In the modern world, it is not possible to avoid all stress or to prevent it, but it is possible to take time out and relax – even if this means different things to different people: calmness, a focused mind, or just sleepiness. Whatever we prefer, we yearn to be able to relax at will but almost no one can make this happen. Traditionally, the summer holiday is two weeks away from work and on a beach, but how can you make that holiday work for you?
First off, have realistic expectations. No holiday is perfect – and if you set the bar high, you might not reach it. You may feel pressured to put in so much effort for others that it becomes a chore. If that happens, the fun has gone. For a relaxing holiday, just be yourself. Thankfully, we understand more about relaxation now. It's not just muscle relaxation or being distracted from worrying thoughts. Instead it's about peacefulness. So how is peacefulness possible?
Treating yourself (and your family) to a holiday takes you out of your daily routine. The usual stressors aren't there, giving you that opportunity to properly relax. More so than ever we are becoming obsessed with productivity and a fear of 'wasting time' – so relaxation is the opposite – letting go of the need to be doing things.
In a successful holiday, you have to let go of the clock and that includes letting go of the idea of set meal times. Holiday mode means eating when hungry, not because it is half past six and that's when you always eat. Hotel buffets and restaurants have their place – eat what you like when you like because you're on holiday. Spend more time having meals, there's no hurry.
A more challenging one is to plan as little as possible – step off that treadmill and enjoy being spontaneous, if only for a time. Studies also show that a successful and relaxing holiday boosts health and life satisfaction on return to the normal routine. It is thought that a key part of this is a recovery from sleep deprivation experienced during the working week. You're on holiday and you've paid for it too. If your body wants a lie in (and it often knows best), treat yourself while you can. Have breakfast 'mid-morning' and go swimming in 'the afternoon'. But dump that clock/phone/watch and relax in a more natural body rhythm.
Finally, human beings are built for social interaction, and holidays are a time for strengthening bonds with family, friends and lovers – in sharing the same experiences. But studies also show that we gain just as much from chatting to people we don't know. Even passing strangers can boost our wellbeing. Plus, a holiday abroad gives us the chance to flex rarely used linguistic muscles. Sense of achievement aside, your efforts will be appreciated even if you've only learnt the phrase "Do you speak English?" English may be universal and that hotel receptionist probably speaks fluent English, but at least you tried to meet them halfway. Even if you both switch to English soon afterwards, you've connected on a deeper level. Such social interaction can boost levels of feel-good hormones (e.g. Oxytocin) and you're both the happier for it. Importantly though, it's face-to-face interaction that counts. Try to stay away from social media while away, then share your stories and your pictures when safely home again.
Dr James Jackson is Reader in Psychology at Leeds Trinity University, with research interests that include coping with tinnitus, chronic pain, and stress. This blog was first published by Hayes & Jarvis.
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