This is the time we look forward to all year long. We have made it. You’re finally going to take time off from work. While we, as Americans, are getting better in recent years of cashing in on our vacation days, over half of us are still not using all of our accrued days. What this means is we hold them very precious, so it is important to enjoy them the best we can. This involves taking care of ourselves. As a proponent of positive psychology, I firmly believe in being proactive about caring for our mental health rather than reactive. This mindset is akin to maintaining a healthy well-being rather than trying to repair an ailing body.
Read on for ideas on how to enjoy your much deserved break from work. Taking a holistic approach, let’s break it down into mind, body, and soul:
Challenge. Stimulate your brain by stretching it outside of its typical neural pathways by trying something new:
Read one of those books on the topseller list you bookmarked months ago.
Write your life story. Odds are you’ve seen and experienced a whole lot. Writing it down can help make sense of it all.
Start a new project. Teach yourself something. Want to learn how to play the guitar? Check out a YouTube tutorial.
Write letters instead of emails.
Get out an old fashioned jigsaw puzzle or board game and allow your mind to get all nostalgic.
Get to Know Yourself.
Journal your stream of consciousness; meaning you just write down what comes to mind without any editing or any filter.
Try setting a timer for 5-15 minutes and have at it. An example might be, “Gosh, this seems silly. I’m not sure what to write. Where do I start? I have nothing and everything to say. Maybe I’ll write about my day. I woke up this morning like normal, had my blueberry oatmeal, got my kids ready for school….” Eventually something sparks and what you end up with can be pretty powerful.
Curiosity and Exploration. Approach people and environments with curiosity.
Pretend to be a tourist in your own town and check out the sights.
Try a new restaurant.
Find a local park you’ve never been to.
Ask your friends what they would do to fill their time if they won the lottery.
Experiment with a new workout class; there are plenty to choose from: yoga, pilates, barre, cycling, kickboxing, TRX, aerial silks, dance, martial arts, rowing, or interval weight training.
Plan a playdate with someone: go bowling, check out a golfing range, play at an arcade, fly a kite, race indoor go karts, sing in silly accents together, or pick out books for each other at the library.
Set your phone timer for 5 minutes, relax in any comfortable position with your eyes closed, head back, and legs and arms uncrossed; and just focus on your breath. You can use an image or a mantra to fall into a state of relaxation. Allow thoughts to enter your mind and gently allow them to flow away and bring your attention back to your breath.
Try this for 7 days and notice how your mind feels clear, focused, and content.
Rest. No, this doesn’t mean sleep 10-12 hours to try to catch up on all the sleep you’ve lost in the last year. Try to stick to your normal sleep schedule with a couple more z’s on either end.
Stay in your pajamas for an extra hour or go ahead and indulge on that 30 minute couch nap that [air quotes] accidentally happens while you’re watching Love Actually.
Be intentional about your down time. Our work and social lives are so overscheduled that we forget to schedule time for ourselves just to be. Just to sit without thinking, “What should I be doing right now? The laundry needs to be folded. I could be meal prepping. I should be working out.” Kindly show those thoughts the door and let them know to come back later.
I invite you to let go of all your normal planning and join me on the non-plan-plan for this brief stretch.
Exercise. Stay in your exercise routine.
Eat the pie: the pumpkin, the pecan, the apple, and the sweet potato. Indulge in the special treats that are only available this time of year. #treatyoself #butalsoinmoderation
Avoid the pre-packaged desserts you can cheat with all year long.
Acknowledge that this is a special time of year. If you splurge, don’t give up on your normal healthy choices for the rest of the vacation or even the rest of the day. Give yourself grace to fully enjoy your indulgent choices and then get right back on track.
With your extra time, try getting creative with a recipe using the latest superfood you’ve been wanting to try. Hemp hearts, anyone?
Connect with Nature. Sometimes we forget that we are just one of the species alive on this great planet existing in this vast universe.
We actually thrive in fresh air and sunlight and feel differently when our feet are planted firmly on the ground (i.e. earth/dirt/grass as opposed to sidewalk, asphalt, or structure). We tend to stay indoors more when it gets cold and then we wonder why we feel blue.
Grab a warm beverage, bundle up, and get out there. A personal favorite is rolling out my yoga mat in the grass, lying in shavasana, covering up with an electric blanket, and looking up at the stars. That forgetting I mentioned entirely fades.
Gratitude. Focus on being grateful for experiences from your day.
Choose 3 things you are grateful to have experienced every single day. Stylish weekly planners like these next to your bedside allow the ideal amount of writing space and visual cue to help you start and keep this habit. The 3 things can be as menial as being able to flush the toilet or as meaningful as getting to have dinner with an old friend where you were able to pick up right where you left off.
