An At-Home Wellness Sabbatical Is Exactly What We Need Right Now
Press the reset button—without completely unplugging from the world.
At this point, it’s an understatement to say that the COVID-19 pandemic and a particularly contentious election has taken a toll on our mental well-being. In fact, the coronavirus alone has tripled rates of depression in adults in the U.S., according to a study published in September, with women affected at higher rates than men. The “solutions” for dealing with stress typically involve some form of self-care, ranging from a three-minute mindfulness break, to a relaxing bath, to a vacation or wellness retreat where you’re able to disconnect and reset.
Getting away from it all sounds great, but most people don’t have the time or money to make that a reality. And as much as people love advising others to fully “unplug” as a way to deal with stress, the ability to do so—as in, not answering phone calls or emails—is a privilege, and not necessarily an option for everyone. In situations like these, even just attempting to disconnect can end up being a source of stress as you think ahead to all of the ways you’re falling behind. That’s where wellness sabbaticals come in: getaways that on the surface may look like your average wellness retreat, but built into the schedule, alongside breathing exercises and pilates classes, are periods where attendees can get work done.
But as much as these are a more realistic step forward, in terms of acknowledging that not everyone can completely unplug from their job, they’re still out of budget for a lot of people. Or in other cases, perhaps someone can financially afford a wellness sabbatical, but isn't able to take one because of family or other responsibilities, or pandemic-related travel restrictions. Fortunately, there is another option: at-home wellness sabbaticals. Here’s what you need to know about taking one.
What is a wellness sabbatical?
An at-home wellness sabbatical involves more than squeezing a walk in once a week: it’s more of a commitment. According to Kevin Carter, the CEO of Hilton Head Health, which offers wellness sabbatical getaways through its WorkWell program, they should last a minimum of two weeks—whether your sabbatical is at home or somewhere else. “The idea is not to completely unplug from work, as that's simply not realistic in today's world, but rather find a way to work and focus on health and wellbeing at the same time,” he says. “It's about finding balance on a little bit of a lighter-than-usual-work schedule.”
How to plan an at-home wellness sabbatical
While it’s absolutely possible to take a wellness sabbatical at home, Carter stresses that your success will come down to making a plan and sticking with it. “It's going to require really treating your home as if you are somewhere else,” he explains. “It's very easy to slide back into old habits when you are home.”
The most important part of your planning is making a daily schedule. If you’re not sure where to start, Carter recommends taking a look at the activities regularly offered at a wellness resort or retreat that you’d like to visit. For example, here are two sample schedules from the WorkWell program, as well as from Kamalaya’s Wellbeing Sabbatical in Thailand, and Vana in India.
Just because you can’t go in person, it doesn’t mean their programs can’t serve as inspiration for your at-home wellness sabbatical. The key is mimicking those as best as you can, both in terms of plotting out the structure of your days, as well as knowing how to fill them. “You want to schedule every hour of your day from the time you wake up until after dinner activities—everything from your meals to your workouts—and, of course, a few hours each day to answer emails, take conference calls, etc.,” Carter says.
According to Yehudit Silverman, a creative arts therapist and author of The Story Within: Myth and Fairy Tale in Therapy, in order to initiate healthier changes in our lives, it’s important to set up a wellness sabbatical with a clear daily structure that addresses your specific needs. “The schedule should include some sort of morning wellness ritual that we do every day, a midday wellness break, and an evening relaxation, and preparation for sleep,” she says. “To truly be well, we need to nourish our body, mind, and spirit, and creating an at-home wellness sabbatical is the perfect opportunity to do so.”
Another aspect of planning involves your work and wellness space(s), which can make or break your sabbatical experience. Of course, you’ll want somewhere comfortable, well-lit, and quiet, but there are some other additions you can make to set yourself up for success. For these, you can take a cue from Destination Kohler’s Work Well program, which launches this month and outfits each room with workstations, meditation chairs, free weights, essential oil diffusers, and salt lamps. By surrounding yourself with items encouraging you to pause, you may be more likely to stick to your schedule.
