Few people manage to avoid some level of stress during their vacation but the idea of a vacation is for the good times to outweigh the bad. A vacation should provide the time to relax, unwind and enjoy time away from the daily grind. In practice it can be anything but this even though all the elements of a good vacation are in place. Vacation stress can build up over a few days and peak over a day (Christmas for example) or it may drag over a period of weeks - typically during the summer.
The sources of stress are many and varied and, depending on the nature of your vacation, may sometimes be outside your personal control. Typically however the sources of stress involve money, people and situations. Money relates to affordability and is involved in gift buying, travel, clothing, tips, transportation, etc. People are invariably relatives or even friends, but stress can also come from the loss of loved-ones who used to be part of your circle. Situations can range from unfamiliar houses, to hotels to different countries, customs and languages. Add to this disruption in routine, change of diet, possible sickness and the elements for a stressful experience are all in place.
Symptoms of stress include headaches, nausea, upset stomach and bowel problems, headaches, worrying, feeling tired and unsettled, poor sleep or lengthy sleep periods and irritability. The sad fact is that many people would simply prefer not take a vacation at all and feel a huge burden lifted when the vacation is over.
If some or all of the aforementioned resonates with you, it’s almost certain that you suffer vacation stress. In trying to turn things around it is important to appreciate that the answer for you is likely to be different to that of other people. We all have different stressors (the things that make us stressed) so it stands to reason that the intensity of our reactions will be unique. The first step in managing your vacation stress is to identify all the things that really get to you and that you dread. At this point it may be tempting to say “everything” but this is actually part of your problem. It means you have reached a point where the vacation has become a symbol of distress and that you find it an effort to even think about it in detail. However, by breaking down a big problem into its parts, you will have achieved your first step in controlling your stress.
Once you have your mental (or actual) list, work out exactly the effect these situations have on you. For example, do you get angry, do you sulk, do you get a migraine, or do you smoke more, take a drink or self-medicate? Now take just one of these issues and decide this will be your target for change. Don’t worry that there are a pile of outstanding issues, they won’t go away You need to decide that you will reframe the way you view this particular situation and the way you react to it. This is particularly important if your response is unhealthy (anger, booze, smoking).
Reframing an issue begins with perspective. It’s often the case that when we are personally affected by something that makes us stressed, our perspective is distorted. This is something we all see in others but have great difficulty seeing ourselves because of our emotional investment. Think about alternative ways of responding that are more positive and that you feel you could achieve when in that situation. For example, if you know that someone’s comments send you into a rage, think about taking a deep breath, counting to 10, and moving the topic on. Consider why the person is making these comments. Are they under stress? Do they have unresolved issues? You may not be in a position to do anything about them, but reframing the situation allows you to stand back and more objectively assess the bigger picture. If the atmosphere becomes suffocating, excuse yourself for a few moments and this will break into the tension.
Good nutrition and some general level of exercise can play a large part in building up resilience against stress. Ease off coffee and fatty or processed foods. Try to secure some ‘me’ time at least once a day for a good 30 minutes or more. If this is difficult, try to find time with a close friend or relative and share some troubles.
Don’t think in terms of success or failure with your strategy. Your first strategy is simply a course of action that may, or may not, work. If your strategy isn’t working, or only part of it works, then move into new territory. Do this in turn for each of the issues that are causing your vacation stress. Some very practical issues can easily be resolved. For example, only buy gifts that are within your budget. Don’t get into debt simply because of desire for a wonderful vacation. Tackling the practical and emotional aspects of stress means you will achieve mastery. Mastery simply means you will find that you are getting on top of stress, rather than the other way around.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.