• Motto

When You Should Take a Mental Health Day

4 minute read

We all feel mentally overwhelmed sometimes — with depressed or anxious thoughts, for example, or crazy stress from a personal or family drama.

But when it happens the night before or morning of a workday, you have to decide if a taking a mental health or personal day off from your job is called for.

So how do you know if you need a mental health day, or if your situation requires more serious attention? And what’s the best way to spend your day once you do take it? We asked Health’s resident psych pro Gail Saltz, MD, to weigh in.

When to take the day off

It comes down to what’s causing it. If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, skipping a day of work may not always be helpful, says Dr. Saltz. “One of the most common defenses against anxiety is avoidance,” she explains. “But avoidance—like staying home from work—is often what you don’t want to do, since it’s essentially positive reinforcement. It might help you feel better in the short run, but it makes it that much harder to go back.”

On the other hand, if you’re struggling with a sudden traumatic crisis or something that’s overwhelming you right now, a mental health day might be the perfect break for you to get a handle on things.

What to do to help you cope

It’s tempting to make your mental health day one long Netflix binge, but using the time wisely is critical. Try to ID the reason you’re feeling off, then make a point to address it. For example, if you’ve only been getting three hours of sleep every night and you’re a mess because of it, use the time to help yourself recuperate. Attending a restorative yoga class, taking a nap, and spending downtime away from screens are all good ideas.

If you’re dealing with a medical issue and haven’t had the time to see a doctor, schedule that much-needed appointment for your mental health day. “These kinds of things may only require a day to do and will make you feel healthier overall, so they’re good reasons to take time off,” says Dr. Saltz.

How to stay mentally healthy

Even the most ambitious and productive among us need time away from work. “If you’re working seven days a week and not getting vacation time, you’re placing yourself in a system that’s neither sustainable nor mentally healthy,” says Dr. Saltz.

For those who feel like they really can’t take a day off, there are simple ways to practice self-care and still make it to that staff meeting. First off, get sweaty. Regular exercise has been shown to decrease anxiety and improve mood. “Even if it means carving out 30 minutes to hop on a treadmill at lunchtime, exercising a couple times a week can make a difference,” notes Dr. Saltz.

Practicing mindful meditation has also been shown to improve focus and help people handle stress better. Spend 15 minutes meditating—even if it’s at your desk—before your day begins.

Maintaining habits like working out and meditating that reduce stress and anxiety and boost happiness is key. “Otherwise we’re just letting things build and build and build, hoping that one day we’ll correct them,” warns Dr. Saltz.

When you need more than a day to deal

“If you feel like you need a day away because your anxiety or stress has built up so much that it’s impairing your ability to function overall, staying in bed for a day is unlikely to fix it,” says Dr. Saltz. In fact, it will probably exacerbate your condition.

Unlike a temporary stressor that may be resolved in a day, ongoing issues can take time and require professional help to address. If you consistently want to stay home on account of how you feel, Dr. Saltz advises seeing a therapist who can help you understand what the cause is and will help you develop coping skills that don’t involve playing hooky from work.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com