Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

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I just got back from a short holiday in Yosemite, California and I ran into a professional couple who had just arrived and expressed how they were so looking forward to the beauty of this majestic National Park to do some hiking and other outdoor activities. One member of the family mentioned to me that they as soon as they left the house they began to feel low energy and “something coming on” and he feared he was going to get sick as he so often did when they got away. Vacations are supposed to be a way to get away from our stresses, unwind and energize our battery.

America is the land of “relaxation deficit disorder” and even when we need a vacation we are often reluctant to take one. Even worse is when we do, we might even get sick because of it.

According to monster.com, 61% of workers in the United States take less than 15 days of vacation per year. US employees don’t clock the most hours at work — Korean workers are actually higher. Comparison studies suggest we work 100 hours more than professional workers in Europe and the average work week in the United States is a bit more than 44 hours.

A recent survey of 2,082 workers by Hudson suggested that more than half of the respondents said they do not use all of their vacation time and 30% indicated that they use less than half of their allotted personal time. Interestingly, 30% also reported feeling more comfortable taking sick time rather than vacation.

So, why do some leaders get sick in the heat of the battle, others after the battle and some are just plain resilient in the face of work and life stress ((Nowack, K. (2006). Resilience: How Hardy are you?. Personal Excellence, October 2006, p.8))?

It appears that all you Type A leaders who abruptly take a break might actually be at risk for getting sick! Yep, you are on that plane just ready to take a long deserved break and all of a sudden you begin to feel lousy. You think, “No, not now — I don’t need to get sick during my vacation!”

Of course, you were the same students who head home after finals week and after creating a huge sleep deficit (OK, partying will definitely add to that), eating more poorly then you typically do, and feeling some final exam pressure (surely at least once class got you fired up) you head home for that long awaited break only to basically find yourself in bed the entire time sicker than a dog (not really sure how this saying began).

Just when I thought vacations were advised, recommended and a stress reliever I had a chance to chat with a dear colleague and friend of mine who is on faculty at the UCLA School of Medicine — Marc Schoen, Ph.D. who has been researching and writing about this exact mind-body connection in his new book, “When Relaxation is Hazardous to Your Health.”

The Let Down Effect

When you’re straining and struggling under the burden of work or family pressures, your body releases a number of chemicals — including stress hormones — which mobilize your immune system against illness. But when the stressful period ends, your immune system pulls back its troops, and the body becomes less vigilant in weeding out invaders. At the same time, says Schoen, a reservoir of body chemicals called prostaglandins, left over from the stress response, tends to produce inflammation, and can trigger problems like arthritic pain and migraines.

Here are some options recommended by Schoen to minimize the Let Down Effect:

1. Schoen suggests techniques that activate the immune system just a little bit to keep it from slowing down too rapidly after a period of acute or chronic stress at work or home. Try physical activity/exercise — even 10-15 minutes in length — which can stimulate the immune-system in a positive manner. “Walk up and down the stairs in your office building,” says Schoen. “Or after a stressful day at work, instead of coming home and vegging-out in front of the TV, take a brisk walk for a few minutes.”

2. Try some challenging mental problem solving exercises to stimulate cognitive activity in the brain such as computer games, puzzles, under time constraints. “Several studies show that doing mathematical computations at a rapid pace actually increases immune-system activity,” says Schoen.

3. Practice mental and physical relaxation techniques such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing, which can give your mind and body a rest stop from the day’s anxieties. Focus on breathing slower, inhaling deeply and exhaling naturally. Tune into the gentle rising and falling of your abdomen. This deep breathing can reduce your cardiac rate, stimulate relaxation centers in your brain and reduce your blood pressure. This type of relaxation is easy to apply particularly when you feel hurried, impatient or cognitively preoccupied.

By following his advice, I know I won’t be needing to take another vacation just to recover from my original vacation….Be well….

[tags]the let down effect, stress, well-being, vacations, relaxation, immune system, health promotion programs, employee wellness, stress management, psychoneuroimmunology, resilience, hardiness, meditation, yoga, breathing, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, nowack[/tags]