Check Your Vibes: How To Have The Best Mental Health Day Ever

Actress Ellen Burstyn, who still has a bustling career and packed schedule at 81-years-old, told Anna Sale of the podcast Death, Sex & Money that she celebrates an odd day off with what she calls “should-less days”:

“I have what I called should-less days. Today is a day where there’s nothing I should do. So I only do what I want to do. And if it’s nap in the afternoon or watch TV, and eat ice cream, I get to do it. I had that kind of day yesterday…Should-less days, I recommend them. Because, what I figured out is we have wiring. I have wiring in my brain that calls me lazy, if I’m not doing something. ‘God you’re so lazy’—can’t imagine whose voice that is? And that wiring is there. I haven’t been able to get rid of it. But what I can do is I can put in another wiring, I can put in should-less days, so when that voice goes off and says ‘you’re being lazy,’ I turn to the other wiring in my brain that says, ‘no, this is a should-less day, and I’m doing what I want.'”

Does that sound painfully familiar or what? Burstyn implies that it took her much of her life to master the art of taking a mental health day, but I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to wait until you’ve undergone decades of self-growth to get there. Hell, you can take one tomorrow if you want! Our society likes to condemn laziness, but tell me, so long as you don’t have a child or a pet solely dependent on you to get up and care for them, what is so morally bankrupt about spending a day in bed? That hurts exactly no one. You know what’s way worse than physical laziness? Emotional laziness. That’s the kind of laziness that’s harmful to yourself and to everyone you love, and that’s what you’re practicing if you’re stuffing away feelings you don’t like and generally refusing to be honest with yourself and others (which, in this case, means ignoring your own blatant need for a mental health day).

I don’t blame you if the idea fills you with guilt, because we live in a culture that encourages that, and because if you care about your coworkers and the job you do, the last thing you want is to leave anyone hanging at work. In this economy, we’re fortunate to be employed at all, and doubly so if we have a job that allows us to miss a day without threat of getting fired or losing pay, so it can’t help but feel a bit ungrateful or counterintuitive to take a random day off. But honestly, taking the time recharge back to your full capacity is doing everyone a favor, especially your employer, because you’re way more efficient when you’re rested and ready to take on the day.

Still not convinced? Here’s why you need a mental health day:

  • On your death bed, you will definitely not be thinking “Dammit, if I hadn’t taken that one day off forty years ago, I would be a millionaire by now/so much more fulfilled/happier in all areas of life. Golly gee, I wish I’d let a false sense of pride drive me to suffer a little bit more on the job and that I’d teetered closer to the edge of a nervous breakdown.”
  • Life is going to keep being busy whether you want it to or not, and depriving yourself of a chance to recharge means you’ll take twice as long to accomplish everything you need to do each day. You need energy and enthusiasm to be good at everything life demands of you!
  • Taking a break replenishes your ability to think creatively, which just about every profession (and all of life) requires in some form.
  • Overwhelming stress can be just as disruptive as being physically sick, and it can also be just as contagious when you’re spreading your crappy attitude and stress to your coworkers. So, you need to treat it just like a flu.
  • In a more existential sense, we hear the frequent argument against laziness that we only get this one life and should live it to the fullest, but who’s to say that our version of living life to the fullest isn’t just taking a day to do nothing now and then? It’s not going to follow you around on some kind of Laziness Permanent Record, and I can just about guarantee that for all the guilt you’re feeling about taking a day off to recharge, nobody cares about it even remotely as much as you do. In fact, everyone will probably have forgotten about it within days. “Productivity” has become a silly buzzword that we equate with self-worth, but in my mind, productivity as a pursuit should only exist to 1) help you become more efficient so that you live with less general stress; 2) make space for you to achieve major, fulfilling life goals that require lots of small steps and tasks over time; and 3) make sure you get the boring tasks out of the way as quickly as possible so you have as much free time as you can muster to enjoy life with the people and activities you care about. It should not exist in order for you to create a fake sense of accomplishment by whispering to yourself, “Oh goodie, I checked fifty things off my to-do list this week by only sleeping four hours a night, guess I’m fulfilling my purpose as a cog in the rat race machine!” Girl, nobody cares. You don’t care either, you were just taught by our hyper-busy culture that you’re supposed to be good at giving up your sanity in order to feel important. YOU’RE BETTER THAN THIS.

Here’s how you know it’s time for you to take that mental health day ASAP:

  • Your stress has transcended the actual tasks in front of you to just a general anxiety over everything in your life, and you feel like you’re being followed around by a massive stress cloud floating over your head that you can no longer even trace the origin of.
  • Minor new stressors, like a small new task being added to your workday, become paralyzing because your system is overtaxed.
  • You’re cranky with your loved ones for no reason.
  • You feel apathy about work you once enjoyed and feel like you have no control over your life or your time.
  • You feel less efficient than usual at work and have trouble focusing.
  • Several curveballs or stressors have hit you at once and are leaving you exhausted or dreading the thought of facing another draining day.
  • You assume everyone else knows some magic secret to handling stress that you missed out on, and that you’re flailing all over the place while the rest of the world seamlessly makes it work, which makes you feel ashamed for being overwhelmed (spoiler alert: extremely untrue).

When you’ve at last decided to take a day off, here’s how to make it count:

  • Be honest with your boss about what’s up — or at least don’t blatantly lie or fake sick. People see through that nonsense. Unless you work for a totally unreasonable person, in which case, all bets are off I suppose.
  • Don’t set an alarm, sleep as late as you want, and check out of all forms of digital nagging like Twitter or your office email. (No work allowed or the day off will defeat its purpose!)
  • Do absolutely nothing.

It really is that simple! Just you watch how much better you’re going to feel the next morning. If you’re not sure what your ideal version of “doing nothing” is, try one of these deliciously unproductive but emotionally beneficial activities:

  • Watch documentaries all day while eating ice cream.
  • Take a long bath.
  • Take a walk around your neighborhood with your camera.
  • Call up a loved one you’ve been too busy to catch up with and spend some time together or have a long talk.
  • Hide your phone on the opposite end of the room for the rest of the day.
  • Do some cleaning, but only if it will feel fun and restorative instead of like a chore.
  • Cook an elaborate meal alone in the house, just for yourself.
  • Get high and watch “Cosmos.”
  • Do a craft or a creative task you always wished you had more time for, like needlepoint or paint-by-numbers.
  • Spend some quality time outdoors with a book.
  • Go to the library and sift through the stacks like you did as a kid.
  • Get yourself a pile of magazines and read them cover to cover.

It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you’re kind to yourself and allow for lots of rest. It may seem frivolous, but sometimes this is what making your health a priority looks like! Life regularly  means powering through things we don’t want to do, but it’s also meant to be enjoyed, and spending a day doing exactly that better equips you to find joy in your busy everyday life when the going gets tough again. When you’re back to your frazzled schedule, try to prevent excess burnout by making an effort to ditch the draining people in your life and keeping the good ones close, leaving a tiny bit of wiggle room in your schedule should you need a night off now and then, and spending some quality alone-time with yourself for even 5-10 minutes a day so you have a second to collect your thoughts. The most conscientious among us, the ones who cringe at the very thought of taking a day off for no reason, are usually the ones who need a mental health day the most. If nothing else, do it just to prove to yourself that the sky doesn’t fall when you take a break!

Vice Week is our seven-day exploration of all the indulgences that surely will ruin us sooner than we can imagine. But hey, what a way to go. You can check out all of our Vice Week coverage here.