.
Meditation is the wonder drug to combat stress, and it's completely free. If you've never meditated before, it can be tricky to start off with, so aim for 5-10 minutes, and if you find it difficult, don't worry, it takes some practice. Essentially, all meditation entails is re-centering your focus on the present moment. This might sound simple, but you might be surprised by how little attention we pay to what's going on in the now. A meditation practice where you truly find yourself in "the zone" can help to drastically reduce stress and balance out your body both mentally and physically. There are numerous health benefits of meditation such as reducing stress, controlling anxiety, enhancing self-awareness and compassion, fighting addiction, controlling appetite and increasing mood-boosting neurotransmitters like serotonin (aka happy hormones).
Alongside meditation, exercise is at the top of the list for removing residual stress. It's well-known that exercise produces endorphins, which have a variety of beneficial effects in the body. It's been shown that even just five minutes of exercise can actually stimulate the area of the brain that controls anxiety and stress.
Write It Out
Sometimes it can be really difficult to sit down and relax or meditate when you still have a million thoughts buzzing around in your brain, everyone has those days. If this is happening to you, try writing it out. It doesn't have to be structured or talk about anything in specific, you can simply brain-dump whatever it is that's currently swirling around in your mind, and preventing you from finding some peace and quiet.
As mentioned above, movement is a key part of a mental health day. You might be thinking that on the one day you get a break from the constant cycle of working non-stop that exercise is the last thing you should be doing, but think again. Exercise releases endorphins, which are essentially your brains alternative to antidepressants. They make you happy, while also chilling you out. It's not just the chemicals released either. Exercise also helps you to process and release negative emotions, which is why you'll so often see or hear of people going on runs or boxing to deal with their anger or sadness. Exercise gives us a physical release for stress, tension and built up emotion in the body. Once we've released that tension, we often find that our mental health improves drastically, as we're no longer having to sustain all of this pent up energy.
How often do you go all out to treat and pamper yourself. Probably not often enough, right? Pampering yourself can be an excellent way to reduce stress, boost self-esteem and restore some of those long-lost feelings of autonomy and empowerment that got swept away by the cycle of working and sleeping. Pampering doesn't need to be bubble baths and glasses of wine, (although it can be) for many people a true pamper session doesn't look anything like that, they just think it should. A true decent pamper session should be some time set aside where you get to focus entirely on making yourself feel good. That could be going for a bath and treating yourself with massages or fancy exfoliants - or it could be a walk in a park, taking photos and saying hello to passing dogs. What you enjoy most is totally up to you. The aim of the game is to spend some time doing exactly what you want, for no other reason than it makes you feel good.
It's tricky to deal with our emotions when we're living a busy life. Oftentimes events happen in our lives that trigger a painful emotional response, such as a breakup or death in the family, but we simply don't have the time to deal with it because of our schedules. As such, when we take the time to step back and have a mental health day, it's common for these emotions to come up. In fact, it's an excellent thing. There's no one right way to deal with your emotions, but having a plan of action for when they do can be very helpful. Whether it be a friend to talk to, a therapist or simply just some time set aside to journal and get it all out - make sure you can anticipate and deal with any emotions that come up. It's all part of the process.