We don’t need another study to tell us that vacations are good for our mental health. Time away from stress can certainly be healing. But leaving anxiety behind once we’re on vacation is sometimes easier said than done. In fact, my friends tell me all the time that it takes them a few days on vacation to actually unwind—and if they’re away for only a long weekend, then by the time they’re truly relaxed, they’re back at work again!
For tips on how to get into relaxation mode quickly, I called Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist in New York, who often provides talk therapy to anxious patients and teaches stress-reduction techniques. If anyone could help us start relaxing quickly on vacation, I figured she could.
BEFORE YOU GO
Here are some easy tips from Dr. Serani on how to keep your stress in check before you leave for your trip.
•Know yourself. If you’re the type who feels less stressed when you’re able to check voice mail and e-mail, then accept this fact—and don’t go somewhere remote on your vacation. On the other hand, if being out of touch makes you feel at ease, pick a place without cell service and Internet connectivity (or don’t bring your phone or laptop with you!).
•Create a budget. For a lot of people, the idea that a vacation represents an endless gusher of spending makes them feel tense and prevents enjoyment. Solution: Decide how much you want to spend ahead of time, and bring that much cash (or, for safety, traveler’s checks) with you. Bring a credit card for an emergency or for when cash isn’t accepted (such as at many car-rental agencies), but try to use only the cash or traveler’s checks. Then you’ll be less likely to overspend and worry. An all-inclusive resort can be an even better solution—once you have paid your way, there’s no more spending needed.
•Give everyone a say. A vacation won’t be relaxing for you—or anyone in your group—if some people are grumbling about the activities. So let each person in your group plan at least one activity—or if it’s just you and a partner, choose an itinerary that you both really like. That doesn’t mean that you have to go hiking if you would rather visit a museum—it’s OK to split up during your vacation.
•Set a loose schedule. You don’t need an hour-by-hour schedule for your vacation—in fact, it’s smart to leave room for a little spontaneous fun. But do make a list of a few things that you want to see and experience, and do your research ahead of time. You don’t want to show up at a famous restaurant without reservations or a tour of a cathedral to find that there are no tickets left (or show up at the Louvre, as a friend of mine did, on a Tuesday—the one day that the Louvre is closed!).
•Make time for exercise. No matter how much you plan in advance, there will be some unavoidable stress from transportation delays, waiting in line or even weather. So each day that you are on vacation, take a walk (even if it means crossing one planned activity off your list)…skip the elevator and use the stairs at the hotel…or rent a bicycle and use it to get around if you’re in that sort of place. Any form of exercise will reduce your level of the stress hormone cortisol—and make you feel happier.
•Take lots of pictures. According to Dr. Serani, research shows that visual cues, such as looking at pictures of past vacations, can get the feel-good neurochemical dopamine circulating again, so take photos while you’re away to relieve stress later.
Source: Deborah Serani, PsyD, psychologist in private practice in New York, and author of "Living with Depression" (Rowman and Littlefield)