You know how vacations can recharge and energize our zest for life? Or how weekends can relax us enough to find the strength to tackle a new week? Oh! And long weekends or holiday vacations? So much glorious time to connect with family and friends!
Are you starting to pick up on the fact that I am not someone who believes any of this? Time off is not something I crave. Okay, I crave time in general, but not down time. I am a do-er, a Type A grinder. Sitting still is not my jam. Relaxing is a concept I am not comfortable with. My overall health actually suffers during weekends and vacations.
I know I am not alone on this. Even if I was alone—which I’m not—I would be okay to admit that I am not okay with vacation time. Many people use vacation time as a way to let go of stress, but vacation time adds to mine. Or if nothing else, it forces what is already there to the forefront of my mind, and I spend all of my free time thinking about how stressed I am.
As a result, I feel sick. I get headaches. My body is tight and sore. I feel gross. But why? Is it that I am such a go-getter and workaholic that I am literally feeling the effects of withdrawal?
Well, actually, yes.
And there’s science to back this up. For those of us who thrive on busyness and routine, vacations are like pulling the rug out from under us. We no longer have the stability of what feels like control. We can no longer lose ourselves in our work to avoid the stress and anxiety we are prone to carry. I am a perfectionist. Overthinking and anxiety are two of my best friends—they are two friends who never know to leave, how about that? But I accept them, and I usually find ways to manage them. Work, frequent exercise, and a relatively healthy and predictable diet keep me feeling good. Therapy and medication keep me functioning too, but I have very specific boxes I check to in order to feel healthy.
When I cannot check those boxes, I feel like shit. And I feel like shit because I am not pumping my body full of the adrenaline I create when I work on a stressful project or push myself during an intense workout. Adrenaline is actually good for our immune system; it helps us fight infections. But while our adrenal glands are releasing adrenaline, our body is releasing the chemical cortisol at the same time. Cortisol has an anti-inflammatory effect on our bodies because it turns off our immune cells. Too much cortisol in our system lowers our ability to fight infection and leaves us vulnerable to illness.
“What happens when you stop doing what it is you were doing that stressed you is that the adrenaline shuts off first,” Esther Sternberg, a researcher of neuroendocrine immunology at the National Institutes of Health, told the Washington Post. “You are left with this cortisol floating around. And if at that moment someone coughs in your face, you get sick.”
So a few things happen that make us feel sick when we take time off. First of all, high-anxiety people — those of us constantly carry varying degrees of stress because of our perfectionist personalities — need the feel-good effects that come with checking things off our lists, achieving goals, and beating our personal best, or at least trying to. And we are only able to do those things in spaces we create. We find ways to add productive stress to our stress. It sounds bonkers, but I promise you, it works for a lot of us.
Taking away the adrenaline, which causes the feelings of stress but also has the benefit of immunity, just leaves us feeling more stressed, which leads to feeling sick when we are supposed to be enjoying vacation time.
Another reason why people feel sick while on vacation or away with family for holidays or special events is because these things can be stressful as fuck. Just the logistics of travel is enough to make you want to stay in bed for days—especially with kids. And once you finally reach your destination, no one ever wants to do the same thing, eat at the same place, or sleep at the same time. We throw our basic needs into a tailspin and expect our systems to relax. Instead we are moody, exhausted, and stressed. Our immune systems are weakened just in time to breathe in circulated airplane air and touch all of the germs previous occupants left for you in your hotel room or vacation house.
And if you are staying with family? Good luck with racist Uncle Ron’s stance on abortion and the Second Amendment. And have fun helping your parents file 45 years of tax information or figure out their burial site “because you just never know when we’ll go.” Add the stress of your kids getting dangerously close to the glass hutch that holds Grandma’s porcelain Pomeranian collection, and tell me if vacation doesn’t make you want to puke.
To combat the stress that comes with the holidays and vacations, I have been told that balance is best. I don’t really know how to achieve balance, but I know what works for me to feel balanced. To some it may look like an over-loaded schedule and really good avoidance skills. But for me, a sense of discipline and achievement are what keep my mind at peace, not time on the beach or leisurely weekends.
Here is the best advice I have received and will pass on to you: be kind to yourself. Find what works best for you and go with it. Don’t try to fit anyone’s expectations of what should make you feel good. Find what keeps the chronic stress in check. And maybe add some vitamin C or antioxidants during the times when it feels impossible to keep the cortisol levels low.