Mental Health Days
Mental health days
From time to time, I hear people advocating “mental health days” related to their jobs. Someone may say, “This place is stressing me out and I need a mental health day,” in relation to taking time away from work for mental and emotional respite.
Though I think I understand what people mean when championing mental health days, I’m not certain. Herein, I will steel man the case in promotion of mental health days:
Work can be challenging, especially when people work low-income jobs in which they deal with varying personalities and rigid expectations of the public. Often a thankless endeavor, attending occupational worksites over a period of time tends to overtax a person’s mental and emotional resources.
Therefore, taking mental health days as a means to restore an individual’s metaphorical mental bank account is needed. That way, one can afford further emotional charges associated with work as they arise.
If the aforementioned description is akin to what many people mean when favoring mental health days, I understand the argument while also questioning it. I realize that my stance may be controversial.
What do we teach ourselves by using escapism in relation to the challenges we face? The more I take a mental health day for reprieve; I may learn that I’m not actually able to tolerate stressful circumstances.
I may inadvertently condition myself not to be resilient—retaining the ability to withstand and quickly recover from difficult conditions. I may learn that if not helpless, I am at least ineffective at tolerating distress.
Mental health days may temporarily make me feel better, though do I actually get better in the long run through use of them? Is hiding from my problems a helpful strategy?
For a period of time in my youth, I helped care for ostriches. Since then, I’ve understood how ignorant many people are concerning the behavior of these large flightless birds.
In particular, the common myth that ostriches bury their heads in the ground (sometimes referred to as sand) is untrue. What type of evolutionary survival strategy would cause the birds to willfully blind themselves while leaving the animals vulnerable to predators?
What I observed when tending to ostriches was that they can fight off a threat using a hardened toenail, run quickly, and they have the ability to drop to the ground and remain motionless in order to blend in with the environment. This is representative of the fight/flight/freeze stress response.
While camouflaging oneself with the surrounding environment is a freeze-like strategy, it isn’t deliberately impairing. Not only couldn’t an ostrich see a predator with its head in a hole, it likely couldn’t breathe.
At this point, you may ask yourself, “What does any of this have to do with mental health days?” Unlike the ostrich that can attempt to mask itself from a perceived threat while remaining in its environment, hiding from problems away from one’s job may not be entirely useful.
The ostrich may repeatedly drop to the ground and try to hide if a lioness is near. The operative word is “repeatedly,” as the bird learns a helpful method of avoiding detection and uses it when needed while remaining in its surroundings.
An ostrich may then carry on about its day once chaos is averted. As such, it learns a healthy strategy to stay alive.
When hiding from work altogether, what do you learn about your ability to interface with problems? Might you learn that you are incapable of bearing chaos associated with your work environment?
If so, how healthy is this learned behavior when you need to repeatedly practice avoidance concerning an inherently stressful job? To me, it seems counterintuitive to claim that mental health days are healthy when given the unhelpful lesson of inflexibility you learn through continued use of the strategy.
Practicing Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I invite clients to consider how tolerance and acceptance may benefit them. Rather than telling oneself, “I can’t handle this job,” I encourage the client to evaluate the truth of such a claim.
Low frustration tolerance (LFT), generally expressed by an I-can’t-stand-it narrative, is how we lie to ourselves about our abilities. Is it true that we literally cannot tolerate difficult days at work?
Suppose you’ve worked at the same location for the past five years. You’ve likely built up your frustration tolerance quite a bit by having to deal with a chaotic environment.
Hence, what utility is there in convincing yourself that an LFT account of matters is true by saying, “I can’t handle this job”? If this were accurate, how on earth have you handled it over the past five years?
Let us presume that the lie you tell yourself is valid—that you literally cannot indulge another second of distress associated with your job. You convince yourself that a mental health day is in order so that you may momentarily hide from your problems.
Is your practice of avoidance a healthy strategy? Describing the ostrich effect, a form of cognitive bias, one source states, “This avoidance can often make things worse, incurring costs that we might not have had to pay if we had faced things head-on.”
Correspondingly, the practice of avoidance and failure to work on LFT may have unintended consequences. Similar to the trope of an ostrich that buries its head in the sand, the threat of your environment or lack of ability to breathe through a circumstance would have a detrimental effect.
In your case, hiding from problems may result in willful deception of what is and isn’t an actual threat. Also, suffocating your actual abilities when perhaps breathing through the situation is what’s needed. Though you may not like your job, you may be able to handle it.
The concept of mental health days may seem appealing. Temporarily excusing oneself from work so that replenishment of resources can result may sound like a worthwhile endeavor.
Still, hiding from problems—much in the way some people mistakenly think ostriches hide their heads in the ground when faced with challenges—may not prove helpful or healthy overall. As well, doing so could actually lead to the unintended consequence of LFT.
Challenging yourself to push through the discomfort of a situation and by learning that you can handle stressful environments may help increase your flexibility. Over time, and through continued use of this REBT principle, you may tolerate unpleasant circumstances even if you don’t like or love them.
Moreover, if you frequently practice chosen suffering and tend to your self-care needs, there may be no need for consideration of mental health days to begin with. Are you ready to stop avoiding problems and to deal with life as it is rather than how you think it ought to be?
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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