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Mood & Stress

How to Slow Down and Take a Mental Break

Mental breaks are more important than ever. Below, experts discuss their health benefits and offer seven ways you can take one.

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If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s this: Taking care of your mental health is more important than ever. One way to do that? Take mental breaks throughout the day, especially if you’re spending more time at home or feeling more stressed than you once were.

Mental breaks serve a simple purpose. “It’s a conscious effort to channel your mind’s focus on something which provides stress relief,” says Bethany Cook, Psy.D., licensed clinical psychologist, health service psychologist and board-certified music therapist in Chicago. Think things like meditating, taking a walk free of devices or even cooking or baking. “The primary goal is to offer your mind a space to escape from the daily stress of life and modern living.”

That’s, of course, key, given how many people function in go mode and rarely take the time to slow down. “Small breaks, even for just a few minutes, allow you to get attuned to what you’re feeling, what you need, what’s going on with you physically and so much more,” says Michele Goldman, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at Columbia Health in New York City and media spokesperson for Hope for Depression Research Foundation. Immediately, you’ll feel more grounded, less stressed and tense, and recharged and re-energized.

While mental breaks have always been key to health, they’ve become more important than ever. “Especially during the pandemic when we’ve been so focused on what’s going on outside of ourselves, we need to reconnect inward and pay attention to what our bodies truly need,” Goldman says.

What if you just don’t have time to take them, though? Not a smart move, as short-term consequences can add up. “By the end of the day, your ‘recovery’ time, the time needed to unwind from the day, is going to be longer than somebody who took a break,” Cook says. You’ll also have a more difficult time regulating your emotions and be prone to getting irritated more easily. Not to mention that you’ll probably feel lethargic and have difficulty with concentration and attention.

Your health might even take a hit in the long run. Poor sleep, increased stress hormones in your body and a negative impact on your mental health can all result, Goldman says. Worse? You might be more prone to a mental or physical breakdown, Cole says.

Fortunately, mental breaks don’t have to be long. In fact, they can be as short as one minute to be beneficial, Goldman says.

How many mental breaks you take in a day’s time is up to you. For Cook, taking four “short-ish” mental breaks a day — two in the morning and two in the afternoon — can benefit her, although she admits struggling to find time to take them. On the days she does, though, her mood is better and she’s less of a grouch to her family.

Before you take a mental break, check in with yourself and find out how you’re feeling in the moment. “This is essential because it helps you figure out what you need during your mental break,” Goldman says. Also, stay present in the here and now when taking your break — “if you start thinking about what you need to buy at the grocery store, which we all do, you’re not really taking a break,” she adds — and make sure you enjoy the break.

Want help figuring out what to do during those mental breaks? See if any of the following 7 mental break tactics resonate.

  1. Practice doing progressive muscle relaxation: This technique teaches you to tense and release various muscle groups in your body, which Goldman says can help you realize how tense you are when you try to relax. “Once you learn where you’re holding tension in your body, you can start to learn to relax,” she says.
  2. Turn into some tunes: Music can be a powerful ally for mental breaks. “When the mind is engaged and listening to music (whether or not it’s of your preferred taste), brain scans have shown there’s increased blood flow to almost all areas of your mind,” Cook says. “Not only are your thoughts free to run wild with the melody of the music but your brain also gets a factory reset in terms of blood flow and neuronal firings.” Because your body syncs with the rhythm of the beat, play music that matches your internal state when you turn the music on. For instance, if you’re angry, don’t turn on calming music or it will irritate you because the vibes aren’t syncing with your body. “Match the music to your current energy level and then switch up the songs to take your body where it needs to go,” she adds. Two to three songs is all it takes. Try it while cooking up your favorite CE recipes, here’s a playlist for every type of cuisine.
  3. Exercise your breath: There’s a reason you’ve heard about deep breathing over and over again. Simply put, it works. To do it, find a space in your house not associated with stress or go outside, Goldman says. Once you feel settled, get comfortable and inhale and match your breath to your needs. To help balance the nervous system, exhale for the same amount of counts like two counts (so inhale for two counts and exhale for two counts). Feeling stressed or anxious? Double the length of your exhale. Feeling lethargic? Double the length of your inhale. Here’s a great video with several breathing exercises that you can do in minutes.
  4. Engage in a childhood activity or hobby you loved — or find a new one: Any time you do something that isn’t related to basic survival (like sleeping, eating, exercising and working), your mind is able to relax. “The mental break comes when your mind is able to relax, be creative, stop being on high alert all the time and focus on something that fills you up with positive feelings and sensations,” Cook says, adding that this is why adult coloring books are the rage.
  5. Cozy up with a book: Doesn’t matter whether you read fiction or non-fiction or even listen to a book on tape, you’ll get a mental break. “Reading forces you not only to be present and focused in the moment but also requires the use of visual imagination that again requires a ‘here-and-now’ focus,” Cook says.
  6. Put your sniffer to work: Anytime you smell something unique or out of the ordinary, you’re shifting where you focus your attention, which provides an immediate mental break. That’s why Cook suggests introducing a novel smell to a common activity. For instance, take a large orange in the shower with you, and as you shower, peel it, smell it and squeeze it on your face. Or try these aromatherapy scents that are proven to bust stress.
  7. Move your body: If you’re a fitness-minded soul, you know how movement can energize you and snap you out of mental slumps. Yet don’t just wait until the gym to get moving. Instead, take movement breaks throughout the day, especially if you have a desk job. Any movement counts, even if all you can do is stretch in your chair because of time constraints, but bonus if you can get outside and move for a few minutes, Goldman says.

Here are some helpful articles for keeping your mental health in check: