Long weekend in Miami, or a couple lazy weeks at a summer cabin? When it comes to your brain, not all vacations are created equal. And depending on how you choose to unwind, the effects of your time off can stretch from the moment you book your flight to many years after you’ve unpacked your suitcase. Here’s how.
Before You Leave
Even months before you depart, your thoughts will tend to gravitate to your upcoming vacation. And daydreaming about that positive event can actually boost your sense of wellbeing and contentment, shows research on “pre-vacation pleasure” from the University of Washington. Anticipating some solid time off also helps you bear down on your work duties, and so your job performance and effort tends to spike in the weeks before a vacation, research shows.
Unfortunately, in the few days right before you hit the road, that pre-vaca pleasure tends to evaporate, shows Dutch research. Why? Preparing to split often creates a mountain of work that sends your brain’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol through the roof, the research indicates. This is even truer for women, who tend to have a heap of home-related duties to wrap up along with job-related workloads, the study authors say.
During Your Vacation
You can ditch your phone and laptop, but you can’t always “unplug” your brain, studies show. During short jaunts like a long holiday weekend or a two-day trip, your mind tends to return over and over again to past sources of work stress and, even more so, to upcoming challenges that may be more difficult to deal with thanks to your time off, another Dutch study suggests. Those worries can sustain or even elevate your brain’s amount of stress chemicals, making it difficult for you to sleep and relax during your time away, the research reveals.
But as your vacation lengthens, so does your noodle’s ability to detach from work-related concerns, finds a study from the journal Work & Stress. And when that happens, you enjoy heightened feelings of satisfaction, relaxation, energy, and a positive mood, the study shows. You also benefit from a drop in tension. But be warned: Drinking too much alcohol or sleeping in uncomfortable quarters denies your brain the rest it craves while you’re on break, the Work & Stress authors say.
Believe it or not, there’s also some research that shows a vacation could make you ill. Known as “leisure sickness,” symptoms range from headaches to muscle pain and nausea, shows a study from the Netherlands. When you break it down, stress is your body’s response to physical or psychological challenges. And when you remove those challenges, the sudden absence of stress-related brain and nervous system hormones may throw your body for an unexpected loop that manifests itself as illness, the study authors suggest.
After Your Vacation
You’ll probably experience the lowest amount of fatigue immediately following your return from vacation, the Work & Stress study suggests. Why? It’s possible that tackling those put-off tasks and catching up on sleep may explain the weird finding, the study authors say.
Unfortunately, all the other benefits you associate with a vacation (relaxation, a heightened sense of life satisfaction, renewed energy levels) fade quickly after you’re back at your desk—usually within one week, shows research from Jessica de Bloom, Ph.D., of the University of Tampere in Finland. You can probably guess why: The stress of returning to mounds of work and pages of emails creates stress, de Bloom explains. (Working overtime right after you get home kills your lingering vacation high especially quickly, she adds.) Returning home from your trip at least a day or two before you start work is also a great way to keep your stress levels from rocketing back up the moment your vacation ends, de Bloom adds.
Despite this mixed bag of vacation-related findings, studies show your brain and body definitely benefit from time off. The more often you get away, the lower your mortality rate, shows a nine-year study of middle-aged vacationers conducted by the University of Pittsburgh. Apart from your vacation’s stress-lowering powers, spending time with close friends and family members (which tends to happen a lot when you’re on vacation) is an activity lots of research has tied to a longer, happier life, the study authors say.
There’s also research on “experiential” activities that shows your ability to revisit your vacations through memory provides a lasting boost in life-satisfaction and contentment. Even though years may have passed since you visited India or hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail, you carry with you those experiences (and the accompanying sense of pride and accomplishment), say the San Francisco State University study authors.
There’s also evidence that trying new foods or visiting new places while on vacation stimulates dormant areas of your brain, and so can lead to a boost in memory, finds a study from the University of Texas. (In fact, almost any new experience or activity—from visiting a new country to chopping vegetables with your non-dominant hand—can offer these types of brain-boosting benefits.)