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When Relaxing Makes You Sick

Friday, July 20, 2012

When Relaxing Makes You Sick

Most of us feel good when we’re on vacation, right? Not always. Some of us actually start to feel sick the minute we stop working…take a break from our hectic schedule…or arrive at our vacation destination. It’s such a common phenomenon that psychologists started calling it “leisure sickness” when they noticed that otherwise healthy workaholics or overly busy people seemed to come down with headaches, muscle aches and other cold and flulike symptoms during vacations and even on weekends. I have to admit that I’m prone to these kind of complaints myself, which is why I was so pleased to find that Bryan E. Robinson, PhD, psychotherapist and author of The Smart Guide to Managing Stress (Smart Guide), has some simple, practical suggestions that can help us understand why relaxation may not always agree with us…why this could lead to getting sick on vacation…and what to do about it…

A strange phenomenon occurs in workaholics. They thrive on working—it actually energizes them and makes them feel as though they are relieving stress and anxiety. But the opposite is in fact true—they experience chronic stress without realizing it. As a controlled substance is to an addict, work is a temporary soother to a workaholic. When we go on vacation and stop working, the real stress bubbles up—and we may experience symptoms such as fatigue, muscle ache or a sore throat that we didn’t notice before. Yes, it really sounds like withdrawal.

If you have an overly busy schedule and you often get sick when you are on vacation, you can try making the following lifestyle adjustments. The hope is that by easing away from your workaholic tendencies before you leave, you won’t get sick while on vacation. Further, these suggestions can help you maintain some of the structure of your workday while on vacation so you don’t get stressed out because of a too-drastic change to your routine.

Before you take time off…

People who work all the time aren’t used to not working. So it’s a good idea to start taking short breaks during the day just to get used to the feeling of not working. You can begin small and build. A few weeks before your vacation, start taking short breaks during the day. Take a few minutes to read the newspaper at your desk…enjoy an hour off for lunch and leave the office…or stroll outside.

When you’re away…

If you maintain a rigid routine during your daily life, you will have an easier time adjusting to time off if you give yourself some parameters that maintain your sense of control. That way you won’t feel as stressed when you step outside your usual schedule. You can do this in several ways…

Stay connected. You don’t have to completely disconnect yourself from the office or your tasks at home—you can stay connected via phone or computer to decrease your anxiety. But it’s best to limit yourself to one or two daily check-ins. If you don’t have limits, you might end up feeling as though you had no time off at all.

Vacation planning. During your vacation, organize your time so that it is not so open-ended that you feel lost. Instead, schedule outings or plan the day’s activities ahead of time. When your day—even a vacation day—has structure, you will feel as though you have a sense of control over your time.

Source: Bryan E. Robinson, PhD, is a psychotherapist and professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is the author of 35 nonfiction books including, Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians who Treat Them (New York University). His latest book is The Smart Guide to Managing Stress (Smart Guide). Dr. Robinson maintains a private clinical practice in Asheville, North Carolina.

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