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HAPPINESS COLUMN: Vacations may be just what the doctor ordered

CBC Happiness columnist Jennifer Moss explains why it's important to unplug this summer.

Even if you can't go far, taking a break can help you push through

Taking some time off work can help you see your space in a new light. (Rebecca Marion)

Never before has the word "vacation" been so loaded with stress. Although a number of studies have shown that taking a vacation offers both physical and psychological health benefits, in the era of COVID-19, vacations have been put on the back burner. It makes perfect sense. Financial losses, work stress, and overall fear of the virus makes the idea of vacation seem more stressful than it's worth. But, there's good news.

We can take that much-needed time away to reset our minds and our bodies without all the worry. It just requires some creative thinking and the right balance of safety and fun.

Taking back our homes

For anyone who has been hard hit financially by COVID-19, my suggestion to take a vacation may seem tone-deaf. But hear me out. First, we tend to think of taking a vacation as attached to travel, but they actually hold two distinct meanings. Taking a vacation really just means to take a break – something we all desperately need after so many months of stress. It doesn't need to cost anything if you take a staycation – basically a stay-at-home vacation.

Now you're asking me why would I want to stay at home when home has lost a lot of its lustre? For many people, it's become a coop instead of a place of peace and escape. But, I think we need to start to reclaim our space. Home should be a place where we can decompress – not the source of our stress. And that means, changing our filter. A staycation – especially right now – can change our mindset.

Taking a staycation means taking a break from work, and the ongoing stress of life, and finding time to mentally and physically unwind. This can mean turning off the tech for a bit and picking up a book. Most importantly, a staycation in the summer means getting outside. Take the family on a picnic and enjoy the parks that are now open. Go on a drive outside the city for day trips to the beach and watch a sunset. Go to a drive-in movie or set one up in your backyard. Find a new hiking trail somewhere you've never visited before. Go mushroom foraging, like my sister-in-law does, or fish from a dock. There are so many ways to decompress. As always, it requires intention, effort and a bit of self-care.

What if I want to travel?

According to Saad Omer, director of Yale Institute for Global Health: "It's OK to have fun, (but) do it safely." We just need to strike a balance.

Dr. Allison Agwu, an infectious disease physician at Johns Hopkins Medicine, recommends how we can stay safe while traveling.

  1. Wear a mask. Pack hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes and paper towels.
  2. In rest stops, touch as little as possible. For things you must touch, like door handles and faucets, use a paper towel and throw it out before you get back in your car.
  3. Keep hand sanitizer in your seat so you remember to clean your hands when you get back in.
  4. If possible, bring and safely store your own food.
  5. To minimize contact on the road, pay for gas with a credit card, and disinfect the card afterward.
  6. If you're staying at a hotel or rental home - don't assume your space is clean. Wipe down all hard, nonporous surfaces regularly. Prioritize high-touch surfaces, like keys, TV remotes, nightstands, handles on sinks and doors, the fridge (inside and out), light switches, cups and plates.
  7. Don't consume any communal food and drink, like cookies at reception.
  8. Avoid crowded spaces – pool, beaches, bars, patios.

The suggestions above may feel like common sense, but I really hope you consider taking a break.

Why now?

You may be wondering: Why is it important that we take a vacation right now?

Here's why.

We've been dealing with chronic stress for months. Many of my recent columns have highlighted how drained we all feel. If we don't take some much-needed time to remove ourselves from our current state, we may risk depressive symptoms or falling into a longer-term depression.

Dr. Todd Kashdan, psychology professor and a senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, says that experiencing new things while on vacation can enhance our emotional agility. That means we increase our ability to not react immediately to emotions. This can make us more tolerant and even accepting of our own discomfort, and more confident in our ability to navigate difficult situations.

One study showed that disconnecting from the stressors of everyday life can increases our openness to experiences, agreeableness (e.g., warm, empathetic, giving), and emotional stability (i.e., easygoing)

And, despite what you may think, most organizations are not just encouraging their employees to take a vacation but enforcing it. More than ever, employers see this as essential to preventing burnout. One study found that almost half of Canadians are not taking their vacation time with a third of employees willing to give it up their vacation days entirely instead of taking them. In the U.S., 212 million vacation days get forfeited annually. For employees who are holding on to their vacation days, this is a major liability for employers on a number of fronts.

So, don't be afraid to ask your boss for a few days out of office – especially in the middle of a pandemic. A good leader will meet your request with positivity.  

If you need to, make this your pitch. These are all the scientific benefits to taking a vacation as outlined by Dr. Shannon Torberg, Clinical Psychologist at Allina Health.

  1. Improved physical health. The New York Times reported, taking a vacation every two years compared to every six will lessen the risk of coronary heart disease or heart attacks.
  2. Improved mental health. When we take breaks from our stress, it reduces the chronic exposure to the stress hormone cortisol, which can be a major contributing factor to anxiety and depression.
  3. Greater well-being. One study found that three days after vacation, subjects' physical complaints, quality of sleep, and mood had improved as compared to before vacation. These gains were still present five weeks later, especially in those who had more personal time and overall satisfaction during their vacation.
  4. We're more motivated at work and are less likely to feel burned out.
  5. It improves relationships. A study by the Arizona Department of Health and Human Services found that women who took vacations were more satisfied with their marriages.

Finally, developing these types of coping skills and improving our empathy, resilience and emotional stability are all essential mental health tools – all of this will help us in extraordinarily stressful times.

We need our reserves. We need our reserves to keep going – for ourselves and for each other. We need our reserves to keep our mental health above water. And most of all, we need our reserves because this battle isn't over yet. If we need to put up another fight – taking the time to reset and refresh will give us the strength to get through a second round.

But let's worry about that later. Today, you're going to start planning your vacation.

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