7 tips to stay away from misery on vacation

This year my wife and I decided to compile a list of all of the holidays we’ve had since we had kids. Its a nice list and we’re lucky to have traveled as well as we have.

I always get excited about going. There’s the anticipation of downtime away from work (and other peoples’ problems), time for relaxation, sleeping, eating, reading, and some quality time with my family. Life is just going to be better on holidays. I just know it is going to be. Of course it is.

But as Robert Louis Stephenson said , “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.”

A few days after my arrival, I eventually “land.” My initial holiday euphoria is fairly predictably replaced by a familiar funk of low mood, anhedonia, irritability and impatience. I am, as my wife often reminds me (usually after the event — I am usually far too irritable to receive criticism at that stage) difficult to be around. Although the mood inevitably lifts, it has spoils a few otherwise perfectly good family holidays.

A few of my friends have confided similar experiences. A spouse of one of them even suggested that we all (“the miserables”) all go a way for a few days and be fed up together instead of inflicting ourselves on our respective families.

Whereas it is well recognized that those prone to low moods in the darker months don’t like Christmas holidays much but there is very little written about why middle aged men get depressed in up market resorts in Portugal.

I have come to the conclusion that we doctors are a bit like actors and other performers: we thrive well in an environment of high drama where there’s adulation on offer and can become quite dependent on it. Without the warm balm of that appreciative audience (families can find it hard to sustain adulation for anything more than a few days), a certain emptiness can take hold and whatever the “emotional dust” we may have swept under the carpet between holidays tends to become visible.

Over the last few years though I have developed some tricks to reduce the feeling and to cope better with it when it comes. I think I’ve got it cracked.

1. Don’t expect your holidays to make you happy. Live your life as it happens, seeking enjoyment and relaxation on a day to day basis and don’t save it up for a few weeks in the sun every August. It sounds trite but its true. I’ve found meditation great in this regard. It allows you take a holiday from yourself, every day.

2. Adjusting to a high pressure environment of work to the low pressure environment of holidays should be done gradually – like a diver resurfacing trying to avoid the bends. Although its hard, try not to overdo it work wise in the week before you go. If possible spend a few days at home before you jump on a plane or pack the car up.

3. Avoid the temptation to overbook the first few days after you come back. Adjusting from high pressure to low pressure can be hard but the reverse is even harder. The anticipation of knowing that you’re about to return to a crazy schedule can spoil the end of your holiday.

4. Disconnect from all forms of communication. I either bring a disposable pay as you go phone or set my phone up to only receive calls from family members. No email, no social media, no Internet browsing. Read some fiction and avoid all forms of reading that will return your mind to the workplace. This allows the problem solving side of your brain a chance to recover.

5. Try and take it easy on the booze – you may feel like rewarding yourself with a few extra drinks (especially on the first few evenings) but this only worsens the land when it comes.

6. Try and give yourself a daily holiday routine as doctors (and other workaholics) don’t do well with unstructured time. For me it involves getting up early and having some time to myself before the family wakes, a light breakfast followed by some exercise. Knowing that you will have some protected time for yourself will also can help you cope with the demands of the childcare later. Which you’ll definitely get asked to do if you’ve done all of the above.

7. If you begin to feel low, don’t panic. For those of us who have experienced clinical depression the feeling can be particularly frightening as it may be reminiscent of previous episodes. Let yourself fall and reassure yourself that the feeling is likely to be temporary. It will pass (all the usual advice about attending your own doctor applies if it doesn’t).

If you already enjoy your holidays and cannot identify with any of the above, I’m happy for you. But spare a thought for the sad looking guy at the pool bar. And tell him to take it easy on the booze.

Ronan Kavanagh is a rheumatologist who blogs at Dr. Ronan Kavanagh’s Blog.

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