Being "busy" has become something of a status symbol. A study from the Journal of Consumer Research shows the social value placed on being a constant doer has actually caused people to prioritize seeming busy over true productivity, which stems from a more balanced approach.
The more you’re doing, the more time you must be spending being productive in your job, your relationships, and your personal development, right?
The misconception doesn’t just make us less fruitful in the long run, it also has “profound” negative impacts on our physical and mental health, says Mary Stratos, PA-C , a physician assistant at Parsley Health.
Overbooking your schedule (yes, even with Zoom meetings) taxes your body, creating a physiological response to what it deems as a threat to your wellbeing. Thinking it’s under siege, your brain signals the release of more cortisol , adrenaline, and other substances that cause inflammation at the cellular level, Stratos explains. Elevated inflammation creates a cascade effect of hormonal imbalances that compromise some of our body’s most basic processes like immunity and metabolism.
Active stress management should be as important a part of your wellness practice as exercise, restful sleep , and a healthy diet, according to Stratos. But it’s usually the first thing to be nixed in a time crunch.
“I find that many of my members have an increased stress burden but no active practice to help them manage and mitigate this stress load. Having time to pause, reflect, and implement some restorative practices can have profound effects on our physical and mental health,” she said.
When you’re stressed, your body produces excess amounts of cortisol, making our body less able to regulate inflammation. The result is a dramatically compounded long-term propensity for chronic diseases like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, and dementia, Stratos says.
Keeping ourselves healthy is more important than ever right now given the threat of coronavirus. Because high cortisol levels triggered by stress impact inflammation regulation, your immune system becomes more fragile, potentially making you more susceptible to viral infections like COVID-19, according to Stratos.
“By intentionally reducing our cortisol levels through stress management, by nourishing our mental health and by using tools to shift our bodies out of stress physiology, we’re making dramatic changes that give us a competitive edge towards improving things like immunity, sleep, energy and focus, weight management, hormone regulation, and brain health,” she said.
Taking a ‘mental health day’ has become a widely used moniker for times when we lack motivation to go into the office. But they’re not a sign of laziness and there can be many reasons you might need a mental health day off—not just work-related. When they’re taken thoughtfully, Stratos says, they’re actually a highly effective tool to reduce chronic stress and restore waning physical and mental health.
“The intention of the day is to make space for specific restorative activities that help you feel more restful, balanced, and recharged,” Stratos said. (Read: It’s not just a day to Netflix and chill.)
Occasional fatigue isn’t the best indicator you’re in need of a mental health day, nor is a morning where the snooze button sounds better than your nine o’clock meeting. Stratos says to look instead for signs your body isn’t running quite right. Things like sleep difficulties , hormonal imbalances, digestive issues, chronic exhaustion , weight gain, or difficulty concentrating are often signs that stress is having a disruptive physiological impact. And if you know—you know. There is no shame in taking time out to care for your emotional wellbeing.
Intentionality is key to creating a mental health day that reduces physiological stress. This starts with choosing the right day, Stratos says. Block off the date in your calendar ahead of time so you don’t have to cancel or reschedule commitments which might cause more stress.
Stratos recommends reflecting on what brings you uninhibited joy. She often asks clients what the six-year-old version of themselves would want to do for fun. “When we can be present in the moment and participate in things that are playful, it can be deeply restorative,” she says, suggesting art, dancing, or getting outside as examples.
Having a game plan will also help you avoid some of the habitual behaviors you turn to when idle like scrolling through social media or reaching for a sugary snack. These pitfalls can hijack a mental health day off, rendering it ineffectual in alleviating stress.
“Be mindful of traps that may seem restful but can actually leave you feeling mentally or physically drained,” Stratos says. “They’re common patterns that happen when we feel overwhelmed, but rarely provide the sustained relief we’re looking for.”
A mental health day off is not a way to block off your schedule for errands, Stratos cautions. It should be used specifically for “activities that are genuinely restorative, mentally and physically,” she says.
Do the things that bring a true pause to your day, and the activities you’d rarely make time for otherwise. Stratos says this looks different for everyone, but suggests things like a long walk in nature, curling up with a book, taking a yoga class, or drawing a bath.
“Do whatever feels refreshing for you,” she says.
While the occasional mental health day off is important, it’s not a long-term solution for managing stress. Stratos recommends instead thinking of it like “hygiene for the mind,” something that “really should be done every day.”
Your mental health day can serve as a great starting point for a longer-term stress management practice. A daily practice doesn’t have to mean devoting hours to mental health care. Start with scheduling 10 minutes into your planner, and trying incorporating it into activities you’re already doing. Stratos suggests breathing exercises during your commute, a digital detox during your lunch break, or creating a gratitude list over dinner with your partner.
Prioritizing these small activities will lead to measurable improvement in your physical health. According to the Journal of American Medical Association, 80 percent of conditions that primary care physicians spot in a given day are caused by or exacerbated by stress.
“My motto is,” says Stratos, “simple steps, big payoffs.”
Carly Graf is a San Francisco-based journalist with experience covering health, fitness, social justice, and human rights. She graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism with a graduate degree and a focus in social justice reporting. Her work has been published in the Chicago Reader, YES!, South Side Weekly, and Social Justice News Nexus, Outside Magazine, and Shape. When she's not reporting, she's almost certainly running or playing in the mountains with her dog, Chaco (yes, like the sandal).