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  • Jun 8, 2022
The science behind taking a mental health day

Dr. Adrian Aguilera is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Welfare at UC Berkeley and the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UC San Francisco. He is trained as a clinical psychologist and is an expert in cognitive and behavioral approaches to treat depression and anxiety. Dr. Aguilera’s research is focused on developing and testing technology-based interventions to address health disparities in low-income and other vulnerable populations. His work has focused on utilizing mobile phone technologies to disseminate mental health interventions. He is passionate about leveraging digital health for access and equity.

Each May, Mental Health Awareness Month is recognized as a way to amplify the importance of mental health and access to care. And while shining a spotlight on mental health during the month of May is crucial for efforts to de-stigmatize and educate around the topic, it’s also important that we’re prioritizing our mental health and well-being all 365 days of the year.

One way to make sure you’re taking care of you? Take a mental health day!

To get more clarity around the concept and impact of a “mental health day,” we spoke with Dr. Adrian Aguilera, a clinical psychologist and expert in cognitive and behavioral approaches in treating depression and anxiety, for his take on how to get the most from pressing pause.

Below, Dr. Aguilera breaks down the goals of a mental health day, ways to recharge, the importance of setting boundaries, and more:

What is the goal of a mental health day?

“Mental health days (or moments)” are chances to take care of our emotional and physical needs and take a break from life’s stressors. It can be helpful to think about stress as contained in a bucket and there are various ways to drain that stress. When our bucket gets too full, we need to make a concerted effort to drain some of the stress and take care of our mental health before we suffer the consequences.

06.01 The science behind taking a mental health day-02Stress Bucket Model - Brabon & Turkington, 2002*

How do you take a mental health day?

A key component of a mental health day is to engage in meaningful activities that drain our “stress bucket” instead of filling it further.

Specific needs vary depending on how stress is manifesting in our lives. For example, some people may react to stress by isolating or staying in bed longer. During those times, it may be helpful to reach out to someone and engage in the world by doing a meaningful activity, a hobby, or even something fun that we may be neglecting for some time. One way to identify these things is to think about something we used to enjoy at some point but haven’t done in a while.

Others react to stress by running our motors nonstop and engaging in many “doing” activities without taking time to be quiet and present in our lives. To counteract this, we may benefit from going for a walk where we are mindful of observing the world as it is. It’s very possible and even likely that we may get distracted when doing these simple, present oriented tasks. This is because our brains get used to running at a mile a minute. Because of this, we often need to work at being present. Sometimes being still, silent, and just being can be more difficult than constantly “doing.”

It is also important to keep things balanced. We experience various emotions throughout our lives and even throughout the day. It’s important to understand that there are no “bad” emotions. They all serve a purpose in our life. The challenge is when certain emotions become unbalanced — that is, they’re occurring too often or too intensely. This also happens more often when our stress bucket is too full.

06.01 The science behind taking a mental health day-01

For those who aren’t able to take a day off work or PTO for mental health days, is there a way to get the same benefits?

While it’s great to be able to take a day off for ourselves, that isn’t always feasible. Perhaps you can take a mental health break before work, at lunch, or just after work. Sometimes it’s not what we do, but how we do it. We can try to engage in our work with a different outlook where we try not to put too much pressure on ourselves or maybe we can even ask for help when we need it.

Many times, daily things that are stressful, are that way because of how we view them. For example, doing chores or taking care of our children can feel overwhelming if we feel that doing those activities are taking time away from something else that we’d rather be doing. If instead, we try to make ourselves fully present, we may find that we can better cope with and even enjoy daily activities.

What are some daily habits people can take to incorporate the feeling of a mental health day/break in their daily routines?

We often consider emotional and mental health as separate from physical health but they are firmly intertwined. As a result, meeting physical health needs also results in improved mental health. For example, being physically inactive, eating an unhealthy diet, and sleeping poorly will not only impact us physically but will sap us of our energy. These key pillars of health also build the foundation for our mental health. For example, engaging in physical, as well as pleasant activities, has been found to be an effective standalone treatment for depression. We also know that improving sleep quantity and quality can reduce irritability, depression and anxiety. In fact, Cognitive Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) has been found to improve mental health outcomes for depression and PTSD.

Another risk factor that contributes to poor mental (and physical health) is inflammation. Studies have shown that inflammation — which is worsened by stress — contributes to increased depression.

What are some of the ways to uphold work/life boundaries for your mental health, specifically while working in remote or hybrid settings?

It’s crucial to set clear boundaries for ourselves. This includes setting schedules and sticking to them as much as possible. Although we often equate working the longest hours with productivity, the reality is that our productivity can wane over time making our work less efficient.

How/when do you know if a mental health day isn’t enough?

There are many steps we can take to manage our emotions and keep them balanced. However, when we find that engaging in our own self care is not enough or becomes too difficult to do on our own and especially when our relationships, work, school or other responsibilities suffer, this may be a sign to seek professional help.

Related Links:


1. Everyone has a stress bucket – how good are you at emptying yours. Roots of Change. URL. Accessed May 23, 2022.

2. Treatment: Behavioral Activation for Depression. Society of Clinical Psychology Division 12 of the APA . URL. Accessed May 23, 2022.

3. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia. Sleep Foundation. URL. Accessed May 23, 2022.

4. How inflammation, stress and other factors can lead to depression. APA. URL. Accessed May 23, 2022.

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