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Take a day off from your life

Feeling overwhelmed and fit to drop? Maybe you need to 'pull a sickie' to save your sanity, says Heidi Scrimgeour

by Psychologies

Duvet day, personal day, mental health day… call it what you like, we all need one from time to time. But, while the value of taking the occasional sickie from work is well-documented, what about when you feel like taking the day off from your whole life?

If you have ever had that ‘stop the world, I want to get off’ feeling, you’ll recognise where I was just a couple of years ago. Looking after young children and managing my own business was a juggling act that left me feeling I was running at a standstill.

Elbow-deep in dirty dishes and battered by the noise of squabbling siblings, I wanted to walk out and leave everything that clamoured for my attention to someone else. So I did.

But, what began as a desperate, one-off measure has since evolved into a ritual; I take a regular day off from life and that keeps me sane.

I can still picture my husband’s face when I told him I was going AWOL for the day, leaving him, literally, holding the baby and her brothers. He didn’t question the logistics, but his demeanour – quiet concern mixed with a stoical ‘manning up’ – seemed proof that I was right to declare myself unfit for the task of just being me. If I didn’t run away for a day, we both feared I might eventually disappear forever, even if only fading away figuratively beneath the detritus of my daily life.

Making myself happy

I want to tell you that I spent that day watching soulful films and drinking wine until darkness fell, or that I shopped until I dropped and returned home broke but utterly replenished. In truth, I wandered dazedly around a shopping centre, feeling lost. I sat catatonic in a coffee shop for hours, clueless as to how to use my freedom. I ended up grocery shopping before driving home dejected and ashamed that, even when divested of all domestic duty, I still couldn’t work out how to make myself happy.

But, two years on, I have perfected the art of the ‘life duvet day’, and it comes in several parts. Every few months, I treat myself to a full-scale spa day at my favourite hotel. Booking and paying for it well in advance means I’m unlikely to wriggle out of it when other commitments compete for the same space in my diary.

However, I have learned that such rare treats are not enough to keep the wheels on my wellbeing, so I also book an afternoon off work once a month to go for lunch at my favourite beachside café – regardless of whether I can spare the time. I’ll have a glass of wine and arrange for someone else to collect the children from school.

Once a week, I spare myself making dinner and putting the children to bed, and instead see a film with a friend, or take a bracing walk on the beach before drinking a flask of hot chocolate in the car and listening to the waves.

Unlike that first ill-fated duvet day, I wind my way home brimming with a sense of having had my cup refilled, eager to resume normal life. I have never revisited the brink of overwhelm like I did on that dark day beside the sink.

Nurturing every day

That’s what taking a duvet day from life does for me but, in a culture that encourages us to compete on the basis of how busy we are, taking any time off seems counter-intuitive. Yet, psychotherapist, Hilda Burke, thinks I’ve got my priorities right.

‘It’s very strange, but our culture views looking after ourselves as overly indulgent. I see this with clients who feel selfish coming to therapy, especially to talk about themselves, whereas activities which are potentially very harmful – such as overspending and binge-drinking – are much more socially acceptable,’ Burke says. ‘In fact, looking after one’s self isn’t selfish. It strengthens your capacity to be caring and attentive to others. Taking a break from your responsibilities is the responsible thing to do.’

But, for Burke, this needs to be about more than the occasional day off. ‘Prevention is always better than cure,’ she says, and recommends self-nurturing on a daily basis. ‘Aim to spend at least 20 minutes every day doing one thing that helps replenish you; think of it as taking a little bit of your duvet day into daily life.’

While daily nurturing might hold less appeal or be trickier to arrange than an occasional duvet day, it could have a more profound and lasting effect, says Bridget Grenville-Cleave, a founder member of the International Positive Psychology Association and director of Workmad Ltd. ‘A new view is emerging which recognises that sustainability is an important factor in happiness, and yet cultivating ways of sustaining our wellbeing can, in fact, be quite unexciting,’ she explains.

Curl up somewhere comfortable with a book for pure pleasure; turn off your phone and take a nap or a long bath; or sit by a window and simply allow your mind the rare luxury of wandering aimlessly. In the end, what you do for your daily duvet moment matters less than simply getting into the habit of being more attentive to your needs.

I make excuses for why I can’t spare even a few moments to take care of myself. But a pressing work deadline, a mountain of laundry and children demanding help with their homework aren’t good enough reasons to put off making our own needs a priority.

There’s probably never a tougher period in your life to eke out time for duvet days or daily acts of self-care than when you’re parenting young children. But, there will always be commitments that seem more important, so we simply must put ourselves first from time to time.

That kitchen-sink decision to seize a duvet day saved my marriage, if not my soul. Learning to be more attentive to my own needs, and incorporating a nurturing ritual into every day, is also helping turn my duvet days from desperate measures into rejuvenating experiences. A duvet day should never be all that gets you through – but one well spent can truly top you up.

Photograph: iStock

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