So, you've planned a trip and you've been looking forward to it for ages. But as you're packing your bags you notice a tickle in the back of your throat. By the time you board the plane you're that coughing person no one wants to sit by. Why does going on vacation make you sick? Isn't it supposed to have the opposite effect? According to a study published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, this phenomenon is called leisure sickness, and it refers to the development of symptoms on weekends or on vacation.
"Concerning risk factors, the data tends to point to high workload and [personality] characteristics, namely, the inability to adapt to the non-working situation, a high need for achievement, and a high sense of responsibility with respect to work," the study concluded, adding that the condition is quite common. Basically, when you're working your butt off while simultaneously planning your relaxing getaway, you're in a state of heightened stress. When your body is finally able to relax and lower its defenses, your mind doesn't know what to do and you start to get sick.
"The engine is kept running and new energy is constantly produced," Ad Vingerhoets, author of the study, told Condé Nast Traveler. "This 'useless' energy may result in an imbalance in the body, resulting, among other things, in a weakened immune system, which may imply that one is more vulnerable to infectious disease."
This happened to me when I was planning a big out-of-state event while also working and going to grad school full time. The day after the event, while I was supposed to be relaxing, I developed the worst upper respiratory infection of my life. Just as Vingerhoets said, once the activity into which I channeled all of my energy was over, I got sick.
The study reported that it's common for those with leisure sickness to experience headaches, migraines, fatigue, muscular pains, nausea, and viral infections like colds and the flu. Aside from physical symptoms, you might find yourself feeling blue while on that dream vacation you've been planning for months. It turns out that post-stressful situations when you're supposed to be enjoying yourself can instead manifest as something called "the let-down effect" or "post-adrenaline blues."
Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., suggested on Psychology Today that this may be due to all of the expectations you've put on that thing you're either looking forward to (vacation) or looking forward to being over (a stressful situation). "Maybe it’s about just feeling at loose ends, not sure what to do with ourselves, because something that has been the overriding organizing focus of our lives is now past," she noted. "We tell ourselves, 'I just have to make it to Friday, and this will be over!' But the jubilation at being done is often quickly followed by a sense of letdown."
If you follow this line of reasoning you might conclude that relaxing is bad for you, which is not the case at all. While it's true that keeping your mind and body active can help you stay young, the secret to not feeling physically sick and emotionally blue on weekends, or on vacation, is balance. Instead of your nervous system fluctuating between hyper arousal and hyper relaxation, you want to find that sweet spot somewhere in the middle.
Condé Nast Traveler spoke with experts who recommended some ways to stay physically and mentally healthy on your vacay. The most important thing is reducing stress in your everyday life, which begins with exercise and meditation. "Changing how you react to stress — doing things more consciously and mindfully, less reactively, more calmly and efficiently, and less judgmentally — can impact health," Jeffrey Greeson, a mindfulness researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, told Cassie Shortsleeve for Condé Nast Traveler.
When you do take that trip, make sure you get plenty of sleep while traveling because lack of sleep weakens your immune system. What's more, don't adopt a totally different lifestyle when you travel, Heidi Hanna, executive director of the American Institute of Stress, told Traveler. If you normally avoid gluten and you're not a heavy drinker, suddenly doing these things will make you feel just as bad on vacay as they would at home.
I've gone on a few trips with a friend who always uses the caveat "I'm on vacation" to do things she doesn't normally do. She gets sick every time and spends the rest of the trip moaning and groaning. That isn't fun for anyone. Overall, the secret to staying well enough to actually enjoy your vacation, or your weekend, is taking care of yourself. I know this sounds easier than it is, but you deserve that vacation. Don't let stress take it away.