Even though the wellness sabbatical is all about you, in order to keep it that way, it involves communicating this to other people ahead of time, says Lise Leblanc, psychotherapist and author of the Mental Health Recovery book series. “Let your friends and family know that you are taking some time to recharge, relax, and rejuvenate,” she says. “Tell them that for the next [two or] three weeks, you may not answer texts as quickly or check in as often.”
You may be exhausted, but you may not know what, exactly, is behind this. For this reason, Leblanc recommends conducting an “energy audit,” noticing who and what is sapping your energy. “Then practice saying 'no' as much as possible to the people and situations that are depleting you,” she says. “Cancel as many meetings and appointments as you reasonably can for the duration of your at-home wellness sabbatical…unless it’s for a massage!”
Finally, you should also plan your meals, snacks, and hydration for an at-home wellness sabbatical. As long as you’re devoting your time and energy into listening to your body, this should also include what you put in it. Staying hydrated is a big part of that, and Carter suggests starting each day by making a giant pitcher of fresh infused water, experimenting with different combinations and seasonal fruit and herbs for a refreshing change. And make sure you have plenty of healthy snacks lined up and ready to go: in other words, cut up those fruits and veggies ahead of time so they’re readily available.
Carter recommends doing your shopping for the week ahead of time, or trying a meal prep kit like HelloFresh or Purple Carrot, so you always have what you need on hand. Then create a schedule for your meals, relying on some of your favorite healthy recipes. Ideally, cooking during your wellness sabbatical wouldn’t be a source of stress; in fact, you add “meal prep” to your daily schedule and use all the chopping and measuring as a way to practice mindfulness.
Potential activities for an at-home wellness sabbatical
There are plenty of options for how to fill your day during an at-home wellness sabbatical, though there are a few things you should keep in mind. First of all, it should go without saying, but avoid watching or following the news as much as possible during your sabbatical. And as much as relaxing with a few episodes of your favorite TV show may be, Carter suggests trying something new instead of falling back into the usual methods you use to unwind. So even if you don’t meditate regularly, for example, don’t let that stop you from incorporating it into your wellness sabbatical. And, of course, make sure you’re getting enough sleep during this time, using it as a chance to reset any poor sleep habits you may have picked up during times of high-stress. Here are some specific strategies and activities to consider for your schedule.
For many people, their workdays begin by reaching for their phone and checking their email, social media accounts, and/or the news. According to Leblanc, this prompts us to get straight to worrying about how to meet the demands of the day, rather than establishing an actual plan. Instead of reaching for your phone, Leblanc says to protect the time when you’re first waking up to a new day and ask yourself three questions:
- What do I want and need today?
- What are three goals or priorities that will contribute to my happiness and wellbeing?
- How can I be the greatest version of myself today?
When selecting the activities for your at-home wellness sabbatical, it can help to group them based on whether they focus on your body, mind, or spirit. Using this approach, here are a few suggestions for your body:
- Morning stretches: Silverman suggests finding a free online gentle yoga or tai chi class that is simple and easy to follow, with clear guidance and options for dealing with limitations. “It doesn't matter if you can touch your toes or need to sit on a chair to do the exercises,” she says. “What matters is that you connect to your physical sensations as you move.”
- Go for a walk outside: Leblanc encourages us to get some fresh air and sunshine along with our exercise. While you’re walking, Silverman recommends paying attention to what you encounter and look for something that is a bit hidden, but for you has beauty. “It doesn’t matter what it is, just that you pay attention and engage in the process of discovering hidden beauty in your environment,” she says.
- Do a body scan: “Use your awareness to scan every part of your body, starting at the top of your head,” Leblanc says. “Relax each muscle as you scan it.”
