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Can Holidays Make Us Sick?

My BF was off for work last week for a ‘staycation’, which is unusual for herself as she loves nothing better than to hop on a plane going somewhere remote. This year, however, was different. After a very busy six months at work, she wanted to chill-out at home whilst making the most of the sunny summer that we are having in London.  All was well until mid-holiday, when she rang me up in serious need a Kneader massage – all that relaxation had not only failed to loosen up her usual shoulder tension, it had seemed to exacerbate it.  

‘Leisure sickness’ is a fairly new term for an old phenomenon that hits a multitude of holiday makers and weekenders worldwide. Many overworked and overstressed people spend their leisure time nursing a cold, flu, nausea, muscle pain or a headache/migraine that came out of nowhere and frustratingly coincided with the start of their time off work.  Researchers have estimated that at least 3% of the population tend to suffer from what is also termed ‘weekend or vacation sickness’ and that the majority of those people have experienced it for up to 10yrs or more, with those affected often sharing characteristics such as “perfectionism, eagerness to achieve and an over-developed sense of responsibility to their work” – all of which can make ‘switching off’ and enjoying leisure time difficult.

So why does it happen?  Well there are two distinct schools of thought.  The first is the mind over matter theory that hypothesises individuals can mentally postpone getting ill until a more appropriate time when being ill won’t ‘get in the way’ (this is particularly evident in terminally ill people who specifically live towards the goal of seeing a child born, wedding, graduation etc). The second is that is it purely a biological process involving the medically acknowledged parasympathetic (flight or fight) response. The parasympathetic response is our physical response to a threat or a stressor. In this defensive state, the body is living on adrenaline and focussed on getting through a situation, so all the primary functions like circulation, muscle function, sensory perception etc function at their maximum capacity until the situation is resolved.  When an individual slows down, the body goes into rest and repair mode, which can involve giving itself time to be ill. In our fast-paced, highly-functioning world, most of us are in a ‘state of alert’ to some degree and that level of prolonged activity can and will exhaust our bodies and minds. It’s only when we go on holiday or face some quiet time on the weekends that we can actually stop to notice that we might not be doing so well.

That said, we can’t stop the world from turning – we all have jobs and responsibilities and bills to pay. There are, however, ways of maintaining enough of a balance to avoid the peaks and troughs of working hard and then crashing into a wall of un-wellness during our time off. Some people get ill every weekend (usually headaches or migraines) and it has been suggested that this may be down to the short-term change in routine, i.e. getting up with the alarm clock at 7am on the weekdays vs sleeping in on the weekends, changing meal times, drinking more, eating more etc.  Therefore, in addition to the basic healthy lifestyle advice (i.e. eat healthily, minimise alcohol intake, exercise often and get enough sleep) the answer to ‘leisure sickness’ may be to keep to the weekday routine as much as possible but just fill it up with fun things. Exercising on a Friday night can also help ease one into a healthier weekend (I personally do a full Yoga/floor exercise session late on Friday nights and it works wonders). This is also where having regular alternative therapies like massage, accupuncture, Reflexology, Indian Head Massage etc comes into play – they all relax the body and mind and help find that all important ‘switch-off button’.

If you do all the above and yet are still affected by bouts of ‘leisure sickness’, you are obviously in the 3% of perfectionist workaholics and you may want to first consult with your GP and then consider going on a meditation course or seeing a cognitive therapist/psychologist to help you learn to relax and embrace your leisure moments with health and happiness.