Mental Health Days are Crucial to Our Well-Being. Why Do We Feel So Guilty When We Take Them?

Kathryn Dillon

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Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

“Self-care is giving the world the best of you, instead of what’s left of you.”—Katie Reed

Some people go through life on a slow burn, simmering away at a low, even temperature as they navigate their days.

Not me. I’m superwoman, blazing in glory for as long as I can, until eventually, inevitably, I crash headfirst into the wall of exhaustion that is my kryptonite.

It will come. It will always come, and usually, I can see the signs. The tingling nerves that foreshadow a fibromyalgia flare-up. The ever-shortening temper that signals an impending meltdown. The gnawing pit in my stomach that, without constant vigilance, can lead to a binge and purge episode.

Once I’m close, it’s almost impossible to stop myself. If I careen full-force into that wall, there’s nothing I can do but spend a day on the couch, recovering and recharging. I'm lucky in the sense that I can usually make my way through major obligations before it happens.

Usually.

Why is it so ridiculously hard to give ourselves a day off in the first place?

Whether we call them rest days or mental health days, most of us feel guilty when we take them.

We’re a culture that glorifies busy, and it’s just the way our corporate overlords like it. How else could they get us to willingly do the work of three people for one salary while they line their pockets with the profits?

We’re well-trained. Beyond the fact that we feel bad about taking them, mental health days are tricky because we can’t stand the quiet, because we’re constantly scanning, analyzing, absorbing information, seeing all the things around us that need to be done.

We’re accustomed to perpetual stimulation because our electronic devices have made us ADHD, and boredom is the new enemy.

When I run into that wall of exhaustion and am finally forced (kicking and screaming) into a day of rest, I feel like the couch is a ship, a safe haven. It keeps me afloat amidst the raging sea of emotions and tasks.

As long as I stay on it, everything’s fine — but once I leave its cozy comfort, my to-do list threatens to pull me under, to drown me in the dark, dank swells of life. So there I stay, pretending to be relaxing until the anxiety grows too great and I have to move.

The benefits of rest days

They allow us to recharge our batteries, and ultimately our productivity.

We’re absolutely no good to anyone else if we’re a blubbering mass of chronic pain or a quivering ball of anxiety. But the day after a mental health day, we’ll likely be refueled and ready to go.

At the very least, we’ll be well-rested. Anyone who’s suffered from insomnia knows how much easier it is to tackle the day after a good night’s sleep. The world looks far grimmer through sleep-deprived glasses.

They allow us to calm our minds and feel our boredom without trying to mitigate it.

Stress is a creativity killer. (So is depression, and chronic pain too.)

When we’re in fight or flight mode, we’re not equipped to be inspired. We’re just putting out fires.

My finest ideas don’t appear in times of heightened stress. On the contrary, they float into my perception during those rare, fleeting moments of quiet, when my mind has a chance to ease up rather than perpetuate the race to the finish line.

Remember when, before the deluge of information at our fingertips, we would just sit from time to time and let our minds wander?

We’ve become unaccustomed to quiet moments, fleeing the slightest hint of boredom like it’s a ferocious beast running behind us.

But what if that feeling we now perceive as boredom is actually our friend rather than our enemy?

Rest days are for unplugging if at all possible. Let’s set aside the phones, the computers, the television, and see where our thoughts take us.

They may prevent those of us who struggle with mental illness or chronic conditions from spiraling into a full-blown health issue

If I ignore the warning signs of a fibromyalgia flare-up, I could eventually be down for days, subsisting in a muscle relaxer dream state until the pain finally subsides. If I simply take a day to rest when I start to see the writing on the wall, I’m far more likely to recover quickly and be back in the office the following day.

Likewise, if we disregard rising feelings of anxiety or depression, in the interest of keeping pace at work or in our personal lives, we are setting ourselves up for a much larger issue than if we just allow ourselves time to sort through our feelings and ask ourselves what we need at that moment.

The slow burn

Ideally, I’ll someday train myself to be more of a slow-burn kind of person. It sounds nice, doesn’t it? Cruising along rather than traveling at breakneck speeds, tires screeching around the hairpin turns.

But such an adjustment will involve totally rewiring the way I think, the way I approach life. I can remind myself to put the brakes on from time to time, but a slower speed isn’t going to happen overnight.

It’s also going to involve re-setting expectations with the people around me. Behavioral changes can be difficult for those closest to us, even when they’re planned and beneficial.

If you're anything like me, the best thing we can do for ourselves in the meantime is to not only recognize I need a mental health day (before I’ve gone too far down the slippery slope) but to actually take it. No matter what.

If you're anything like me, the best thing we can do for ourselves in the meantime is to not only recognize we need a mental health day (before we've gone too far down the slippery slope) but to actually take it.

Because if we don’t, the cost will be far greater than just one missed day.

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under the trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” — John Lubbock

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH
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