Holidays are stressful. A pastiche of travel literature, hotel reviews and social media makes many a promise about a bookable package, few of which can be honoured. While organising a break, I go through a mental process or “self-check” to ensure I make full use of the precious time I have. So I’ve designed a guide to help you relax during your break – call it the Zen of Holiday.
“One’s destination is never a place, but always a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller
Think of a past excursion you’ve been on: after you’d booked it, you probably had an immediate mental image of what it was going to be like. The ambience, the scenery, the people; you may have even mentally pre-ordered a few of your drinks at the bar. Now remember what it was actually like. Was it the same? I can imagine that most people reading this (some more vehemently than others) will say, “No!”. A corollary of this exercise is to write down the things you remember from your last holiday. Was it the immaculately made hotel room with complimentary pillow-mint? No? Was it the 7-course taster menu or the hot stone massage? Maybe? Or, was it the joke you shared with your partner when things went south? Hopefully.
The Essence of a Holiday
Herein lies the essence of a holiday for me. Too often a holiday is a perverse parody of precisely what it should be. If you’ve booked your annual leave mechanically or chosen your destination based upon prices, hotel reviews and personal recommendations, ask yourself “Why?”. Why do I want to leave my day-to-day existence? Why do I want to disrupt my lifestyle? Is it because I like travelling? Do I want to make someone else happy – my partner, my kids or my boss who tells me I’m “burned out?”. Working from this first principle is often the key to a good break. Once you have the basics right, the rest will usually follow. And you can truly relax.
A holiday is a time to participate in the most expensive therapy you’ve ever had. It’s your chance to be mindful on a grand scale. It is your gift to the mental health of yourself and your loved ones. If a holiday is therapy, you are the therapist. In my mind, you have to approach the holiday from this angle.
Mindfulness is a tool used in healthcare to relax by managing anxiety and depression. Its basic principle is focusing on the present through sensory stimuli, thereby distracting the mind from the thoughts which can trigger a decline in your mental health. When you go on holiday, you are not forgetting your problems, you are merely swapping them.
Exchanging chronic life situations like work, family and money with smaller, holiday situations like how much you’re going to tip the bellboy, how you’re going to get used to driving on the other side of the road and whether you’ve put enough sun cream on. In this way we (albeit temporarily) become the boss of our problems. This control can lead to a snowball effect and spill into our lives when we get back home. Aim for this momentum and you will reap the benefits.
Be Prepared To Relax
A good start is essential to any break, so be prepared to cover the basics and boring details well in advance. You can motivate yourself by imagining that you are a Personal Assistant, working for the VIP client that is you. Your VIP needs their documents, their emergency medications, their travel insurance, some reading material and much, much more. According to research by Travelbag.co.uk, Brits lose (on average) two days of holiday time in the stress of checking work messages. Most employers are very understanding about your “down time” and much of the guilt you feel about being away from your post may be self-imposed. Complete your to-do list at work and tie up any loose ends – including setting an “out of office” on your email and handing over any key projects to work colleagues.
We often have a tendency to create a well-organised itinerary and squeeze as many activities into our holiday as possible. This is great if you are travelling and sight-seeing, but if you’re on holiday to relax and have a break from the real world, remember to pace yourself. Excursions can be great but avoid doing too many during your trip. Depending on the length of your stay, I would recommend doing one every other day or having a two-day gap in between each one.
Visiting museums and other tourist attractions can also be exciting, but take it easy. Another key tip is to start off your holiday by relaxing, rather than rushing straight into anything. On your first day of arrival, don’t do anything. You could explore the resort or local area, but you could also have a nap to recover from your journey, or chill in your hotel room or by the pool. If you put too much pressure on yourself to “make the most” of every single second, you will never relax.
Structure Does Help
On that note, if you don’t plan at all, your holiday will be over before you know it. There’s a fine art to striking a balance between preparation and relaxation. A common mistake people make is to abandon daily structure when you are on holiday, and while the temptation to let go of fixed routines is there, this may not bring about the relaxation we need. Try to wake up at a sensible time, plan a morning activity, an afternoon activity and an evening activity. The activity might be sleeping, however if it’s planned then it’s OK. When else will you have people cooking and cleaning for you? Do you usually have easy and open access to a gym or a swimming pool? Make the most of the facilities and your surroundings.
Ditch Toxic Tech
Use your freed-up time well. Although your work as a therapist is in full swing, your day job should be a distant memory. Try wherever possible not to check your emails, leave work phones at work and don’t take any other work-related memorabilia with you. If you really want a break, forward your personal calls to a pay-as-you go number on a “dumb phone” such as the Punkt. MP 01 and leave your smart one at home.
Use an e-reader like Amazon’s Kindle or Kobo’s Aura. Their limited functionality makes it less likely you’ll stray from reading your book and their relatively cheap prices means you won’t be upset should you lose them. You’ll want to take photographs, so why not try digging out your standalone point-and-shoot camera or DSLR? Most people use their phones for snaps, but you might find it more satisfying and less overwhelming doing it the old-fashioned way. And don’t worry about uploading your pics to social media; you can do it when you’re back.
Your Body Is A Temple
What you put into your body while you’re away is a fundamental part of your therapy. If you eat clean and don’t stray too far from that dietary control which has served you so well this year at home, you’re onto a winner. Buffets, fine dining and late nights will be the likely culprits for your holiday weight gain. Watch your drink as well as your food. Keeping hydrated in hot climates is essential for wellbeing. Many people drink more alcohol while on vacation; remember that after a couple of drinks, alcohol quickly turns from being your relaxing friend to your stress-inducing enemy. Know your limits and run the marathon not the sprint.
Be Flexible & Enjoy Yourself
Make your vacation a therapeutic retreat in which you will be yourself, minus some of the stressors of your home-self. If your break doesn’t live up to your expectations in all its facets, roll with the punches and adapt to whatever it becomes; an inflexible plan is a recipe for disappointment. Remember the aim is to avoid adding any newer problems and emerge from your therapy as a rested, more focused person.
Image Credit (top): Lake Tahoe Couple / Best of Slim Aarons | Getty Images