Check out the science behind the health benefits of a daily gratitude practice. Dave Asprey says, “every time you focus on gratitude, you’re helping combat depression and anxiety by minimizing your cortisol production.” Pretty legit.
Self-Compassion and Positive Self-Talk. Oftentimes, when we look at the mirror, we only see what we want to change. And while we’re on the subject of gratitude, I encourage you to instead think about how grateful you are for how well your body functions.
So a typical negative self-talk would be, “Ugh, I hate this [enter problem area here]. If only I could get rid of it, then I’d be happy.” And when we are inclined to start speaking more positively about our bodies, our initial reaction is to try to start saying, “Oh, I love my body!” which can be a major stretch for those of us who have been pretty harsh on it for a while. Instead, focus on something like, “I am so grateful for my eyes that see the leaves changing on the trees,” or “I so appreciate my hands wrapping around my mug, lifting my coffee to my lips, and feeling the warmth radiate through my fingers. I am thankful I can smell and taste the coffee and allow the heat to surge down my throat and warm my body all while knowing in about 15 minutes the caffeine will be coursing through my veins making my brain function more efficiently.” (Ha! Only half kidding about that last part).
Or how about one of these: “I’m grateful for these thighs that walk me to see the faces of those who are important to me,” “I’m grateful for these arms that carry gifts to my friends,” “I’m grateful for these ears to hear the laughter of my loved ones,” “I’m grateful for my generous heart that beats all on its own without ever having to give even the slightest reminder,” “I’m grateful to my feet which enable me to lean my body ever so slightly into a really good hug,” “I’m grateful to my back for showing those kettlebell swings who’s boss,” or “I’m grateful to my hips for grooving to these sweet holiday jams.”
Accept yourself and your body for who you are and what you are capable of; not what you look like.
Put. Your. Phone. Down. Leave it in another room if you have to. We rarely have the opportunity to see our friends and family so give them your undivided attention.
I don’t know about you, but right before a big party or family gathering, this massive amount of anxiety creeps in to ask me how I’ve spent my time recently? What is my latest work success? As if I somehow have to craft this story that is ready for consumption to let everyone know how well I’m doing. The truth is, ten years from now, they won’t remember what I said but they will remember how I made them feel. And at our very cores, we all want the same things: connection, belonging, intimacy, and to be fully known or understood and accepted in that wholeness. And this is true for all people; even the most introverted introverts and the extroverted introverts; just in varying degrees. Once I remind myself they all want the same thing I want, it’s easy for me to respond to their questions about my latest happenings and then turn my excitement and curiosity about what they’ve been up to.
Community. What’s that phrase? ‘It’s better to give than to receive.’ I’m not positive that’s always true. They’re both pretty great. I’ve noticed that when I give of myself, my time, my gifts, my talents; I also land on the receiving end somehow.
Giving feels pretty dang good and there’s probably some science there somewhere; feel free to Google it.
But if you have the means to give, go for it. Nonprofit organizations are always looking for volunteers and there is no shortage of opportunities to get involved.
Go To Therapy. If you’re going through a big life transition (think job change, marriage, having kids, losing loved ones, breaking up, moving, loss of identity, etc) or just don’t feel like yourself, working with a licensed therapist can be helpful.
Finding the right one can be tough, but online directories like this one can help you narrow the search.
Keep in mind that the therapeutic alliance, the relationship between the therapist and client, is one of the biggest determinants of whether therapy is effective. So if you don’t trust, respect, and *like* your therapist, try another one. Therapists are trained not to take it personally and we ultimately want what is best for you.
It all boils down to this: take care of yourself first. You have more to offer your colleagues, clients, friends, and families when you are your best self.
And I don’t know if anyone has told you this lately, but you happen to be pretty great.
Catherine Baxter, LPC is a Mental Health Therapist in Atlanta, GA specializing in self-care, relationships, and life design. Guided by the belief that healing takes place within the bond formed between client and therapist, her primary focus is on forging trusting, warm, open, and compassionate relationships with her clients. Her process is aimed at being proactive rather than reactive; just like keeping your body healthy, she has found that preventative emotional and mental maintenance is entirely more effective than trying to repair what is ailing. She takes pleasure in helping individuals, couples, and families find balance in their busy lives and re-focus their energies on values that are important to them.
She is able to center and ground herself in her work by balancing it with a variety of activities she enjoys: hiking in the mountains, reading, traveling to new places, practicing yoga, satisfying her perfectionism with an efficiently packed car, watching the same movies over and over, camping, and being immediately gratified by online shopping.
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