There’s a point when I just snap. Maybe it’s because of exhaustion from parenting two little boys in an ongoing pandemic. (Gotta love school quarantines with no backup childcare!) Or maybe it’s because I overschedule myself week after week. But it happens reliably: I’ll be chugging along fine, and then suddenly, sitting at my computer on a Tuesday at 10 a.m., I’ll find myself on the edge of a panic attack.
When that happens, you can say I’m running on an empty tank. I have to figuratively pull over and take a mental health day. It’s basically an emotional emergency. But I’m learning there might be a better way: By scheduling periodic self-care days in advance, I replenish my energy when I’m at half-tank and find I never run out of gas. “Self-care is essential for prevention. Humans need breaks. It’s better to take time off and recharge before a complete collapse,” says Natalie Dattilo, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, who recommends planning one every six to eight weeks.
You can take this time to rest (or get one or two non-work things done), which will mitigate the effects of daily stress. But you also benefit from simply anticipating your preplanned day. “Studies show that having something to look forward to—or knowing there’s a light at the end of the tunnel—can help you through a rough patch,” says Dr. Dattilo. Putting these on your cal also gives you a sense of control, and having autonomy buffers burnout and overwork, she adds.
What’s helpful, I’ve found, is being intentional with how I plan to spend these days off. Otherwise, I’m tempted to go after it and tackle all the tasks on my to-do list. (And truly miserable stuff at that, like going to the DMV.) Hyper-productivity on your mental health days kind of defeats the purpose, FYI!
So slow it down. Completely fine to tick off a task hanging over your head if you know it’ll take a load off. But plan something nice for yourself after, like lunch at a bistro you’ve been dying to try. I give myself permission to pursue whatever will renew my energy for the days ahead, like a long solo hike, or vegging out with true crime docs.
Ready to refresh? If you have PTO, you can ask for these days as one-offs or a batch, depending on what’s better for your sched (and will help you stick to the plan). Call them mental health or personal days, whatever feels comfortable. There’s no need to provide details to your boss, says Dr. Dattilo. No PTO? If possible, when you schedule days away from work, regularly commit a few to self-care.
Now that I’m used to setting aside this time, I haven’t had an it’s-an-emergency freak-out in quite a while. Emotionally, I’ve felt so much lighter. And guess what? My work still gets done. Win-win.