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VOL. 37 | NO. 9 | Friday, March 01, 2013

Why is it so hard for us to chill out?

It’s important for us to use our vacation time. So go, hit the beach!

By Linda Bryant

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National surveys show that the majority of Americans don’t take all the vacation time they’ve earned.

Michelle Pearce, a Nashville-based expert on stress management, recently weighed in on the topic with the Nashville Ledger. Pearce is an associate faculty member in the department of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and a psychotherapist at Vanderbilt’s Center for Integrative Health, a local clinic that provides complementary therapies to traditional medicine, including counseling, massage therapy, acupuncture, yoga and nutrition.

Pearce has a master’s degree from Yale University and a doctorate in ministry from the Graduate Theological Foundation. She’s an expert on mind-body therapy for adults with chronic illness, stress, chronic pain, grief and emotional issues.

A recent survey showed 57 percent of working Americans have unused vacation time, leaving an average of 11 days – or nearly 70 percent – of their allotted time unused. Why don’t American’s take more time off?

“Those are interesting statistics and not surprising. We can hypothesize some reasons for people not taking their allotted time-off based on our understanding of stress, how people think and react to stress, as well as what is going on in the economic and workplace environment right now.

“First, people often respond to the feeling of increased pressure or stress with trying harder and with more thinking about what to do, how to fix it, how to achieve relief. This often leads to worry and more ‘doing.’

“This means that when people feel more stressed at work they will often respond with more activity, faster activity, and more worry about how to fix it. They feel less able to relax. Relaxing or ‘not-doing’ gives time for the body and mind to recover.

“Periods of recovery are needed for health and for mental clarity. You need to periodically hit the pause button on life and to ‘be’ rather than to ‘do.’’’

Can you think of other contributing factors?

“The current economic and workplace climate, unemployment has been high, and there have been lay-offs. Job insecurity is high. Employers are demanding more from employees with fewer resources. The response of employees is often more activity, greater stress, and more job insecurity. These natural and human responses lead to less and less ability to work smarter.

How do you work smarter?

“Working smarter means being more efficient rather than more active or doing more. Clear thinking is not possible in emotionally stressful conditions. Clear thinking and working more efficiently require a healthy brain, body and mind. It is possible to take care of your mind and body with simple stress reduction techniques such as periods of recovery from mental and physical activity that allows the body to recover and the brain to reset.

“Taking a vacation is a period of recovery. Worrying about your job becomes a mental habit. It is hard to get release from the worry because the anxiety about job security, demands, and performance may continue when you take some recovery time.

“Recovery or down time then feels more stressful because worry about work continues, and this is interpreted as the need to work more. It’s a habit and cycle that is not helpful and without understanding continues to drive behavior into ever more stressful patterns of thinking and doing.

“Even the idea of how to take a vacation in the midst of life’s demands can feel overwhelming. Often, when on vacation, worry about the job continues for days, there are a few days of fun, and then worry about returning to work begins. The stressed person may just decide that vacations are just not worth it, or they just don’t have enough time to take a vacation.’’

From a health perspective, why is it important to get away from work? What are the consequences of burning the candle at both ends?

“Chronic stress is detrimental to your health. Not having recovery periods and chronic worry causes the stress response in the body. When the body is chronically stressed, hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin are released. The elevated flight or fight hormones like cortisol and adrenalin make you prone to obesity and high blood pressure. It also can lead to anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

“Chronic stress can shrink the Hippocampus, a memory center in the brain. The immune system is highly sensitive to stress. Chronic stress contributes to getting sick, having more symptoms, and staying sick longer.

“Other underlying conditions such as diabetes, chronic pain syndromes, IBS, migraines and other headaches are exacerbated by chronic stress. Some chronic conditions flare or become worse during periods of stress and research shows that stress and its effects on the body may be a significant contributing factor of many other health conditions.’’

I imagine a lot of people are worried about the expense of taking time off. Any suggestions for how to de-stress without taking a very expensive vacation?

“Taking recovery periods, slowing down to help the body to reset, regaining a larger perspective on what is important in life and refocusing on the things that offer pleasure and connection, does not have to be expensive or even time-consuming. Taking smaller “mini-vacations” each day – three minutes of breathing and relaxation, looking out the window, enjoying desktop pictures of family, etc., – help to prepare you to take the longer recovery periods that are also needed, such as on weekends and vacations.

“These daily 'mini' vacations help to change the constant habit of worrying so that you can relax and enjoy time off. Vacations can then become ways to reconnect with the smaller pleasures and joys in life. Sometimes vacations are viewed as ways to escape or get away. Reframing vacations as a way to reconnect with life can offer a different perspective that makes money and place much less important.

“We Americans have also developed the habit, probably through advertisements by the travel industry, that vacations in exotic and expensive places are what we really need to be happy. In fact, research shows that happiness is not tied at all to what we are doing.

“Each moment in life consists of many pleasant, unpleasant and neutral experiences. Happiness is a by-product of 'how' you experience each moment rather than “what” you are doing. If you are fully present in this moment rather than worrying about the past or future, you find greater happiness and relaxation in life. You are then able to enjoy a walk, playing with a child or grandchild, or petting the beloved family pet.

“This ability to enjoy the moment allows your mind and brain to reset, thus enabling more clarity of thinking and greater efficiency at work. The best way to take a vacation is to take an inventory, to be aware, of what brings you the greatest pleasure, joy, and feeling of connection and comfort in life and then do that, being mindful of the pleasure you experience in each moment that you are doing it.

“Remembering that life is really simply a series of precious moments, and you have the power to make those moments count is what makes for a wonderful relaxing vacation.’’

Since the economic downturn, have you noticed an increase in people needing help to find work/life balance and stress reduction?

“Yes, definitely. Most of us feel the increased pressures at work and the competing demands of work and home life. This discrepancy between perception of competing demands for limited time and work vs. family responsibilities is a real source of stress and emotional distress.

“It often comes with a sense of helplessness and loss of control, which are red flags indicating stress. Paying attention to those red flags on the field of life is very important to taking care of ourselves.

“Would you drive your car until it is runs out of gas and oil because you don’t want to take the time to stop at the gas station or get the oil changed? How are you taking care of your body and mind, which need much more care than your car?

“Taking smaller periods of recovery, having scheduled recovery periods for a few hours each week, and a week of vacation every so many months can give back a sense of control and is an important way to take care of your body and mind. If you don’t, your body will eventually break down in some way, forcing you to take a long period of recovery.’’

How do you know if you are a workaholic as opposed to just being a hard worker? Where do you draw the line?

“We might think about a workaholic as someone who works too hard, harder than is healthy. For the workaholic, work becomes about more than productivity, achievement or finances. Perhaps the workaholic needs to prove something to themselves or to others, or perhaps they use work as a way to escape or avoid some other more painful things in their life, such as emotional problems, unhappiness, relationships, and family or financial problems.

“A good place to draw the line is where work becomes so important in your life that it compromises or supersedes all your other relationships and connections in life, your ability to enjoy, connect, and participate in life and all it has to offer in a well-rounded way.

“The biggest lesson that we’ve learned from all the recent research and study related to stress is that relationship and connectedness is at the heart of all good health, relationships to your body, to your loved ones, to your job and to co-workers.

“When you pay attention, stay connected and take care of all your relationships, you are able to move towards greater health and happiness.’’

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