Why are vacations so stressful?

July 5, 2022

RESEARCH & INNOVATION

Vacations play a significant role in mental health and well-being by releasing neurochemicals that make the experience feel pleasant. But taking one can actually be extremely difficult, said licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology Janelle Peifer.

In America, where we’re often defined by our productivity, daily life throws up barriers to self-care, she said. Pandemic-related trauma and disruption haven’t helped, either.

“When you’re staying in it and not on break — and many of us weren’t taking vacations — you end up acclimating to something abnormal for your system,” explained Peifer, who researches trauma, including how complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is influenced by our culture and identity.

“For those who had traumatic childhoods or grew up in impoverished environments, taking time for yourself can feel foreign, uncomfortable, like something overly indulgent.”
headshot of Janelle Peifer
Janelle Peifer

ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY

The more you need a vacation, the harder it can be to take one since you’re trying to make up for a huge absence, she said. “For people, especially those with complex PTSD or anxiety or depression, the self-talk around taking time for themselves may be particularly harsh.”

Peifer described seeing high-achieving Black women in her practice who received messages in childhood that they needed to work twice as hard to earn half as much and that slipping up for a moment could mean losing everything. “For those who had traumatic childhoods or grew up in impoverished environments, taking time for yourself can feel foreign, uncomfortable, like something overly indulgent,” she said.

Complicating the issue, some people become prone to illness on vacation. The hormone cortisol tends to be higher when we’re under stress, Peifer said. Cortisol puts the body in a state of hypervigilance to keep us at the ready. Relaxing causes the hormone level to drop, and that switch out of fight-or-flight mode can make people more likely to get sick.

Peifer also found that adults often overestimate how much they’re going to enjoy vacations. “They look forward to it, and then they feel more anxiety and tension as they’re trying to switch into a different gear,” she said.

So how do we truly give ourselves a break? Peifer suggests regularly scheduling time off. She sets a calendar reminder to do something, even if it’s a local camping trip. Having a sustainable rhythm for self-care can make the stakes feel lower, she added.

Since brief vacations can have a whiplash effect, Peifer recommends giving yourself a few days beforehand to start getting into a new cognitive and emotional rhythm. “My biggest go-tos are being able to have a period of transition before the vacation and making sure that I have ample time to prepare,” she said. While away, she creates space for reflection by journaling, giving herself a chance to be emotionally present.

When we finally get a breath of relief, returning can feel like forcing ourselves back into a box. The work pile-up might seem like a punishment. To head off feeling overwhelmed, Peifer reminds herself that she doesn’t need to work double. “I set expectations with any team that I’m part of that I might be slower getting back,” she said. “I am much more gracious with myself.”