By Jennifer W. Adkins, Ph.D.
Earlier this week, I found a scrap of paper while cleaning that stopped me in my tracks. On it, I had written “take a year off” followed by a short list of commitments in my personal and professional life. The list included things I had entered into with excitement—like training other people in my profession and organizing community events—but didn’t have the time or energy needed to continue.
At the time I wrote the list, exhaustion was my norm. I was living with episodic and unpredictable pain, and my work was suffering. I didn’t have the energy to do all the things I normally do. I was keeping my commitments but performing poorly, which made me feel miserable.
What I didn’t know when I wrote that list was that depression would soon be a part of my life. I missed some of the early signs, but eventually it became clear that I was not well. The first clear sign came when I felt no joy during the Night to Shine Prom, an event my friends and I had spent months planning. It’s something we always consider to be “the happiest night of the year.” I thought something might have been “off” with the event, but as I saw joy on everyone’s face except my own, I realized something was “off” with me.
It was then I realized I needed a period of rest for my mental health. And along the way of implementing that rest, I learned a few helpful tips:
Some commitments are easy to take a break from, while others require more planning. After the Night to Shine Prom, I let the planning committee know that I wouldn’t be able to help plan the next prom. It was emotionally difficult, but it was quick. However, some of my other commitments took time to transition away from, as I had to identify and train a replacement before I could step down. It took months to fully cross off everything on my list, but each time, I felt a weight lift.
Each person will face different challenges when preparing for a period of rest. I felt like I would be judged, I felt guilty for being less involved, I worried that important things would be left undone, and I didn’t want my relationships to suffer. These thoughts were common in the beginning, and I had to keep reminding myself how important it was for me to rest and recover.
Your colleagues, friends and family probably aren’t fully aware of the reasons rest is necessary for you. If their initial responses aren’t as supportive as you’d hoped for, it might mean they’re just surprised, or they rely on you and will miss your contributions. You may find it helpful to explain why you need to take a break. In some instances, though, the best thing you may be able to do is to quietly try to understand things from their perspective.
Maybe you realize how important it is for you to cut back and have fewer responsibilities. What you may not realize is how positive it can be for other people. During the process of transitioning my responsibilities, I got to see people step up who were just as passionate about these roles as I had been. Almost immediately, the energy they brought to the roles resulted in growth and improvement I hadn’t been able to fully offer for a long time.
Rest is not accomplished by simply taking time off and then going back to your busy schedule. Rest occurs when you allow yourself to be fully inactive. A period of stillness and rest may be a necessary precursor to a more active mental health recovery. After a period of rest, you may find that you are more motivated to engage in activities like exercise, reading, crafting, praying, journaling or spending time with loved ones. You will be more likely to benefit from those wellness-promoting activities if you have taken time to rest first.
When you’re rested, you’ll have energy to enjoy the things you love again. You’ll know you’re on the right track when your response to your personal and professional opportunities changes from “Oh no” to “Heck yes!” Even before I considered myself fully rested, I found I had more energy to be a mom, to be a wife and to commit to my work. After resting for a month, I was thrilled with the quality of my work. I even had energy left over to spend on myself and the things I enjoy.
I am blessed to have the support of family and friends—and access to paid sick leave. I know these are not resources everyone has and sometimes paying the bills, getting your kids to school or taking care of your loved ones may not be things you can readily disengage from. My advice if you cannot commit several days—or, dare I say, weeks—to rest is to take advantage of whatever opportunities you can. Do what you absolutely have to do and then rest the remainder of the time. Maybe instead of committing a month to complete rest, you start by committing a month to only doing the things you need to, letting non-essential projects wait and accepting help from others when it’s offered.
I am grateful to have experienced firsthand the profound impact rest can have on mental health and work. Its positive impact has influenced me to incorporate continued rest into my regular schedule. I feel great, and I am proud of the work I am doing. I know if I want things to stay this way, I will need to intentionally make time for rest.
Coming across the slip of paper that started my journey toward rest was a shock. As soon as I saw it, memories of how physically and emotionally exhausted I was rushed in. I cried as I recalled all the moments and days I lost to pain and depression. Then I realized how much better I feel now and the role that rest played in me getting to a better place. Seeing that slip of paper strengthened my resolve to rest when I need it.
Jennifer Adkins is a wife, a mom, and a psychologist. Her professional interests include treatment of anxiety disorders, improving family relationships, and reducing stigma associated with mental illness.
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