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Stressed? Don't Take a Vacation

Getting away may seem like the perfect solution to chronic stress, but the author of a new book says the counterintuitive truth is you're better off staying home.

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It's summer and the sun is shining outside your office window.

Starting and running a business is hard work, so it's no surprise that you may register your stress, check out the weather, and conclude this is a great time to take a vacation.

As sensible as this train of thought sounds, science suggests that the chronically stressed may be wrong in thinking that the best medicine is to get on a plane and see someplace new.

That's according to John Coates, author of The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk-taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust. He took to Fast Company recently to explain that our hard-wired instincts when it comes to stress may actually often cause us to take actions that make the situation worse.

Distinguishing between short-term fatigue brought on less than inspirational tasks and chronic stress, Coates goes on to suggest that when faced with the latter, our natural impulses often betray us. He writes:

When we are mired in stress, what we desperately need to do is minimize the novelty in our lives. We need familiarity. But quite often we seek out the exact opposite, responding to chronic stress at work, for example, by taking a vacation in some exotic place, thinking that the change of scenery will do us good. And under normal circumstances it does. But not when we are highly stressed, because then the novelty we encounter abroad can just add to our physiological load. Instead of traveling, we may be better off remaining on home turf, surrounding ourselves with family and friends, listening to familiar music, watching old films. Exercise, of course, can help, in fact there are few things better at preparing our physiology for stress. But when someone is this far into chronic stress its effects, suggests behavorial psychologist Stephen Porges, are mostly analgesic, possibly because exercise treats us to a shot of natural opioids. Again, what we really need is familiarity.

Familiar voices and happy faces let our brain stem know that fight-or-flight is not needed. If you are blessed with a calm family and friends whose fortunes are uncorrelated with your own, it can help enormously in times of stress just to look into their faces and listen to their happy voices, rather than staring at your BlackBerry, gnawing on your fingernails and ruminating over past outrages.

This is advice that will ring true to anyone who has gone on a much anticipated vacation only to feel, after they've returned, that they need a vacation from their vacation to really de-stress before returning refreshed to their normal routine. So next time your business has frayed your nerves, think about resisting your understandable impulse to flee and instead consider cocooning yourself closer to home with the most familiar and soothing aspects of your life.

If you're curious about Coates's cure for short-term fatigue (which might also surprise you), check out the full article.

Have you had the experience of a supposedly stress-reducing holiday actually further jangling your nerves?

 

Last updated: Jun 28, 2012

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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