There is a reason that so much satire and farce is set in vacation season, and that’s because right next to the sublime shores and long, lazy days, is the holiday alter-ego: the family tensions, inability to relax, or self-loathing in a swimsuit – often accompanied by panicked or melancholic taking stock of where we’re at in the existentials.
These are all common reactions to change, to pause and to the intensity of time spent together. Some might say that’s why they invented cocktail hour. Nonetheless, other than numbing ourselves out, there are some alternative approaches to taking time out that might help to foster a more enjoyable and relaxing experience.
We often have quite idealised and rigid expectations of our holiday time, and this can lead to dissatisfaction when we’re still worrying about work or struggling to sit still. When we’re chasing a certain state and fighting with reality, our bodies tense up and we become anxious. We might have an idea that we ‘should’ be sinking into a hammock or waking up without a care.
In truth, most people, when they’ve been busy or stressed take a while to switch off. The sympathetic nervous system, which is our fight/flight system and is aroused through stress, takes a while to cool down – for our brains to register that we are safe, that things are calm. We may remain tense and hypervigilant for a few days, even after touching down on the calmest of shores. This is a natural evolutionary artefact. One of our ways we have survived as a species is to make sure danger is properly gone before we rest.
Obviously, evaluating ourselves as not making the most of our holidays, or worrying about not being able to relax, is going to turn the heat up on this system even more. So the first and most important step is to accept it might take a while to relax and adjust our expectations of ourselves and others.
Mindful use of the breath and body
There are a few shortcuts we can take to help turn off the sympathetic nervous system response and turn on its counter – the parasympathetic nervous system. This has the opposite effect on the body, controlling rest and inhibiting many high energy functions.
- Bringing awareness to the present moment by focusing on physical sensations e.g the sand between our toes, or the sensation of the sun on a part of our body, or the feeling of walking heel to toe along a path. This brings us back into the now, and can regulate the autonomic response.
- We can expand this to focusing on sounds around us, the things we can see, or the things we can taste. Engaging the senses in the here-and-now brings us back to the present and away from the drama of our minds. Neurologically, if repeated, it cools down the stress arousal over time.
- Changing our breathing – anxiety breath tends to be shallow and quick. Deepening and slowing the breath down tells our brains that our bodies are becoming calm, which then cools down the stress response.
Thought defusion: taking the sting out of thinking
Similarly, if our thoughts feel oppressive and intrusive and we feel hijacked by them, we might consider trying a few thought defusion techniques. These involve describing the thoughts e.g. I am having the thought that… Or I notice that my body is have the response of… What this does, it start to insert a space between the thoughts and sensations and ourselves, making them less overwhelming and pervasive. We can extend this exercise to visualising our thoughts as passengers on a bus, getting on and getting off while we remain in the driver’s seat.
Other useful metaphors include visualising our thoughts as bits of debris floating down a river, while we stand strong on the banks. One can experiment with these visualisations and use what works for you. The main aim is to return the thoughts and sensations back to what they are – neurological processes as opposed to things that are actually happening in the here and now.
Gentle exercise is also brilliant for burning up some of the adrenalin – after all fight or flight is an active response. The recommendation is that the exercise be gentle and rythmic so as to reinforce that the body is not in danger, and to encourage a state of mindfulness. Swimming, walking, yoga, tai chi, pilates are all excellent. They also have the added bonus of being a bit of mindful me-time, and can function as a natural boundary from the flock.
Boundaries and limit-setting
Practice technology hygiene – we’re thinking about having limited time on phone and emails. If you must engage with the outside world, put a very secure boundary around this time each day
Similarly, we might need to think about the space we give one another on holiday. It’s impossible to be together 24/7 and still have a regulated limbic system, as anyone who has been caravaning in the rain can attest to. We might need to consider time together as a fluid concept, merging and diverging as needed.
It can also be helpful to think about allowing ourselves and others space for our own ever-changing experiences. For example, if our partner is quiet and introspective and we’re hankering for something more lively, make space for this, and focus on meeting your own need as opposed to trying to change the other person.
In short, if you do nothing else, try to hold onto the intention of cultivating a more humane expectation for yourself and others on holiday. This means accepting the present moment regardless of rain, grumpiness, or that all the sun loungers are taken. At that point, one is on holiday from the pressure of ‘should’ and ‘must,’ and not simply trying to escape from ourselves.