Life is busy. You may have to work nine-hour days, care for tiny humans in your house, complete chores or tackle the endless responsibilities that come with being an adult (or, in many cases, all of the above). As wonderful as it would be to turn off your mind for an hour – or even 20 minutes – it’s not often realistic.
However, that doesn’t mean you need to succumb to a day of continuous stress, anxiety and tension. While your schedule may not allow for an extended mindfulness session, you can still sneak in some time for mental health breaks throughout the day.
These small moments can help you to ground yourself, boost your mood and nurture your body and mind – and fortunately, doing these activities is not as impossible as you may think. Here are 12 quick and easy ways to give your mental health a little TLC throughout the day:
Mindfully eat a meal
Working from home often means cramming in a sandwich before your next Zoom meeting. Or if you’ve started commuting to the office again, perhaps you grab something quick before rushing to complete your to-do list.
Try taking the few moments you have to eat and making them more mindful. Even if you only have a small window for it, it can help you slow down and let your brain reset.
“By using the time we eat to practise being present, we are able to bring forth a state of calm and happiness within as we recognise that our needs are being met in the moment,” explained Amira Johnson, a licensed master social worker at Berman Psychotherapy in Atlanta.
Step away from your devices while you’re eating. Focus on chewing your food thoroughly and enjoying the smells and texture of each bite. Ideally, you’d do this for all of your meals. If that isn’t realistic, commit to one; for example, have a mindful breakfast before diving into your workday.
Take a walk at lunch
Force yourself to take a lunch break and sneak in an outdoor walk. “We often struggle to find time before or after work for exercise or fresh air,” said Imani Crawford, a mental health therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina.
This strategy, she explained, utilises your free time during the day to get some movement and reset your mind. “Studies have shown that the act of walking forward helps us mentally process our emotions and stressors,” Crawford said.
If you have a one-hour lunch break, spend 15-20 minutes of that walking, so you leave time to eat and relax before heading back into work.
Connect with your loved ones
Improve your mood throughout the day by checking in with loved ones. Send your husband a quick text, step outside to give your parents a call or say hi to a roommate online.
“This will raise the level of oxytocin in your body, which produces the feeling of being warm and calm,” explained Leila Levinson, a therapist at Just Mind in Austin, Texas.
If you work in an office, try scheduling a coffee or lunch break with colleagues you enjoy spending time with. “Socialising increases the levels of endorphins and dopamine, which are key to our sense of well-being and relaxation,” Levinson said.
Take advantage of red lights on your commute
“When you are driving or taking the bus, use every red light as a mental health break,” said Michelle Risser, a licensed therapist in Columbus, Ohio.
When you stop at a light, instead of engaging in the usual thoughts about running late or wishing the traffic would hurry up, take a quick opportunity to relax. Unclench your jaw. Gently lift your shoulders up, push them back, then slip them down. Breathe in nice and slow on the count of five, then exhale on the count of seven.
“If you start to do this every time you stop at a light, you will build an amazing mental health habit that you don’t even have to think about,” Risser said.
Do a brain dump
“Racing thoughts and feeling scattered can be signs of stress,” said Samantha Kingma, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Rest + Renew Therapy, an online service.
If sometime during the day you notice your thoughts moving faster than normal, or if you’re having a difficult time focusing, try pulling out a blank notebook page and writing down everything you are thinking. Kingma said to jot down “all the tasks on your mind, concerns you are having and thoughts that keep bothering you.” Keep writing until you’ve written down everything swirling through your mind.
“By putting this all down on paper, you are giving your mind the freedom to move on from worrying or thinking about these things in an unproductive way,” Kingma said. Your brain-dump paper can serve as a reference for future action, or can just be tossed whenever you’re done.
Listen to your favourite podcast on the way home
Sometimes work can be stressful and difficult to shut off. “Listening to something you are interested in will improve your mood and help you reset before coming home to family,” said Ashley Hudson, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Yorba Linda, California.
She suggested bookmarking some of your favourite podcasts on your phone and turning to them on your commute home, or ending your workday with the podcast you love. Put it on while you make dinner, or listen to it during a post-workday walk.
Do something that cues your brain to transition from work to relaxation
It can be hard to set boundaries with your job, especially when working from home. Do something to mark the end of your workday so you can transition out of professional mode.
“Set an out-of-the-office message that says you are unavailable until the next business day, have a shower to simulate the washing away of the stressors at work, go outside for a walk, have a glass of water or play some upbeat music for five minutes,” said Roxanne Francis, a psychotherapist and social worker in Toronto.
This tangible shift from the workday into your personal life signals that work is over and that you can worry about that important project once you’re back on the clock, rather than thinking about it all evening.
Block off mental health moments in your calendar
One way to ensure that you take some recharging time is to schedule it. Commit to a break time every day, and schedule it in your work calendar.
For example, “my morning is my sacred space to plan, create and strategize for the day ahead,” said Larissa May, a mental health advocate and founder of the digital wellness nonprofit #HalfTheStory. “I rarely ever take a Zoom meeting before 8 a.m.”
Block off your break in whatever way works for you. Make 11 to 11:15 am your time for a daily mindful cup of tea; set 6pm aside for a 20-minute walk with your dog; or have 2pm be the point when you play your favourite song.
Switch to analogue
May also turns to a screen-free activity whenever she needs a quick break. Instead of grabbing her phone, she’ll pick up a notebook to jot down thoughts, or a knitting needle and some yarn to work on her latest craft.
“Neuroplasticity is key to a healthy brain, and the best way to give your brain exercise is to indulge in screen-free activities,” she explained, adding that she sometimes even does these things to keep her cool during long Zoom meetings.
Do small stretches
Bronwyn Shiffer, a licensed clinical social worker offering teletherapy throughout Wisconsin and Massachusetts, likes to sneak in a few stretches between any transition, like meals, restroom breaks, getting in and out of the car, etc. The stretch can be as simple as gently rotating your neck, doing shoulder or ankle rolls, lifting your hands above your head or bending down to touch your toes.
“If you are standing most of your day, try something seated, and vice versa,” Shiffer suggested. These tiny movements release some of the tension in your body and alleviate your stress for a moment.
Take 21 breaths
Sometimes, the idea of sitting for a 45-minute meditation can seem daunting. But Peter Piraino, a licensed master social worker and CEO of the treatment center Burning Tree Programs, suggests taking 21 breaths as a quick way to get centred.
“Meditation has immense health benefits including lowering cortisol levels, reducing blood pressure and boosting serotonin (the happiness hormone),” he said.
This meditation takes less than a minute and can be done anywhere at any time. Piraino said to simply close your eyes, breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your mouth. Each in-and-out breath counts as one repetition. “The more you practice this, the easier it gets,” he said.
Set a reminder on your phone to ask yourself what you need
“Oftentimes we default to the same kind of self-care, but if it doesn’t fit what we actually need, we won’t wholly benefit from it,” said Emily Pardy, a family therapist and founder of Ready Nest Counseling in Nashville, Tennessee.
So twice a day, set aside time to pause and ask yourself what you need. Feeling lonely? Don’t force yourself to go for a walk. Instead, text a friend. Feeling tired? Get outdoors for a quick dose of vitamin D.
“This simple reminder helps us keep inventory of our needs and how we can meet them,” Pardy said.