When I’m feeling overwhelmed, I go to the supermarket. Just 20 minutes of pushing a trolley along the aisles of the Big Sainsbury’s acts as my mental health break: like hitting ‘refresh’ on my emotions. While to some, this would seem like a mind-numbingly dull activity, for me it’s a welcome – and often necessary – distraction from work, relationships, health or, you know, the usual all-consuming emotions that come from trying to balance life in a society that’s always ‘on’.
These days, you hear the terms ‘burnout’ and ‘stress’ practically as often as you hear ‘hello’. “In a world that can be busy, challenging, complex and seriously hard to navigate, it’s not surprising that sometimes we don’t feel okay from time to time. But recent research [by YouGov] revealed 74% of people have felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope,” says Jodie Cariss, founder and CEO of Self Space, the world’s first on-demand mental health service on the high street, adding there has been in increase in people coming to the company with concerns about burnout in recent years.
While there’s no quick fix, there are small tweaks we can make to our everyday routines to help provide moments of rest and respite, no matter what you’re experiencing. Enter the mental health break.
According to experts at the meditation platform Calm, mental health breaks are “about creating a space — both physical and emotional — that allows you to step back from your regular routines, commitments, and responsibilities to focus on restoring your mental wellbeing.”
Not everyone will find browsing the 17 different pasta shapes on aisle 10 particularly relaxing, and that’s kind of the point: mental health breaks are deeply personal. What works for me, won’t work for everyone else. It’s about finding an activity that works to help you switch off.
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“Balance is key to feeling stable and energised, so without breaks, it can be hard to stave off burnout,” adds Cariss. “A short break is really beneficial for our mental health. If you are stressed or stretched, give yourself permission to do nothing for a couple of moments. It gives your mind and body a chance to recharge.”
Mental health breaks are especially useful those who regularly work from home, where the lines between work and rest, ‘on’ and ‘off’ are increasingly blurred. Think: how many times have you worked through lunch, or stayed online for an extra hour because ‘you’d be commuting at this time anyway’. Without the set boundaries of clocking in and out of an office space, more and more of us are giving up key moments of rest without even realising. So carving out some dedicated time to yourself might just be in order.
It might feel indulgent, closing your laptop at lunchtime and curling up on the sofa to read a few chapters of your book, or clocking out at 5.30pm to go home and cook yourself a nice dinner. But actually, if you’re experiencing classic signs of burnout – brain fog, tiredness, inability to sleep or focus, feeling run down or being noticeably more irritable – these small acts of self-kindness go from being a daily bonus to necessary self-care.
Here’s everything you need to know about incorporating mental health breaks into your daily routine.
How long does a mental health break have to be?
While we’d all love to take a week-long trip to sunnier climes whenever times feel tough, mental health breaks don’t have to be huge chunks of time out. In fact, small and often is key. Taking even 10 minutes out of your daily schedule to meditate, go for a walk, listen to a podcast or even clean your room might just be enough to help carve out some physical and emotional space that’s just for you, leaving you feeling refreshed, calm(er) and ready to tackle the rest of your day – an emotional power nap, if you will.
What are the benefits of a mental health break?
At a minimum, mental health breaks provide a moment to reset during a busy or stressful period. But their benefits go beyond relaxation – they can actually make you more productive, too. A recent study by the National Library of Medicine found that taking micro-breaks throughout the day enhanced both wellbeing (including reducing fatigue) and performance.
According to the experts at Calm, mental health breaks can also help to improve personal relationships (stress can impact your mood, and therefore how you interact with the people around you) and emotional resilience. “By allowing yourself to step away, you’re training your mind to cope with difficulty more effectively, building greater emotional resilience over time,” says the team.
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4 activities to try for your next mental health break
“Mental health isn’t one size fits all – it can help to try a couple of things until you get in your groove,” says Cariss. Here, she recommends a range of simple activities to shift your mind out of ‘always-on’ mode and into a space of blissful calm.
“Something quick and easy to start with is a resetting exercise, which can be done anywhere – at your desk, on the train, while walking from one place to another. First, unclench your jaw, unknit your brows and lower your shoulders. Focus on your breathing as you breathe in deeply for four, hold… and out for six. Repeat a couple of times.”
“You can also try a quick focus or grounding exercise,” suggests Cariss. “Notice how your body feels in contact with a chair, the floor, or whatever is supporting you. You could also take a couple of moments to listen for the sounds you can hear in the distance, or pick something in front of you and trace the outline with your eyes.”
“Some people will really benefit from physically moving their body. Take a couple of minutes away from work, or whatever it is you’re up to, and have a good stretch. Or get outside to breathe in some fresh air while you take a quick walk. It can help us feel connected to nature and the world around us, and even just a quick walk can do wonders for the body and soul.”
“A break doesn’t have to be so functional. Taking five minutes to call a friend or family member to let them know you love them can help you feel good – and give your mind a break from everything else going on in your world.”
Additional ways to manage burnout
A mental health break won’t fix issues overnight, but it can help to make situations more manageable. Of course, if burnout persists, it’s important to take further steps to help manage your situation. “Alongside breaks, there are some really beneficial things you can do to help bring balance to your day and reduce feelings of overwhelm: practise self-compassion, set boundaries and seek out professional help when it’s needed,” says Cariss.
These include setting boundaries – “to mark out capacity and show up more fully in all areas of our life”, helping you to look at the bigger picture and create more time and space for yourself – and also staying on top of self-care, ensuring that you “drink enough water, eat good food and get plenty of sleep”. After all, prioritising health and rest “is a powerful took for warding off burnout”, explains Cariss.
And finally, Cariss stresses the importance of seeing professional help, should you need it. “We tend to wait until our life feels like a dumpster fire before we turn to therapy but it can be hugely beneficial at all stages – whether it’s proactive everyday mental maintenance to help you set boundaries and build resilience, or reactive support to a tricky situation in your life.”
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