With the holidays behind us and daylight lengthening ever so gradually, you’d think we’d all be feeling great. Yet the ravages of a severe flu season, unpredictable winter weather, government shutdowns, and so many other shared and personal challenges keep our stress levels high.
In ancient times, our bodies’ stress responses helped humans avoid or manage dangers like predators and disasters; without stress, our species would not have survived and thrived. Today, stress helps us stay alert and avoid different dangers — like being late to work or finishing an important project.
However, too often it seems like stress is a constant feature of our lives rather than a useful, occasional warning, preparing us for unusual, extra effort. When too common, stress may make it hard to relax in your precious time off. When you experience constant stress, it takes a toll on your health and your productivity at work.
In fact, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that 40 percent of people say their job is “very” or “extremely stressful,” and 25 percent of people say their job is the number one source of stress in their lives. A study from Harvard and Stanford universities found that workplace stress can be as toxic as secondhand smoke.
Workplace stress is a huge problem, particularly in America. High stress levels can cause problems like insomnia, lack of focus, anxiety, depression and high blood pressure. Over time, this can lead to conditions like hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and lung disease. It’s important to balance your stress level with relaxation time.
This can mean taking a mental health day from work every now and then if you’re able to.
Your mental health needs to be taken care of — just like your physical health. If you get the flu, you know you need to rest because you wouldn’t be productive at work, and work may even make things worse. The same is true for your mental health.
Here are four signs it’s time to take a mental health day:
You can’t focus
If you find yourself in a haze on Monday morning, you’re not alone. If you find yourself in a haze every day, you should consider a mental health day.
Struggling to focus is a classic sign of too much stress. As the mind becomes tired and overwhelmed, even simple tasks like remembering things or staying focused can be difficult. Most people choose to self-medicate with coffee, but that can be overdone and make mental exhaustion worse over time.
If you can’t focus, take a mental health day when you can get a lot of sleep and focus on something calming, like a hobby, a hike or reading. Avoid caffeine, stress and electronic devices.
When the smallest things start to set you off, it may be time for a mental health day. Stress can compound and build until you reach a breaking point. Especially if you’re usually pretty tolerant but begin to feel like everyone is (like they used to say when I was training in Baltimore) “plucking your last nerve,” it’s time to step back.
If you find that you’re becoming irritable, take a mental health day that focuses on relaxation and exercise, such as a massage or a long walk around the neighborhood.
You keep getting sick
To respond to danger, your body’s stress response boosts your immune system. Over time, though, constant stress can harm the immune system.
Continued high levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can weaken your immune system. As a result, you may get sick much more often. To reduce the risk of stress-related illness, take a mental health day. Be sure to get enough sleep and focus on eating healthy and exercising.
You notice an impact on your mental health
It’s normal to feel sad or alone on occasion. But if you notice persistent signs of depression caused by your job or daily routine, it’s time to take a mental health break.
Excessive stress at work can lead to depression symptoms. You may feel like you want to cry, like you aren’t enjoying the things you love or like you’re isolated from the ones you love. Take a mental health day to relax, regroup and appreciate where you are.
Mental health days can be a great way to relax and recharge. If you notice you’re not feeling revitalized after a mental health day, or if the benefit is fleeting, talk to your doctor.
Dr. Alfred Casale, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is Associate Chief Medical Officer for Geisinger Health and Chair of the Geisinger Cardiac Institute. Readers may write to him via [email protected]