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How to Deal With Post-Vacation Letdown

The hardest part of vacation is coming home. Here's how to hold on to that vacation Zen.

by Vivian Manning-Schaffel /
Image: Woman ready for vacationTetra Images / Getty Images

You’ve saved up your hard-earned money, socked away your vacation days and spent hours upon hours plotting, planning and scheming up a fantastic getaway. After finally lifting yourself out of your humdrum everyday existence and propelling yourself into whatever your concept is of idyll, your stress dissipates. It’s amazing how a little time spent doing what you really want to do can bestow you with a renewed sense of peace.

Vacations have been scientifically proven, time and again, to do nothing but good for your physical body, mind and soul. A 2016 study published in Translational Psychiatry revealed that a resort vacation has a “strong and immediate” impact on your body right down to its molecules, destressing your body to the point of boosting your immune system.

Though there is no clinically diagnosable condition named as such in the DSM-V, the post-vacation blues is, indeed, a “thing.”

Yet, there’s still a huge amount of pressure in American work culture to forsake hard-earned vacation time. According to a comprehensive survey conducted by Project Time Off, more than a quarter (26 percent) of Americans are under the impression that taking vacations could make them seem less dedicated at work. What’s more, just under a quarter (23 percent) of Americans say they’re afraid taking their vacations will make them seem replaceable, and more than a fifth (21 percent) say they worry taking time off will cause them to lose out on a raise or promotion.

No wonder the hardest part of going on vacation is coming home. You go back to work, determined to cling to your newfound Zen, only to get hit with a packed inbox, side-eyes from co-workers and imagined thought bubbles that accuse you of slacking. Nothing like getting reacquainted with your life and spending the next week feeling like a saggy, deflated balloon.

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Though there is no clinically diagnosable condition named as such in the DSM-V, the post-vacation blues is, indeed, a “thing.”

One 2013 study, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, on how vacations affect employee health and well-being claims vacations have strong but short-lived health benefits. Though the respondents in the study felt better on vacation right away, the health and wellness benefits faded just as soon as they went back to work.

However, another study, published the year prior in Current Directions in Psychological Science, conversely claims “positive relations” between detachment from work during off-hours and improved job performance, and that “recovery from work” is a way for employees in demanding jobs to hang onto their energy, engagement and health.

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Vacations can even do us good in their nascent, planning stages. Normal Rosenthal, M.D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School and renowned Seasonal Affective Disorder expert, says all the time and energy we spend planning vacations — and the anticipation of the fun in store — leads to a dopamine (feel good brain chemical) rush at the biological level.

How can we hang onto that happy rush, even after we get home? Rosenthal says one way to keep those happy chemicals floating in your brain is to plan something fun to look forward to upon your return … even if it’s your next vacation.

Vacation planners were more content in their relationships, their sense of wellbeing and liked their jobs more.

Professional traveler Josh Gates, host of Travel Channel’s “Expedition Unknown” and the forthcoming four-part special “Expedition Unknown: Hunt for Extraterrestrials,” agrees. “Travel is motion, and as Newton pointed out, things that start moving want to keep moving. There’s no better remedy for the post-travel blues than to unroll a map and let your imagination run wild,” he says.

The aforementioned Project Time Off survey also found planning getaways to be associated with increased happiness. They found vacation planners to be happier than non-planners in every category they looked at. Planners were also more content in their relationships, their sense of wellbeing and liked their jobs more. Perhaps this is because their professional environment was supportive of vacations in general: 39 percent of vacation planners said their company culture was conducive to taking time off, versus 27 percent of non-planners.

The idea of coming back to a place or people you feel don’t support you can add an extra layer of stress to your return. Rosenthal says the post-vacay crash can be especially painful when you feel like your reality needs work. “A vacation will not fix an unhappy life,” he says. “Better to attend to the fundamental reasons why you are unhappy in the first place.”

How else can we beat the post-vacay blues? Gates offers these tips:

1. Insta/blog/journal about your travels

“Everyone is obsessed with taking photos, but looking back on a personal journal transports you back to your vacation in a much more personal and powerful way,” he says. Next vacay, plan to lug along a travel diary to detail your adventures.

2. Bring home a piece of your vacation

Forsake the typical “I was here” t-shirt and opt for a more personal souvenir that relates to your travel experience, says Gates. “Whether it’s a bottle of local liqueur that you sipped by the beach, a woven basket from that market you got lost in or just a beautiful stone from the river you swam in, meaningful mementos keep us connected to our new favorite places,” he says.

3. Read up on your beloved locale

Preoccupying yourself with a page-turner based where your passport was stamped is a great way to keep the vacay vibes going. “I recently returned from Zimbabwe and picked up a copy of a biography of famed explorer David Livingstone. Before I knew it, I was back in Africa and feeling the spray of the Zambezi river as it plummets over Victoria Falls,” Gates says.

4. Embrace your new post-getaway perspective

It’s often said that a change of view leads to a change of perspective. Time away from our daily lives can be just the thing we need to refresh and renew whatever positive feelings we have about home. “Remember, if we never return to the place we started, we would just be wandering, lost,” Gates says. “Yes, travel is about seeing someplace new, but it also helps us return home with new eyes. Let your new experiences enrich your old routine. After all, you’re not the same person you were when you left.”

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