Last summer, I ended up in one of the deepest bouts of depression I had experienced in years. I felt tired, irritable and unable to focus. I found myself slipping into old habits, like getting up five minutes before I had to work, avoiding exercise and not replying to friends when they reached out.
I was drained, perhaps on the verge of a burnout, yet I had no actual reason for it. I had been working my usual hours at my job, and I hadn’t been travelling or seeing more people, everything was as it always was. And yet, I was exhausted.
I had missed the signs that I needed a mental health break until they became overpowering, a glaring neon sign that I could no longer ignore. I needed to drop everything and look after my mind.
A little bit of procrastination is normal. We’re all guilty of browsing Tiktok, Instagram or Twitter when we should be working. We all put off things we don’t want to do and take our sweet time getting there. But the alarming level of feeling unmotivated comes when you don’t want to do anything, not even things that you enjoyed before. This isn’t a matter of procrastinating a bit, it’s procrastinating for hours and not even with things you particularly enjoy. You just can’t seem to complete tasks and you can’t even find the energy to care about it.
I noticed this, particularly with writing, which is my passion and favourite thing to do. But when I needed a mental health break, I had begun to detest writing and resent the time I set aside to do it. This was my big alarm bell, as if I didn’t want to do what I love most, what would I want to do?
We seem to think that our bodies and minds work independently of one another, but they’re so deeply intertwined. How we feel in our bodies affects our mental state and the reverse can be true. A great book on exactly this subject is ‘The Body Keeps The Score’ by Bessel Van Der Kolk*.
Being in prolonged periods of stress can impact your immune system. This is not only a result of the poor sleep and perhaps nutritional choices, but having your body remain in that fight or flight mode for too long. The same goes for emotional stress, as I assumed I was fine as I hadn’t been physically exerting myself. But you can emotionally and socially exert yourself as well. You can need a mental health break from issues in your personal life, or even from current affairs and the bombardment of bad news.
When you’re often getting sick and you can’t find another cause for it - like not prioritising sleep- then it might be time for a step back.
A sure sign of needing a mental health break is when the smallest things feel overwhelming. For example, someone changing your plans doesn’t feel like a small inconvenience, but a personal attack. Or if you have two things to sort today, it feels like a massive responsibility and too much to think about at once.
You’ve lost your ability to see things as rationally as you usually would. Something that would be a minor blip is now a gaping chasm to cross. When you feel so tired, everything becomes a much larger task than it should be. Not only does it take more time, but also more energy. So when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed by things you know shouldn’t be this much of a big deal, it’s a big red flag.
Again, focus is something we all struggle with to an extent. There are those times you need to do a dull task and so you’ll find a way to be distracted by literally anything else. Focus is something we have to work on, a habit to upkeep.
But when your mental health is taking a toll, focus can be impossible to find. These are the moments when you’re desperately trying to write something out and you cannot find any words for it. When you keep looking at the same page, growing frustrated at yourself, and yet nothing is computing. Your brain is essentially fried, it needs a break.
This goes to your personal life too, if you can’t focus on the story your friend is telling you or can’t keep track of plans you made.
When we’re feeling good, it’s far easier to build healthy habits. I try to get up and go for a walk before work, even for just ten minutes, as I know the rest of my day is spent behind a desk. I also try to drink water, even though I struggle with this habit, and limit my alcohol intake.
But as soon as I’m struggling with my mental health, I find all of these carefully built habits slipping away. I start pushing my alarm back as far as it can go, feeling tired and yet no amount of sleep helps. I stop caring about cooking healthy meals and instead I go for the easiest option. Essentially life becomes a big question of “Why bother?”
But these self-sabotaging habits only fuel the cycle, and make everything get harder. When you find yourself trapped in bad habits you could once shake, it’s a sign that things need to change.
This irritability feels like having cactus skin. You’re prickly, and each small thing is a needle into your skin. Before, if your friend made a joke about you, you could laugh along with them. But now it’s enough to make you snap at them.
Every tiny thing feels like a personal attack. Everything people say or do, even if it isn’t directed at you, is enough to make you rage.
Anger can be a reaction to tiredness, whether that’s physical or mental. It’s a sign that our systems are exhausted and can’t keep going on like they are.
Of all the signs you need a mental health break, this one is the most painful. Struggling to enjoy things you once loved should ring some alarm bells for you. If you used to love nothing more than going to a market on the weekend, or grabbing a coffee with friends, and now you just can’t settle in and enjoy it, then you know something is wrong. This disinterest shows that you don’t have the energy and emotional bandwidth to offer anymore, which means positive things lose their importance.
Often when life gets tough, we turn to things we love most. When I’m sick or struggling with my mental health, I’ll watch ‘Friends’ as it’s the comfort show I always rewatch. When I’m exhausted, I’ll stay home and read a book or do some writing. But when I feel myself unable to get stuck in these activities, when they seem like more effort than their worth, that’s when I know I’m in the bad place again.
When an animal is hurt, it may isolate itself from the group. People do the same thing. When we’re struggling, we have a tendency to create distance. Maybe we don’t want to feel like a bother, maybe we fear judgement or maybe it’s just a natural instinct we can’t quite explain.
But when you don’t want people to know something, there’s usually a reason behind it. You often know yourself that it’s wrong, and you don’t want that to be validated by someone whose opinion you respect.
It’s one thing to take space from people, such as when you’re ready to take your mental health break. But if you’re pushing people away because you’re hurting or struggling, that’s not a conscious decision.
Don’t let things get too far, and instead keep an eye on these signs you need a mental health break. Often, you know when you need to pause and take stock again, but we resist the thought. Instead we disparage ourselves for not being productive enough and continue the cycle, only worsening our symptoms. Treat your mental health like you would your physical health, and when required, take a sick day and reset.
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Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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