Mental Health and Stress: Signs You Need a Mental Break

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Psychologists define stress as a state of mental or emotional strain caused by adverse or demanding situations. Stress is commonly perceived in a negative manner. Most of us would be surprised if we were to hear someone saying, “This is great! I feel so stressed right now!”. While moderate levels of stress has its benefits in helping us feel focused on the task ahead, prolonged exposure to high stress and anxiety may result in one to feeling overwhelmed.

Although it is possible for someone to develop mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety disorders, over a short period of time, it does not usually happen in that way. Giving yourself a mental health break when your mental health is starting to deteriorate will help you avoid clinical levels of a mental illness. It’s just like how you would give yourself a rest when you realize the sneaky signs of a cold, such as sneezing and running a low fever.

So what is a mental break? It can involve (i) taking a day or more off for yourself, or (ii) consciously prioritizing yourself and your well-being for a period of time. Below are some signs that you may benefit giving your mental health a break. I’ve also included tips on how you can give yourself a mental break. Remember, taking a mental health break is not a sign of weakness.

1. Life has been extra stressful

Your plate isn’t just full; it’s overflowing. You may be coping with a major illness, managing several projects and bringing the workload home from the office, lost a job or lost a loved one. These stressors do not necessarily trigger a mental health breakdown. However, not managing your emotions following a significant life stress may overwhelm you, increasing your risk of developing depression or an anxiety disorder.

During your mental break, turn to meditation or breathing techniques to help you relax. Doing something that you have put off for a while, such as reading that book or getting that massage, will also help you get your emotional balance back. If work is burning you out, learn to say "No". Take as much responsibility as you can handle, but not more than that. Instead of just doing more, focus on doing well.If the stress is too overwhelming, seek help from a psychologist or a counsellor to overcome it.

2. You are experiencing mood swings often

High stress can affect your hormones. You may find yourself happy for a short period of time, and this could change to sadness or anger on a short notice. When life gets increasingly difficult, your coping system (including your ability to seek social support and ability to regulate your emotions break down with it).

Engage in calming behaviours during your mental break. Find what works for you. You may take a walk and admire the beauty of nature. For some, sitting back and listening to calming music, while sipping on chamomile or peppermint tea helps. Go to a place where you can feel safe and calm. Psychologists often refer to this as your “happy place”. When it’s time for you to get back to life challenges, your emotional batteries will be recharged and you are better able to manage the situation more objectively.

3. You can’t focus

When life begin to feel overwhelming, anxiety may build up over time through a culmination of ongoing stress and worry. Lack of focus because you have too much on your mind can manifest in taking significantly longer time to complete your tasks and making careless mistakes in what you are doing. Always being on your toes may even cause a misfiring of your fight-or-flight response, leading to panic attacks. The symptoms of panic attacks include a sudden onset of fear and anxiety, heart palpitations, shortness of breath and trembling.

Practicing mindfulness meditation on your mental break will provide the opportunity for a mental rest and allow you to concentrate on your emotional well-being. If you think you are suffering from a panic attack, turn to a psychologist or a psychiatrist for an evaluation, and treatment through medication or psychotherapy.

4. You are turning to stimulants to cope

If you are relying on coffee, alcohol, or drugs (even prescribed ones) to boost your energy and emotions you are likely to be coping poorly with stress. You are doing yourself more harm than good if you are consuming too much stimulants. It is fine to have coffee every day, but if you are consuming more than 400mg of caffeine a day (about 2-3 cups of coffee) and you can’t function without your cup, you may be too reliant on it. Research by psychologist Laura Juliano also found that caffeine may produce physical dependence, is difficult to give up, and may interfere with daily functioning.

Alcohol is generally a depressant, and it may give you an false sense of control. It can have a range of effects on your energy and mood. Its consequences are associated with your current mental status. Alcohol is likely to further dampen your mood if you are upset- lowering your mood or increasing your anxiety. If you are feeling happy, alcohol enhances this effect.

To increase your energy levels without relying on stimulants, ensure that you get enough rest (7-8 hours a day). Getting active through physical exercise will also increase your energy levels over time. If you, or a loved one, is struggling to overcome a drinking and substance use problem, reach out to a psychologist or a mental health professional to support you in overcoming the problem.

5. You can’t sleep but you are tired

Stress causes the release of stress hormones- cortisol, which keeps you alert to be able to respond to the stressor. Excessive levels of cortisol upset the balance between sleep and wakefulness, disrupting healthy sleeping patterns. Overthinking is also another reason why stress causes poor sleep. If you continue worrying and troubleshooting during bedtime, your mind continues to be alert. This challenges your ability to fall asleep. If you have difficulty falling asleep and have trouble going back to sleep in the middle of the night, you may be suffering from insomnia.

A day or two of mental break will not be sufficient to restore healthy patterns, but it will be a good start. Implement regular 7-8 hours sleep patterns and continue to maintain them when you return to work. If you have difficulty falling asleep, reduce distractions such as your mobile phones, Ipads, or TV, as the light emitting from their screens suppresses the production of melatonin, a hormone which regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Turning on relaxing music, and staying away from food and snacks at least one hour before bed would also help.

6. Your energy is low and you are not motivated

Excessive stress may wreck your physical health. You may be prone to colds, weight gain, and fatigue. It also isn’t hard to feel unmotivated when you are struggling to cope with the demands of life without much opportunities to experience satisfaction. You may even have isolated yourself from your social circle, leading you to feel alone. Individuals who are on the verge of an emotional breakdown may stop caring about their well-being, lose the ability to enjoy activities that they love, and lose their appetite. These are signs of depression, and you might be experiencing a mental health crisis.

Use your mental break to rest and recharge, as well as to reconnect with yourself and your social circle. So call up you friends and start making plans. Continuing a hooby, or picking up a new one, during your mental break may also be a wonderful way to destress and for you to spend time on yourself.

If the mental break is insufficient, seek professional help

Most mental health issues are triggered by an accumulation of stress. Allowing yourself a mental break, and engaging in the strategies and techniques above can help. However, if the mental break doesn’t do the trick, seek professional help. Clinical levels of depression and anxiety does not go away with a day or two of mental break- even a vacation may not help. A mental health professional can navigate your obstacles more effectively and tailor the psychological intervention that will suit your needs.

Muhammad Haikal Bin Jamil

About the Author

Haikal received his Master degree at the National University of Singapore (NUS), under a full scholarship awarded by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS). Before entering private practice, he has gained much experience in both hospital and social services settings.

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