For many people, a vacation is like a trip into space. The nerve-wracking blastoff takes place only after weeks of careful planning. Then a few days of serenity and peace are followed by a harrowing re-entry. The old routine may feel like the force of gravity after days of weightlessness -- a familiar burden that suddenly feels harder to bear. But with a bit of planning, you may find that you actually did get some rest on vacation and you are ready to resume your regular life again.
Tip No. 1: Plan a Smooth Return
A vacation meant to be relaxing actually can create post-vacation stress. Careful planning certainly can help the vacation itself go smoother, but a good recovery strategy afterward is essential.
Janet Keeler has learned to leave herself at least one free day after vacation before returning to work. As the food and travel editor of the St. Petersburg Times, she is never entirely free of her job.
"With a cell phone and Wi-Fi, we're more connected to work than ever before," she says.
On top of that, she and her husband Scott, a photographer for the paper, like to come back from vacation with at least one travel story, and maybe a story and some pictures for the food section too.
During a recent three-week vacation to California, for example, they visited "John Steinbeck country," taking pictures of Cannery Row and other places significant in the writer's life and fiction. Having the story all but written when she returns to work will help her get caught up.
She also made a point of going into the office on Sunday and plowing through the 1,000 emails that awaited her attention.
"I deleted about 95% of them," she says.
But the rigors of re-entry didn't end there. There was unpacking, and laundry, and an empty refrigerator, and their son's baseball schedule to attend to. After crossing three time zones their sleep cycle was a little off, too.
Tip No. 2: Watch Sleep and 2 Other Vacation Variables
"Vacationing with small children can turn out to be more effort than staying at home," says Breus, who writes a blog for WebMD.
"If you stay home, the kids have all their toys and they can run around, while in a hotel room that may not be the case."
Kids also wake up during the night, which means a sleep shortfall for parents.
In addition, people on vacation tend to drink more alcohol and stay up later -- a double whammy that easily disrupts sleep.
"Alcohol may make you fall asleep quickly, but you don't get into the deeper stages, so you end up sleep deprived," Breus says. "I'm not against drinking, but you have to realize the effect. If you watch the amount of alcohol and food you consume, and get to bed at a reasonable hour, and get some exercise, which will help you sleep, you might be able to get rid of your sleep debt."
Jet lag also disrupts sleep.
"In truth, jet lag is a natural process your body should be able to get through," Breus says. "Your body will normalize about one time zone per day."
If you do want to use a sleep aid to help you overcome jet lag, avoid Benadryl, Breus says. "Benadryl has a long half-life, so you couldn't pick a worse thing to take."
Tip No. 3: Be Realistic About Your Relationship and Trip
Some couples discover that the togetherness of a vacation exposes weak spots in their relationship, according to Emma K. Viglucci, founder and president of Metropolitan Marriage and Family Therapy in New York City.
"People think their problems will go away on vacation, but your problems come with you no matter where you go," Viglucci says. "For some people, vacation is like Christmas -- everything has to be perfect, but often the vacation falls short of those expectations."
On top of that, spending so much time together actually may create hostility and allow resentment to fester, according to Everett Worthington, PhD, professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of Humility: The Quiet Virtue.
"A vacation provides lots of little opportunities to argue," he says. "They have to make all these decisions: Where do we go? When will we arrive? What will we do when we get there? This gives them plenty of opportunities to disagree."
The best strategy for coping, according to Worthington, is to recognize that such friction is a part of the vacation experience.
"They must resign themselves to the fact that they are going to disagree," he says, "and then focus on the question: Can we get past this decision so we can enjoy the rest of the vacation?"
Tip No. 4: Let Vacation Give Your Everyday Life a Boost
A vacation can help a family start eating better, according to Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, the "recipe doctor" for WebMD's Weight Loss Clinic.
"Usually when you're on vacation you eat out a lot, so when you come home, everyone is probably looking forward to having home-cooked meals. So embrace that, celebrate that -- use it as a way to kick-start your plan for making more home-cooked meals," Magee says. "It's a great time to get wonderful food into your diet."
Magee also urges people to get some exercise while on vacation. Besides contributing to sleep, exercise helps avoid weight gain brought on by those generous vacation portions.
"Some people actually come back from vacation surprised that they haven't gained weight, even though they've been eating out in restaurants, because they've been getting exercise," Magee says. "When you come back rested and happy, you can use that as motivation to keep exercising and preparing wholesome meals."