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The Nuance

How to Actually Relax on Your Next Vacation

Time off can be stressful, but there are ways to optimize your holidays

Illustration: Malte Mueller/Getty

Every week, the Nuance will go beyond the basics, offering a deep and researched look at the latest science and expert insights on a buzzed-about health topic.

TThe airport was a nightmare, and your hotel isn’t as nice as you’d hoped. You’re doing your best to relax, but your mind is adding up all the money you’ve spent — and emails from work are piling up in your inbox. You also feel like you’re getting sick.

Sound familiar? It should. Anxiety and illness are common features of vacations, and they may help explain why we sometimes don’t experience much of a boost after we’ve returned from a holiday. “The research to date has failed to demonstrate clearly that vacations contribute to life satisfaction in significant ways,” says M. Joseph Sirgy, a professor and management psychologist at Virginia Tech University who has studied the effects vacations have on our wellness.

Far from recharging your batteries, time away can leave you feeling broke, burned out, and slightly down in the dumps, Sirgy says. “When we experience certain highs in life” — like when we have the chance to throw off the shackles of our usual obligations — “this is usually followed by lows,” he says. Apart from being bummed that your vacation is over, the stress of travel logistics and the regret you may feel about overspending can contribute to these post-trip blues, he says.

For many of us, the most enjoyable part of a vacation may actually be the weeks leading up to it, when we’re free to daydream about how wonderful it will be. “People conjure up images, and they introspect about their anticipated experiences,” Sirgy says. This is fun. Just as runners can find hidden reserves of energy when the finish line is in sight, having a vacation to look forward to can provide some short-term bursts of enthusiasm.

It’s not that vacations are a problem — it’s that they have to end.

But this can dissipate in the days just before a break. “Pre-vacation time is often associated with stress,” says Jessica de Bloom, a research fellow at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands who has published several studies on the effects vacations have on our health and well-being. Grinding through long work hours to prepare for your time away — and worrying about everything that could go awry during or after your break — can decrease your immune function and leave you more susceptible to viruses. “This might be a reason for flu-like symptoms many people experience during the first days of a vacation,” de Bloom says.

She reiterates Sirgy’s contention that most vacations don’t appear to provide a persistent rise in life satisfaction. But that’s not to say all vacations are stress-inducing. “Despite the fact that the time before a vacation can be stressful, research has demonstrated that vacationers feel healthier and happier during [their time away],” de Bloom says. She also points to research linking more vacation time with lower rates of mortality, even after controlling for variables like income.

Really, it’s not that vacations are a problem — it’s that they have to end. But there are ways you can tweak your holiday plans to ensure your mind and body are getting the most from your time off.

Start by getting in some exercise the week before you leave town. De Bloom says this can bolster your immune function and help dissipate accumulated stress hormones — both of which could help you avoid feeling crummy during your break.

She also recommends maintaining as much control as possible over your vacation plans and schedule. If you’re at the mercy of a bullheaded relative or a rigid sightseeing agenda, don’t expect to experience much relaxation or refreshment.

At the same time, relaxation alone shouldn’t be your goal if you’re hoping to get some lasting benefit from your holiday. “Tourists who engage in a variety of leisure activities that are meaningful to them are likely to experience a surge in life satisfaction during and immediately after their [trip],” Sirgy says. What does he mean by “meaningful”? He offers the example of an Italian-American traveling to Italy both to relax and learn about her family history. Injecting this sort of personal meaning into your vacation is a good way to augment its benefits and make those benefits last.

Avoiding work emails or other sources of stress is also a good idea. Detachment from your usual life and routines and engagement in your vacation activities are both associated with some well-being boosts, de Bloom says. You’re unlikely to feel much of either if you’re spending your time on the beach or in the backcountry scrolling through your inbox or social feeds.

She also recommends returning from a vacation in the middle of a workweek. Once you’ve arrived back at your desk, facing just a day or two of work before the weekend — as opposed to a full week — can help “smooth the impact” of your return and prolong your happy vacation vibes.

Finally, spend some time right after you return home reviewing and organizing your vacation photos. This can help you relive and better remember the high points of your time away. “Savoring vacation memories by making a photo book can at least temporarily enhance well-being,” de Bloom says.

Not every vacation will live up to your expectations. But with a little planning, you can make the most of your time off while avoiding the pitfalls that can ruin an otherwise restful break.

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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