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The Science Behind Mental Health Breaks

National Mental Health Break Day is May 15. Even though mental health has been talked about more in recent years, it’s still important for each of us to reflect on our own mental health struggles, and the challenges faced by those around us. This day (and all of May, which is designated as Mental Health Month) can provide us all with a chance to do just that, and hopefully, to take a much-needed mental health break. 

What exactly is a mental health break, and why is it so important? Let’s take a closer look at the science behind mental health breaks, including what they are, who they can help, and how to know if you need one. 

Statistics on mental health

First and foremost, if we’re going to understand the importance of mental health breaks, we need to understand the underlying problem. That is, we need to recognize the prevalence of mental health problems in the world today.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness:

  • In 2018, 19.1% of adults in the U.S. experienced mental illness (about 1 in 5), and 4.6% experienced serious mental illness (about 1 in 25).
  • On average, adults don’t receive treatment for mental illness until 11 years after their symptoms first appear.
  • Depression increases your risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases by up to 40%.
  • After those related to pregnancy and birth, hospitalizations due to mood disorders are the most common cause of hospitalization for people under 45.
  • Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy as much as $1 trillion each year (in lost productivity)
  • Since 2001, the overall suicide rate in the U.S. has risen by 31%.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., among those ages 10-34, and the tenth leading cause of death overall.

Clearly, mental illness is a widespread problem that can no longer be ignored. With statistics like these, it’s safe to assume that everyone knows someone who is affected by mental illness in some way, and that many people will experience it themselves.

For many years, mental health has been something of a taboo topic. Luckily, that is starting to change, and people are starting to realize the importance of taking time to focus on improving their mental health.

Which is where mental health breaks come in. 

What is a mental health break?

Simply put, a mental health break is anything that allows you to step back, relax, and recharge your mind. Mental health breaks can look different for everyone, depending on what helps them feel the renewal they need. Some mental health breaks may only last for 10 minutes, while others may include a week-long vacation. Ideally, you’d probably get a mixture of the two, taking smaller, regular breaks to keep you going throughout the week, along with longer breaks to help perform a deeper reset. 

You probably have a good idea of what a mental health break would look like for you, but here are a few ideas of how to spend that break time. 

Get outside. 

Fresh air and sunshine can have a positive impact on your mental health. Take a hike, eat outside, or simply go for a short walk to give yourself a beneficial mental health break.

Enjoy your food. 

How many times do you eat lunch at your desk while trying to one-handedly type out an email? Or, how often do you eat your breakfast on-the-go, mindlessly eating while running through your to-do list for the day? Slowing down and taking the time to savor your food can give you a pleasant break a few times a day. Put your phone away, let the distractions go, and give yourself permission to enjoy.


Meditation is a great way to spend a short mental health break. Follow a guided meditation, or simply take deep breaths and try to calm your mind. Either way, your brain will appreciate hitting the “pause” button for a few minutes.

Talk to someone. 

Research shows that social connection is tied to happiness. A friendly conversation can be a great way to take a mental health break.


Getting good sleep is vital to mental health. Use your break to take a power nap, or to give yourself an earlier bedtime. 


In today’s busy world, taking time to pause and reflect is probably rare for most people. But doing this kind of work, whether it’s working through your feelings, making a list of things you’re grateful for, or simply reminiscing on good times, can help you give yourself a mental health break.

Do something creative.

Creativity often requires you to access a different part of your brain, giving your “autopilot mode” a rest. Here are some things to try to give your creativity a boost

The bottom line is: a mental health break can be anything you want it to be. Whatever it is, just make sure it’s something that leaves you feeling relaxed and recharged. 

Do you need a mental health break?

“95% of people think taking a mental health day would improve their performance at work, but only 28% felt comfortable requesting one.”


Not sure whether or not you actually need a mental health break? Chances are, you probably do. Remember, it takes people an average of 11 years to get the help they need with their mental health. If you’re waiting for a sign that you might need a mental health break, here are some pretty clear ones. 

You feel frequently stressed.

Stress and mental illness are not the same thing, but they do often go hand in hand. If every little thing seems to stress you out, or if you simply feel stressed often, a mental health break could definitely benefit you. 

You feel burnout.

If stress goes on too long, it can progress to burnout—a condition that leaves you feeling mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted all the time. If you feel like your work or other responsibilities has drained the life out of you, burnout could be to blame, and a mental health break could be in order. (Creative burnout is a very real thing, too.)

You’re struggling to stay focused.

If you’re having a hard time staying focused, you could just have a lot on your plate, or there could be an underlying mental health problem. Either way, inability to focus is a good sign that a mental health break is overdue. 

You feel physically ill or tired.

Stress and burnout certainly have mental and emotional effects, but they can also affect you physically, making you feel sick and/or tired. If you’re constantly dragging through your days or trying to stay awake, or if you have new aches or pains not associated with an underlying condition, a mental health break could be just what your body needs.

You’re irritable.

Irritability is a common sign of mental health struggles. It’s not realistic to think you’ll get along with everyone, all the time. But, if you’re consistently short or snappy with people, or find yourself getting into more arguments than usual, mental health could be to blame. A mental health break can help relieve your body and mind of tense feelings that are keeping you on edge.

You’re pulling away from people.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: connection is key to happiness. If you find yourself pulling away from people, or not wanting to spend as much time with friends and family, you’re not going to get the connection you need to stay mentally strong and healthy. If your relationships are suffering because of your mental state, it’s time to take a mental health break.

Science behind mental health breaks

Taking a mental health break when you’re struggling might feel like putting a bandaid on a bullet wound. (And, in the case of serious mental disorders, it might be. Always talk to your doctor about the best way to handle your specific mental health challenges!)

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”

Tim Kreider

However, there is science to support the idea of the mental health break. Here are some ways that research points to breaks, rest, and relaxation benefitting mental health.

These research-based data paint a clear picture of just how important it is to take mental health breaks.

Want to join in on celebrating National Mental Health Break Day? At some point on Friday, May 15, give yourself a break. Whether you take 15 minutes for a power nap, or take the rest of the day off, it will be worth it. Not only will you give yourself some much needed rest, but you’ll also be subconsciously sending a message to yourself: that you are worth caring for. 

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