I’ve always been a dedicated student. If I ever asked my mom to stay home from school, she didn’t question it because she knew that if I could be in class, staying on schedule, I would be. In high school, the amount of work I would miss in one day was rarely enough to justify sleeping in, or taking a night off and finishing my homework the next day, even if I was feeling under the weather, mentally, emotionally, or physically. But I learned how to weigh those options and decide for myself when it was truly time to take a break.
Many of the biggest challenges of our generation arise from the immense pressure to succeed in a world of instant gratification and endless activity. It’s a culture that expects speed and quality simultaneously. While mental health has always been an important issue, now more than ever, it’s crucial that we understand and make known the need to slow things down every once in a while to re-center and take care of ourselves.
For instance, there was one week this past semester that was absolutely crammed with deadlines. I thought I could handle it at first, but it was extremely draining on my mental fuel-tank to get it all done. The day after I had completed all my assignments (in all honesty, I should have asked for some extensions), I took a mental health day to remember what life outside of academia is truly like. Below are some times that you can take some time to yourself without a hint of remorse.
1) You’re sick
This is practically a given, but if physical and mental rest will improve your health, then take a break! Go see a doctor if you can or feel that you need to. Chances are, continuing to work will prolong your illness and make you less productive in the long run. Taking a sick day should be free from guilt, but remember to treat your body well on a daily basis to minimize sicknesses.
2) Your stress is affecting your performance
Often times, a slip in performance, whether it’s schoolwork or tasks given to you by an employer, is a sign that you have too much on your plate. Remember, “your plate” doesn’t just mean your professional responsibilities, but it’s also maintaining relationships, taking care of your body, doing things you enjoy, and tending to side hustles and other commitments. When you list it all out, you’ll probably realize just how much is occupying your mind and why your work could be suffering.
College students are one of the largest age groups affected by stress, and I have definitely witnessed the impact of this firsthand. There have been so many times that my friends will get a bad grade and have a meltdown, saying that they tried their best, and it still wasn’t enough to do well. This spirals into self-doubt about being “dumb” or incapable of succeeding in their intended field. That’s when I say, “you tried your best in the circumstance you were in. Do you think you could have done better if you didn’t have as much going on?” If they say “yeah definitely,” that reminds them that their grades don’t always reflect their potential and opens the door for them to do something about their stress levels.
Noticing a dip in your performance can mean that you need to reboot your organization or even hand-off one or more of your responsibilities to somebody else. But it's hard to know what action to take when your mind is clouded, unfocused, and stressed.
Take a break, free from guilt. Spend at least some of your mental health day not thinking about your responsibilities and relaxing. Then get to the hard task of reorienting yourself and planning what you need to do differently.
3) Your stress is affecting your personal life
This one is always a big indicator for me. If I snap at my family or parnter, they’ll often come back with the “is there anything else going on?” That’s when you pout for a second, apologize to the collateral damage of your stress, and try to figure out what’s fueling your mood.
For other people, the red flag could be that you are regularly skipping out on activities you love to get more work done. This doesn’t apply when you’re approaching a big deadline, but when your work-life in-balance is becoming a pattern.
If you feel like your job or schoolwork is consuming your brain power or emotions 24/7, it’s time to take a break. Even just one mental health day could be enough to help you reset. According to one study, “after a well-used mental health day, you should feel 30 to 50 percent better.” If not, you can use that day to make a new game plan.
4) You no longer have a clear view of your goals
The expression I use when I feel like I’m constantly putting out new fires and never actually doing the work I thought I’d be doing, is that “I’m chasing my tail.” I feel this way right now actually, since I started studying abroad in Argentina. Transitions are always this way, but if it seems that your work life is dictated by shifting deadlines and priorities, it can be hard to remember what you’re working towards.
Maybe what you’re doing isn’t what you expected, or, to quote Justin Bieber, “it’s like you’re stuck on a treadmill, running in the same place.” Either way, put it all aside for a moment, a day, or even longer, to give yourself time to clear your head. Taking this time should be free from guilt, and hopefully, taking a mental health day, will help you reestablish your focus and your passion. Replacing stress with excitement is always beneficial to your mental health and to the work you produce. This is a lot easier to do when you have your goals in mind.
I’m also a huge advocate of open communication in the workplace. Oftentimes, your boss or professor is the perfect person to talk to about your doubts, or what you’re hoping to achieve. If they know about the challenges you’re experiencing, it’s easier for them to support you in whatever way they can.
If that’s not the culture of your environment, seek out the support of HR or the department head. By reaching out, you’ll be helping the company/school do better by their employees/students.
5) You haven’t taken time for yourself in a while
Like I said at the beginning, I’ve never been one to skip classes on the reg. But spring semester of my freshman year of college, I took an eight a.m. course on the history of the modern middle east. It was an amazing class, and I always left the lecture feeling like a global citizen.
Two-thirds of the way through the semester, I woke up to my alarm, texted my friend who was in the class that I would need the notes, emailed my professor that I wouldn’t be there, and went back to sleep for another two hours. I had no reason to choose this day in particular, and that class was the only one I skipped without cause that whole school year, but I didn’t think twice. I knew what I’d be missing, and I knew I could make it up, and I had already gained the trust of my professor.
Those two hours of sleep were really rewarding, and it felt so good to wake up and just say, nope, not today (Arya Stark anyone?). College students skip out on sleep far too often, and giving back to yourself in this regard is highly recommended. Being well rested is better for your health, and productivity! Don’t “skip” often, or you will lose the trust and respect of your peers and superiors, but I’m telling you it feels great to treat yourself every once in a while.
The bottom line is that we all strive to be driven, accomplished, and valued individuals in our fields. As long as we are true to that overarching goal, and aren’t abusing any trust our superiors grant us, we need to listen to ourselves free from guilt.
This guilt that I keep mentioning is a result of the pressures of a society that is driven by money and power, instead of the quality of life for individuals. Because of this focus, caring for yourself may often be perceived as less important than endlessly pursuing the goal of the company you work for. However, it’s our duty to ourselves and each other to reclaim the importance of self care.
I’m the girl who ends up laying on the floor wailing whenever she has to write an essay. I know that about myself, and I know that common place frustration, whatever that looks like for you is not necessarily justification to take a day off. Simultaneously, I am also the girl who has sent midnight emails to professors confessing that I am mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually (all have happened) unable to come to class because of something going on in my life, short term or long term.
Whether the break you need is a night off to go out with some friends, or if it’s a larger detour to address any challenges you might be facing, don’t put it off. Face it before the issue piles onto itself even more. Lean on others to help you when you’re making a change, but count on yourself to be your own biggest supporter. Give yourself a pat on the back for the hard work you do, and don’t skip out on the self-care. Remind your friends to do the same, and create a community of support you want to live in.