Vacation Depression: How to Cope
Psychologists explain how to avoid vacation depression, plus tips on creating a vacation that matches your personality.
Why Vacations Help Depression
Here's the good news: Vacations give us a chance to recharge our batteries -- change the pace, alter the scenery, and improve our attitude.
"It's also a really important time for bonding with whoever is important in your life -- your partner, kids, friends, parents," says Nadine Kaslow, PhD, a clinical psychologist and professor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
"Relationships are probably the most important thing that keeps people going, the reason for living for most people," Kaslow tells WebMD. "They nurture us and we nurture them by having fun together. So often in our normal workaday life we don't have time in the same way to devote to that."
Vacations also offer us a sense of control over our lives, explains Howard Tinsley, PhD, an emeritus professor of psychology with Southern Illinois University who now lives near Seattle. He's studied the benefits of leisure since the 1970s.
"It's a critical element that's necessary for happiness, this feeling of control, this freedom of choice," Tinsley says. "We often don't have a lot of that in our everyday lives." Sure, we make choices -- sign up for yearlong symphony tickets, for example. But after awhile, that sense of control deteriorates into obligation, a feeling of "guess we better go, since we've got the tickets."
Vacations help us regain that sense of spontaneity and self-expression. "They let us control the things that are intrinsically enjoyable -- things that are simply pleasurable at the moment we're doing them," he explains.
When we're on vacation, there's a boost in two brain neurotransmitters -- dopamine and serotonin -- which are involved in mood and depression, says Baird Brightman, PhD, a Massachusetts-based psychologist and organizational consultant.
People who are depressed have low levels of these neurotransmitters, and the work environment can make that worse, Brightman tells WebMD. "We call it work strain -- high workload and low control. Some interesting research shows that animals lower in the power hierarchy have lower levels of these neurotransmitters."
That's why depression eases when we have a sense of control, Brightman says. "When you go on vacation, you're calling the shots, so neurotransmitter levels will rise. You're also doing pleasurable activities, which will boost them, too."