- Breathe: Deep breathing has benefits for your body and mind. Leblanc recommends taking a very deep breath, holding it for 10 to 20 seconds, and then repeating that exercise three times.
- Rest: Yes, you’re on a schedule, but that schedule should include periods of rest, according to Silverman, and could include taking naps, or lying down outside and watching the clouds moving.
Like deep breathing and paying attention to hidden beauty during a walk, many of the activities for your body also benefit your mind. Here are a few others to consider:
- Practice gratitude: Leblanc suggests starting a gratitude journal and writing down a few things you are genuinely grateful for.
- Find inspiration: Find a book or podcast that you find inspirational and that in some way addresses the very challenges you are working on, Silverman says. “Have a notebook or journal so you can jot down ideas and what stands out for you,” she notes. “Remember: this sabbatical is for you, so take time with these inspirational talks or books so you can absorb the meaning.”
- Practice mindfulness: If you’re someone who hasn’t had much success with meditation, mindfulness may be a better option. There are countless ways to do this, but one way is to eat each of your meals and snacks mindfully during your sabbatical, Silverman suggests. Instead of watching TV or scrolling through social media while you eat, focus instead on the flavors and textures of what you’re eating.
- Meditate: Find a 10 to 20-minute free online guided meditation, and allow yourself to relax your mind and concentrate on your breath and the present moment, Silverman says. This can be done before breakfast after stretching or after your inspirational reading, she adds.
- Find humor: Most people tend to take life way too seriously, Leblanc says, so laugh as much as you can during your wellness sabbatical. This could involve watching a set by your favorite comedian or cute animal videos.
Part of taking a wellness sabbatical is allowing yourself to spend time thinking through what gives your life meaning and purpose, and how you can get there. Here are two suggestions for how to do this, both from Silverman:
- Be creative: Just because you haven’t picked up a paintbrush or sung in a choir since elementary school, that doesn’t mean you’re not creative. “Right now, many of us are feeling fear and anxiety about our health, our livelihoods, and uncertainty about the future,” Silverman explains. “When we express these feelings through a creative medium, whether it be an art piece, dramatic role, music, poetry, or dance, they take on a form outside of us and become less overwhelming.” During your wellness sabbatical, she recommends taking an hour to let yourself explore a creative medium, including something as simple as cutting out images from a magazine and gluing on paper to make a collage, or singing or dancing (or both) along with your favorite album.
- Find meaning and purpose: Give yourself the time and space to reflect on what brings meaning and purpose to your life. One way to do this is to find a book or guide for connecting with your inner feelings that allows you to access the deepest part of you that gives your life meaning and purpose.
What are some of the benefits of an at-home wellness sabbatical?
As we know, stress can wreak havoc on our bodies and make us feel miserable, sick, and exhausted. But, as Leblanc points out, we are not always aware of when we are under stress because our symptoms have become so familiar that we think they are normal. And it certainly doesn’t help when you look around and see so many others with the same symptoms—this only reinforces the idea that living with stress is just the way it is. “When you no longer recognize your stress level, or when you ignore your symptoms of stress, you are at greater risk of experiencing burnout,” Leblanc explains. “An at-home wellness sabbatical can help you pause and reflect on how you’re spending your time and energy and whether it’s really working for you. It can help you press the reset button on your life and help you realign yourself with your goals, values, vision, and with your own wellness needs.”
Not only does an at-home wellness sabbatical give you a chance to slow down and pay attention to how you feel—while still being able to get work done—it’s also a helpful way to reset your daily schedule, even once the sabbatical period is over. Taking a two- or three-week sabbatical can repattern your brain so that new neuropathways develop to reinforce your new choices, Silverman explains. “Once we have experienced a more balanced and healthier lifestyle, we can learn to integrate this into our daily lives,” she says. “Stretching first thing in the morning becomes our new habit, as natural as brushing our teeth. Going for a daily walk is as essential as doing laundry. Taking time to meditate and be creative is just as necessary as taking a shower.”