Are Vacations Harmful to Your Health?

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D.

I just came back from a wonderful vacation to visit my best friend and colleague Bill Bradley who has been doing some wonderful charity work for some very poor schools in Zihuatanejo, Mexico (he has written an inspiring new book about the last few years of his efforts to sponsor some special students and help a few schools down there) and it got me wondering about the need for vacations and the impact they might have to restore our physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual energy.

Can Vacations be Good for Your Health or Harmful?

Researcher Karen Matthews from the University of Pittsburgh studied 12,338 men for nine years as part of a large coronary heart disease study called MRFIT (Gump, B. & Matthews, K. (2000). Are vacations good for your health? The 9-year mortality experience after the multiple risk factor intervention trial. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, 608-612). She found that annual vacations by middle-aged men at high risk for coronary heart disease was associated with a significant reduction in all-cause mortality and more specifically death due to heart disease. Her study provides some interesting research in support of the argument that vacations might actually be good for your health.

The United States is definitely the land of “relaxation deficit disorder” and even when we need a vacation or should take time off during a holiday we are often reluctant to do so. Even worse is when we do, we might even get sick because of it.

According to www.monster.com, 61% of workers in the United States take less than 15 days of vacation per year. Comparison studies suggest we do work 100 hours more than professional workers in Europe. The average work week in the United States is a bit more than 44 hours and even more if you are in a professional position or own your own business.

A survey of 2,082 workers by Hudson (The Hudson Employment Index) 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 of us 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. (2007). Who is the Resilient Talent, and How Do You Develop It? Talent Management, 3 (6) p. 12.)?

It appears that some of us who just unwind and take a holiday might actually be at risk for getting sick! Yep, you are on that plane just ready to take a long deserved vacation 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!”

Typically, you were also the same students in college 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 holiday breaks and 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 studying this exact mind-body connection in his book,”When Relaxation is Hazardous to Your Health.”

The “Let Down” Effect

Indeed, relaxation can actually be a contributor to getting sick–particularly if you unwind to fast and move from a chronically excited “stress state” to a sudden “relaxed” state. There is even a name for this — the “let down effect” coined by Dr. Schoen.

When you’re straining and struggling under the burden of work or family pressures, your body releases a number of 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 internal and external 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, migraines and exacerbate other stress related conditions.

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

  1. Schoen recommends techniques that activate the immune system a little, and thus keep it from slowing down too rapidly after a period of stress. Try short bursts of exercise — even just five minutes in length — which can trigger a positive immune-system response. “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 mental problem solving, like crossword puzzles, under time constraints. “Several studies show that doing math computations at a rapid pace actually increases immune-system activity,” says Schoen.
  3. Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, which can give your mind and body a rest stop from the day’s anxieties. Consciously make yourself breathe slower, inhaling deeply and exhaling naturally. Become aware of the gentle rising and falling of your abdomen. This deep breathing can lower your heart rate, slow your brain waves, and even reduce your blood pressure. Paying attention to your breathing is actually a simple and calming form of meditation.

The idea is to move more slowly from your current fast paced and chronically stressed state to a more gradual relaxation state. It’s the “unwinding before you unwind” condition. The risk of shifting to quickly is the risk of spending your vacation or holiday fighting something you’d rather avoid having to deal with in the first place.

So, if as a student you remember coming home on breaks and holidays and winding up getting sick, you might want to follow the advice of Dr. Schoen.

If all else fails, one alternative to vacations is just to stay at home and tip one out of three people you run into….Be well….

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