This is for the people who have burn out, or have mental health conditions, or are stressed, or who live and breath and sleep and exist, or everyone: start treating your mental health the same as you treat your physical health.
I’ve had flare-ups of mental health conditions over the last four years, and that statement is probably the one that’s had the most impact on me.
What do you do if your body isn’t working to normal capacity? What do you do if you have the flu or a migraine; gastro or a broken ankle? You rest up and get better. Taking a ‘mental health day’ shouldn’t be any different to taking a sick day; they are the same darn thing.
I tend to carry around a backlog of sick days with me wherever I go. I’ve got chronic asthma and a life-threatening allergy; migraines and a mystery stomach/uterus related condition; and to top it all off, I’m medicated for chronic anxiety and clinical depression (thank Heavens for the NHS, that’s all I’ve gotta say). I’ve got to take time off to survive and thrive when a condition rears its ugly head, and I am very lucky to be in a job that lets me take that time. Sometimes, these illnesses creep up on me; a small cold can build up into an asthma attack, the same way small stressors lead to an anxiety flare up. Sometimes, I simply wake up ill; my vision blurry from a migraine, my stomach swollen from the mystery condition, or my brain limp from depression. Regardless of the situation, all I know is that if I wake up and a part of me cannot function, I’ve got to rest; body and brain included.
Thanks to taking Sertraline everyday, and learning coping mechanisms over time, the amount of sick days I have to take due to anxiety or depression is minimal compared to what it was at university. Still, flare ups happen, and in order to keep myself running around full of creativity and cups of tea, I’ve got to listen to my body.
Everyone’s symptoms tend to be different, but here’s how a typical anxiety-depression merged sick day goes for me.
- Sleep, sleep, and sleep. When I have a mental health flare-up, I get bouts of insomnia with it, so I forgo all alarms and let my body get the rest it needs. I wake up when my body tells me, not with the blaring of an alarm.
- Despite the desire to stay under the covers (hiding in a duvet tends to be one of my anxiety-safe-places), I make sure to get up, eat something, and have some water. I can return to the duvet nest if I need to, but I’ve got to look after my normal needs too.
- Do something that isn’t stressful or triggering. Something as small as writing or showering can feel like a mammoth task, so I just do what I know will keep me relaxed. This tends to be watching Netflix or YouTube, reading a book I’ve read a thousand times, making spreads in my bullet journal, and even just dozing in the covers.
- I eat at set meal times, even if I have no appetite, and drink water on the hour, even if I’m not thirsty. Just because one part of me isn’t functioning fully, doesn’t mean I don’t look after the rest of me. I wouldn’t want to get up and cook a full Sunday roast or pasta bake, so I eat what I like, what brings me joy and won’t stress me out. Who cares if I eat rice with tinned meatballs for one day – as long as I’m eating.
If you read that anxiety-depression sick day, and exchange those illnesses for something like ‘asthma flare up’, ‘flu’, or ‘broken ankle’, my sick day would still apply. ‘Mental health days’ are sick days.
Having a mental illness or burn out is the same as any other illness, so treat it as such. Here are some of the things I do when I have to take an inevitable sick day, regardless of the illness.
- Take check of yourself. Is this a one day thing, brought on by overworking? Is this a start of a condition or flare up? Do I need to see my doctor? If so, can I wait a week, or should I go to A&E?
- Notice the symptoms, and see what you can do for them. Wheezing? Need my inhaler. Light induced headache? Lie down in a dark room. Panic attack? Deep and controlled breathing.
- Remember, a sick day should be taken to rest, to heal, to recover (aaaand to not spread germs to other people). I certainly wouldn’t go running when having an asthma flare up, or have a cheese and wine night when my stomach is swollen. If my brain is working overtime due to anxiety, then I shouldn’t do tasks that are stressful, no matter how big (tackling emails) or small (choosing a book to read) they are.
Don’t be afraid of being honest about mental health. If we don’t talk about it, it will stay stigmatised and whispered about. Aim for the days when you can say ‘oh I was having a flare up of my depression’ with the same honesty as ‘oh I was off with the stomach flu’ or ‘oh I had a terrible head cold’. Aim for the day when taking a sick day covers all kinds of mental health, as well as physical. Simply because it should.