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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 continued...

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."

Shaking Off Vacation Depression

But sometimes it's a fact of vacation depression -- the energy just isn't there to do it all.

"Depression doldrums are a vicious cycle," Kaslow explains. "You feel badly, so you don't do fun stuff -- which makes you feel worse. I encourage patients to find a way to break the cycle. You have to do something you used to think was fun. It may not be as fun as it used to be -- but that has the greatest chance of making you feel better."

To avoid vacation depression you need to also consider: What's your "vacation personality"? What type of vacation would benefit you most? "It's a very important issue -- adapting the vacation to your personality, to your family's personality," says Farley.

"Some people are what I call Big-T, big-thrill people -- they have a great sense of adventure and need a lot of novelty, intense experiences," he explains. "They want the Big Scream ride at the amusement park, or sleeping under the stars at a dude ranch, or exploring a city. That's actually relaxing for them, invigorating, because it fits who they are."

But if stability, predictability and the quiet life are more appealing -- a week at the beach or beside a pool will suit you fine.

"It's all about creating a vacation that fits your personal style -- so you arrive home feeling truly refreshed," he says. "A week by the pool is not going to appeal to a thrill seeker. You'll only be miserable, get home feeling like you've wasted your time."

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