Acclimate to paradise: how to put your brain on vacation.


Welcome to paradise! You’re probably really excited about getting your vacation started. It’s normal, however, to feel a little off at first. Like the circadian confusion of jet lag or the headiness of altitude adjustment, you’re undergoing the process of shifting into vacation mode. That’s because all your efforts up to this point were about getting here— planning, packing, locking up, and leaving town. But leaving for vacation isn’t the same as being on vacation.

Fact is, you can’t relax on command, even if you want to. Given the ironclad grip stress and obligations have on you 24/7, your brain’s wheels are still spinning long after someone puts a margarita in your hand. “Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), your fight-or-flight response, and we can get hooked on the adrenaline that fuels it,” says psychologist Dr. Andrew Shatté, chief science officer for meQuilibrium, the first-ever online stress-management program. “This makes it difficult for us to relax, even when we’re lying on a deck chair.”

Here are some powerful strategies for easing into vacation mode so that you can reap the benefits when your cruise begins, as well as long after you’ve returned to shore.

Fake it first.

The antidote to your hyperactive SNS is your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which, fueled by the release of beta-endorphins, can create a relaxation response in your body and mind. You can help it along by acting relaxed, even if you don’t quite feel it yet.

“We can’t just shut off our thinking styles, the habits we form in how we think about ourselves, our world, and our place in the world, just because we’re now on vacation,” says Shatté. But what you can do is lead with the body and let the mind follow. Start by taking some slow, deep breaths, and make a conscious effort to do this throughout the day. Try moving and walking more slowly and intentionally sending the message to your brain that you’re not in rush-mode.

Disconnect to reconnect.

You may make a geographical leap on vacation, but you’re only ever a few clicks from your digital “home” on Facebook, Twitter, or email. Whether you feel drawn to social media out of habit or anxiety, take notice of when the urge strikes. Use that moment to observe your own patterns—and question them.

“The transition can be a real shock, so I ease into it,” says Carson Tate, productivity expert and founder of Working Simply, a company focused on improving employee productivity, engagement, and workplace effectiveness. “I do a final check of email, schedule a pedicure or something relaxing, and focus on being fully present in the moment.”

In a recent survey by meQuilibrium, 61 percent of respondents reported feeling jealous, depressed, sad, or annoyed after checking updates on their social media accounts. And if that weren’t bad enough, 81 percent admitted to interrupting conversations, mealtimes, and playtimes to check their phones. Rather than giving in to the knee-jerk response to check every time, ask yourself what you stand to lose by delaying that urge. Instead, give in to another urge—to swim or sleep or do nothing at all.

Recalibrate your productivity meter.

Vacation-mindedWhen your days are so focused on how much you got done and what’s left to do, it can feel strange, even guilt-inducing, to lounge around reading a magazine. Shouldn’t you be doing something else? Nope. “You have to redefine what ‘productive’ means on vacation, and it’s not about accomplishing tasks,” says Tate. “It’s about realigning with your goals and your purpose.”

While you might not get any “work” done on break, says Tate, you do more for your professional life by taking a vacation than you may realize. “When you’re on vacation, you think differently and assimilate ideas in a way that you wouldn’t if you were in back-to-back meetings at the office.” This can mean getting clearer on priorities and maybe even having a mental breakthrough. “Being away gives you a fresh and neutral perspective. You may come up with solutions you wouldn’t have before.”

Break from routine—and rules.

Did you come here with the intention of being “good” on vacation? If good means following some strict set of arbitrary rules, then being good is the wrong goal to have, says fit pro and wellness expert Ellen Barrett, author of the forthcoming book The 28 Days Lighter Diet. Perhaps you dutifully packed your spandex and swore to hit the gym every day. “This is not the time to be a slave to a formal workout,” says Barrett. “If you hate the treadmill, why spend your precious vacation hours on one?” Instead, she says, make it your goal to be active. “Rent bikes, walk on the beach, try surfing, play tennis—do something invigorating and fun because you want to, not because you have to.”

The same goes for the strict diet rules. “When I’m in France, I eat Brie and drink wine,” says Barrett. “You think that a piece of cake or a few cocktails are going to throw off your entire body forever—but trust me, it’s what you do most of the time that has the biggest impact. Not what you did on one vacation. Live a little!”

BONUS: 3 Tips for Masting Reentry

Transitioning out of vacation requires the same attention and time that it took to unwind in the first place. Working Simply’s Tate shares her tips for ensuring a smooth return.

1Go EasyVacation-minded

Of course, it helps if you can come home a half day or more early, as opposed to at midnight the night before heading into the office. But even if you get in late, be mindful of moving at a gentler pace and not rushing headlong into your obligations. Give yourself a bit of a buffer.

2Don’t Dive Into the Whole Inbox at Once

Even if you peeked while away, there will be mounting emails awaiting your return. Don’t try to take on three days’ worth of requests in a single day. Triage it, taking the most urgent first and allowing yourself the rest of the week to get through the bulk.

3Bring Back a Souvenir

What was the most fun, exhilarating, and relaxing about your trip, and how can you integrate an element of it into your life back home? Whether it was a daily walk or lingering over coffee, keep it up. Don’t leave all of your vacation in the rearview mirror.

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