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Vacations: we never seem to get enough of them, and we never seem to get enough time on them to fully enjoy ourselves. If the best part of a vacation is getting away, the worst part of the vacation is coming back. Between the laundry loads, the return to chores and the start of workdays again, it’s a wonder more people don’t suffer from post vacation depression.
Chances are you’ve felt the post vacation blues, but have you been depressed? Maybe the time away has made you feel less in love with your job, made your home feel a little more boring or maybe it was the sudden deluge of errands to catch up on, but that sense of overwhelm from “getting back from vacation” might be a little more than melancholy.
If you’ve been back for a few days and already are googling new destinations, you are definitely not alone.
But before you book that deal to Mykonos and max out your travel card to chase the feeling, consider some of these (cheaper) ways of working through those back-from-beach-bumming, post-holiday blues and fighting the depression after vacation head-on.
Post-travel depression, sometimes called a vacation hangover, isn’t something that has been deeply studied in the medical or scientific worlds, so the evidence we have isn’t very substantial.
We do know that there is an increased risk of depression or down feelings associated with returning from a vacation, much the same way that there’s an association between better mood and going on the vacation itself.
Generally speaking, depression can be caused by a lot of things, but in the case of the “vacation” question, our best guess is a combination of risk factors, including seasonal changes and life changes.
In the case of vacations, that change may simply be returning to “real life” and your normal routine.
Typically, depression may be caused by factors like a death in the family, a sudden move across country or the “winter blues” associated with those cold, dreary winter months.
So, if you’re a person living in a rainy locale who goes off for two weeks in the tropics, it’s understandable that you may return and feel a little weather-based sadness or melancholy.
The reality is that most people feel this way.
One study suggested that, for most people, by the first day back from the vacation, most of the feel-good energy from your R&R will have already faded away entirely.
That sounds bad, but the fact is that your vacation’s benefit to your happiness is somewhat like sleep — the minute you stop sleeping, you will begin to bend towards a state of “tired” again.
Tired goes away when you sleep. In the same way, vacation depression can really be most effectively treated by putting up that out-of-office responder again and heading back to the beach.
It’s hard to determine the relationship between depression, vacation and how it affects your recovery time from depression.
Depression isn’t like the common cold or the flu — it doesn’t have an approximate “shelf life” or length of symptoms that we can give you to estimate.
What we can say is that based on the limited data out there, you could very well make your depression go away just by heading out on vacation again.
Practically speaking, though, that’s impossible for almost everyone. We have responsibilities, we have jobs, we have social circles and other obligations that keep us from running to (and affording) a new work- and stress-free life in another more charming locale.
The data we do have suggests that there are ways to mitigate those depressive feelings and emotions that come with a return from the activities we enjoy.
Here are some things we know about using that for your own benefit.
One thing that research has observed is that, for vacationers, the effects of a vacation aren’t permanent and aren’t meant to be.
We need to eat regularly — we can’t eat all the food we’ll ever need at once. We need to sleep regularly — we can’t get all our sleep for the year in one month (if we could, we’d all pick January).
Likewise, we can’t get all our rest, relaxation and disconnection time in once a year (or once a decade for those people who can’t seem to take time off).
Vacations and their benefits need to come regularly, as frankly should the work that comes in between. When you fail to find that balance, research shows you’re only harming yourself.
Practically speaking, there are ways you can extend the value of your vacation and its benefits to your mental health.
One is to simply make sure you thoroughly enjoy your vacation. Research shows that it can increase your rest and generally benefit your health and wellness, which is an effect you can feel for a couple of weeks after returning from a trip.
In the bigger picture, though, reducing sources of stress for your return will help you out.
Scheduling transition days so that you’re not bombarded with meetings or calls the moment you’re back on the clock can be greatly beneficial.
Finishing up projects and chores before leaving can reduce your workload when you return, too.
When you do return, consider extending that social time. Meet up with friends and tell them about your trip. Look through your vacation photos and maybe even print a real-life photo album that you can look through when you’re feeling a little down.
Lastly, yes, you may want to schedule another vacation.
Remember, more frequent opportunities to rest, socialize, detach and seek pleasure can benefit your health and wellness generally. Staycations, weekend getaways and the occasional hookie day would all fit those criteria, though we certainly wouldn’t endorse lying to your boss (especially when ours is reading this article — *cough cough* we would never do that).
Seeking help for your depression is important if it’s still a problem a few weeks after you return.
There’s a difference between your mind’s response to having to go back to work and your mind’s response to an ongoing problem.
If you’re feeling that sadness, hopelessness or other negative feelings, thoughts and emotions are affecting your quality of life or preventing you from doing that work you’re back on the clock for, it may be a sign that your depression isn’t transitory and it’s not just a side effect of having to return home.
In these cases, speaking with a healthcare professional may be a good idea. They may refer you for treatment, suggest medicine like an antidepressant or even suggest therapy and therapeutic practices like cognitive behavioral therapy to help you work through the big-picture depression issues.
We have resources available if you’re curious about treatment in the form of online therapy, depression symptoms, and other issues related to your mental health, so check them out if you want to know more.
Nobody wants to come back from a vacation, and whether you’ve been gone a day or a month, it never really does feel like enough. That’s normal — everyone feels it.
What everyone doesn’t feel is a lingering sadness or down mood associated with the return, and certainly not for months after the vacation is over. If that’s how you're feeling, it might not be because you’re back in your usual routine, it may not mean that you need extra time away, and it may not be post-travel blues at all — it may be a different type of depression.
If you’re feeling that way, consult a healthcare professional for some support. They’ll be able to point you toward the tailored treatment you need to address those problems and get back to work, so that you can start planning your next vacation.
Looking forward to the next trip is important. Clear the mental path to focus on the good today, because otherwise, you’re going to struggle so much that you’ll need another vacation now.
Kate Hagerty is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over a decade of healthcare experience. She has worked in critical care, community health, and as a retail health provider.
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