By Loren Lomme, LPC, RPT
Many people believe that one major goal of self care is to help ourselves stay calm. That’s close but not quite the goal. The biggest way that mental health breaks help us is by increasing our ability to stay regulated, which sometimes looks like staying calm, but can also just mean staying enough in control of your body and emotions so as to not get overwhelmed to the point of feeling helpless.
The good news is the list of ways to work mental health breaks into your day is pretty much endless, but I’ve got a list here to get your started.
-Connect, connect, connect. Call, text, email, or Facetime a friend or family member. Our brains are designed to be in connection with others, and healthy connections facilitate safety and consequently regulation. There is literally an entire part of our nervous system that is responsible for social engagement. The specific nerve involved with our social engagement system influences our basic physiological functions, such as breathing and heart rate and is involved in our stress response process. Need stress relief? Phone a friend!
-Move your body, stretch, and engage in rhythmic repetitive movements. One of the quickest and most effective ways to regulate our bodies and brains during the day is also one of the simplest. Just move your body. Stretch, walk, march in place, jog a lap around the parking lot or block, walk the dog, etc. Not only does moving your body decrease muscle tension but it triggers the production of feel good chemicals and decreases the production of stress hormones. If you happen to be a Dr. Bruce Perry fan, then you might know that activities incorporating rhythmic, repetitive movements are the gold standard for nervous system regulation. These types of movements (think walking, dancing, running, rocking/swinging, singing, tossing a ball from one hand to the other, etc) provide calming and relaxing stimulation to our sensory system and increase integration in our brains.
-Drink water or herbal tea, and have a healthy snack. Sometimes we just need to go back to the basics. You might not think of getting a quick drink or snack as a mental health break, but staying on top of hydration and nutrition throughout the day (I’m talking every hour or two) can go a long way in keeping your body and brain in an optimal state.
-Do a quick loving kindness meditation. The researched benefits of this specific type of meditation are abundant: increased positive emotions and decreased negative emotions, reduction in self criticism (if you are someone who deals with anxiety, this specific benefit will be invaluable), increased activation and activity in 2 main areas of the brain responsible for empathy and emotional attunement, improved social connections (remember the first point about how we are wired for connection), and even relief from migraine pain. If you don’t yet know about Insight Timer, you’re going to want to check it out. It’s the motherload of meditation apps!
-Get into nature. Sit outside for 5 minutes. Have a picnic. Walk barefoot. Spend 5 minutes engaging your sensory system with everything you can observe around you. Nature positively impacts our mental health on all fronts: cognitions, mood, and emotions. There is no special activity or know-how required, just get outside.
-Get grounded. This can be as simple as feeling your feet against the floor, your back against your chair, and your hands rested on your legs. Becoming aware of where our body makes contact with the things around us helps keep us in the here and now. Take inventory of your environment with your senses. What colors and shapes can see around you? Notice close up and far away sounds. Pay attention to smells or tastes you may be noticing, and run your hand across a couple of different textures (your pants, hair, desk, etc). You know the zone out feeling that often happens when you’re sitting in a long meeting or class? A quick grounding exercise can bring you back into your body.
-Get creative. We live in a left brain society and therefore frequently engage in left brain activities: reading, writing, logical problem solving, speech, comprehension, etc. You can work a mental health break into your day just by engaging your right brain with a creative or artistic activity. Doodle, create something, listen to music, daydream, engage in a mindful breathing exercise, watch cute animal videos, write without an agenda – set a timer for 3 minutes and just write whatever comes to mind. When we can engage in right brain activities, especially when still paying attention with our left brain, we increase integration in our brains.
-Use positive self talk. I know this one sounds silly, but it’s a great stress management tool and the extra cool thing about it involves our own capacity to change our brain in real time. Imagine the connections between brain neurons as bridges, and the more we use that bridge the stronger it becomes. So if we consistently tell ourselves positive things about ourselves, we create a strong brain bridge that in turn affects our self image and our behavior. Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb helps us remember this concept with the phrase “cells that fire together, wire together.” If you’ve found a positive mantra that works for you and you consistently use it and feel a positive feeling afterward, you are creating a strong and efficient path to a quick mental health boost.
-Use pressure…in a good way. Our sensory system LOVES pressure. It’s both regulating in a calming way and increases our sense of safety and security. Try these simple ideas for a mental health break during your day: place your palms against the wall and take a couple of steps back like you are getting ready for a wall push up but just press against the wall instead of doing the full push-up; while seated in your desk chair, place your palms next to you on your chair and gently lift your body an inch out of your set for a few seconds; hold downward dog pose for a count of 10; sit on the floor and hug your knees to your chest with your arms wrapped tightly around your legs; take the stairs; push a heavy shopping cart through the store; squeeze clay or or putty for a few minutes; wrap up in a weighted blanket; or give your arms and shoulders a quick self massage. This is one where you can get creative….any way that you can give your joints and muscles deep pressure is going to be helpful here.
As you can see, nothing on this list requires a huge time commitment. It just requires intention. Working mental health breaks into your day can be as simple as 3-5 minutes every hour or two, and the payoff will be well worth it.
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