Holiday Breaks May be Dangerous to Your Health

December 17, 2007 by Ken Nowack

“No man needs a vacation so much as the person who has just had one.” 

Elbert Hubbard

How many of you are looking forward to a break during this holiday season to unwind, spend time with family and friends and “energize your batteries” again before the New Year begins?  Most of us will actually slow down, even for a short period of time, before gearing right back up to the work, family and life pressures we are currently experiencing.

The United States is definitely the land of “relaxation deficit disorder” and even when we need a vacation or should take time off during a holiday we are often reluctant to do so.  Even worse is when we do, we might even get sick because of it.

According to, 61% of workers in the United States take less than 15 days of vacation per year.  Comparison studies shggest we do work 100 hours more than professional workers in Europe. The average work week in the United States is a bit more than 44 hours and even more if you are in a professional position or own your own business.

A recent survey of 2,082 workers by Hudson (The Hudson Employment Index) suggested that more than half of the respondents said they do not use all of their vacation time and 30% indicated that they use less than half of their allotted personal time. Interestingly, 30% also reported feeling more comfortable taking sick time rather than vacation.

So, why do some of us get sick in the heat of the battle, others after the battle and some are just plain resilient in the face of work and life stress1?

It appears that some of us who just unwind and take a holiday might actually be at risk for getting sick!  Yep, you are on that plane just ready to take a long deserved vacation and all of a sudden you begin to feel lousy.  You think, “No, not now — I don’t need to get sick during my vacation!”

Typically, you were also the same students in college who head home after finals week and after creating a huge sleep deficit (OK, partying will definitely add to that), eating more poorly then you typically do, and feeling some final exam pressure (surely at least once class got you fired up) you head home for that long awaited break only to basically find yourself in bed the entire time sicker than a dog (not really sure how this saying began).

Just when I thought holiday breaks and vacations were advised, recommended and a stress reliever I had a chance to chat with a dear colleague and friend of mine who is on faculty at the UCLA School of Medicine — Marc Schoen, Ph.D. who has been studying this exact mind-body connection in his book,”When Relaxation is Hazardous to Your Health.”

The Let Down Effect

Indeed, relaxation can actually be a contributor to getting sick–particularly if you unwind to fast and move from a chronically excited “stress state” to a sudden “relaxed” state.  There is even a name for this — the “let down effect” coined by Dr. Schoen.

When you’re straining and struggling under the burden of work or family pressures, your body releases a number of stress hormones which mobilize your immune system against illness. But when the stressful period ends, your immune system “pulls back its troops” and the body becomes less vigilant in weeding out internal and external invaders. At the same time, says Schoen, a reservoir of body chemicals called prostaglandins, left over from the stress response, tends to produce inflammation, and can trigger problems like arthritic pain, migraines and exacerbate other stress related conditions.

Here are some options recommended by Schoen to minimize the Let Down Effect during this upcoming holiday and vacation season:

  1. Schoen recommends techniques that activate the immune system a little, and thus keep it from slowing down too rapidly after a period of stress. Try short bursts of exercise — even just five minutes in length — which can trigger a positive immune-system response. “Walk up and down the stairs in your office building,” says Schoen. “Or after a stressful day at work, instead of coming home and vegging-out in front of the TV, take a brisk walk for a few minutes.”
  2. Try some mental problem solving, like crossword puzzles, under time constraints. “Several studies show that doing math computations at a rapid pace actually increases immune-system activity,” says Schoen.
  3. Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, which can give your mind and body a rest stop from the day’s anxieties. Consciously make yourself breathe slower, inhaling deeply and exhaling naturally. Become aware of the gentle rising and falling of your abdomen. This deep breathing can lower your heart rate, slow your brain waves, and even reduce your blood pressure. Paying attention to your breathing is actually a simple and calming form of meditation.

The idea is to move more slowly from your current fast paced and chronically stressed state to a more gradual relaxation state.  It’s the “unwinding before you unwind” condition.  The risk of shifting to quickly is the risk of spending your vacation or holiday fighting something you’d rather avoid having to deal with in the first place.

So, if as a student you remember coming home on breaks and holidays and winding up getting sick, you might want to follow the advice of Dr. Schoen.
If all else fails, one alternative to vacations is just to stay at home and tip one out of three people you run into….Be well….
[tags]the let down effect, stress, well-being, vacations, relaxation,immune system, health promotion programs, employee wellness, stress management, psychoneuroimmunology, resilience, hardiness, kenneth nowack, ken nowack, nowack[/tags]

  1. Nowack, K. (2007). Who is the Resilient Talent, and How Do You Develop It? Talent Management, 3 (6) p. 12. []

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Wellness

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  • Filip Craciun

    Ken, this one really hits home with me…I’ve always been dissapointed in my tendency to get sick at all the wrong times. I remember when you first shared your reasearch on this with me and I’ve taken it to heart ever since. Simply being aware of the let-down effect you described has helped me to overcome it.

    Personally, I’ve found that tieing up loose ends at work and doing as much as possible to exceed expectations, instead of just meeting them, before taking of on vacation does wonders for my psychological state. Even if things come up while I’m away – they almost always do – at least my clients can focus on the deliverables I’ve just secured and balance the scales. Doing this relaxes me in a more fulfilling way and helps me to avoid the let-down effect.

    I’ve emailed this on to some folks…I think it’s rings true with many people.

    Thanks for the great read!

  • Cara Negri

    I am a walkimg testament to this blog. I even read this post before going on vacation, and I still got sick! I travel every week, and luckily I have never had to cancel a trip due to illness. I sent it to a lot of people in my company who travel as much as I do, and I got a lot of resonses of how true this is. I guess next time, I just need to do better at preparing for the vacation. That in itself may be a lot of work! But if I don’t get sick next time, it’s well worth it. Thanks for the suggestions!

  • Pingback: How Holidays and Vacations Make you Sick and What to do About it. | The Cranking Widgets Blog()

  • Wow, that’s really weird. I had no idea that was actually a documented scientific thing, but I guess it makes sense. I’ve often heard people say they only allow themselves to be sick at certain times of year, but I always found that to be a bit silly. This makes much more sense than that. Thanks for the post!

  • Pingback: Andy Parkinson’s World » Blog Archive » How Holidays and Vacations Make you Sick and What to do About it.()

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