Thinking about taking some personal time off this summer? It might look and feel a bit different this year in the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic. But that doesn’t mean that plans to unwind, de-stress and detach from work-related responsibilities have to be canceled altogether. Learn ways to decompress and avoid stress while taking PTO.

Mellowing out

Stress is a huge part of everyday life, and it can be heightened even more so during the pandemic. It’s important to take a step back and just breathe.

“One of the main causes of stress during COVID-19 is the unknowing and lack of control over the situation,” says Hilda Gonzalez, a licensed acupuncturist and holistic health care provider at Saffron & Sage, a holistic health club in San Diego. “So incorporating something like breathwork is a great way to regain control and help manage our stress.”

Gonzalez says breathwork allows people the ability to be fully engaged and in the moment, and it can be practiced anywhere at any time.

“Spending time in nature is another great way to manage stress, so a daily walk, run or hike within your local city COVID-19 limits, would be great to incorporate during these times,” she adds.

Australian hypnotherapist Mark Stephens, who’s also a meditation expert and founder of the MindFree app, says increased stress levels may make people more susceptible to colds, flu and, yes, the coronavirus.

He says a combination of exercise and movement, including lifting weights; mind-body exercises, such as yoga, tai chi and qigong; and meditation can all counter stress and strengthen the immune system.

“When you meditate, you relax, slow down and step away from the mental overload of everyday life,” Stephens says. “This allows you to focus on the present, so you can view stressful situations differently and release pent-up worries.”

Seeking out counseling is another effective way to de-stress, evidence shows.

Planning to do nothing

Taking PTO during the pandemic is essential to overall wellness, even if it means not being able to travel or use it in a normal way, says Dr. Yolanda Graham, chief clinical and medical officer at Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health in Villanova, Pennsylvania.

“Employees are much more productive when they are healthy,” Graham says. “Schedule a day off a week for six weeks. Take long weekends. Do nothing or plan a ‘me’ day. Don’t overthink it; schedule the time before you second guess yourself. Then assess your mood afterward, and give yourself credit for the positive outcomes you notice.”

After working seven days a week for multiple weeks preparing her organization to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, Graham says she recently was able to take her first PTO day.

“It was amazing,” she says. “For me, I knew it was time for a break when I found myself lamenting about my stress level during meetings. It’s important to take time to unplug and decompress. Vacation and travel will be limited this year, so even if you’re working from home, I suggest scheduling routine PTO — consider it maintenance. It gives me something to look forward to when I see it on my calendar.”

Graham adds that when preparing to utilize the personal time off, make sure it’s just that — personal.

“Do whatever works best for your style,” she says. “You don’t have to make grand plans. Your PTO is really a time to just focus on your own mental health.”

Gonzalez adds that scheduling self-care is a great way to use the time off. Most cities have now reopened and are allowing for massages and other self-care activities, and they are incorporating very strict cleanliness regulations so people can feel safe and be able to relax, she says.

“Taking days off for ourselves will allow us the ability to be more productive when we are working, feel valued, and simply recharge,” Gonzalez says. “We can’t keep giving when we are running on empty.”

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