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Circadian Rhythm

Post-Vacation Blues

Integrating your trip into the rest of your life.

Key points

  • Ending a vacation requires a cognitive shift to let go of "what was" and re-embrace "what is."
  • A valuable trip to a new place can still remain part of one's life afterward, such as by continuing to study the language or cook certain foods.
  • New energy from taking vacation can be redirected into one's life to make important changes, such as career, social life, or living arrangement.

Have you ever found yourself regretting, at least playfully, a recent vacation not because of such obvious pitfalls as jet lag and Montezuma's Revenge, but because of the inevitable pain you experience with "re-entry" into your usual life?

Say you've spent a week where French was spoken and aromas of different kinds of bread wafted upstairs to your rented flat. Upon your return, you find it more irksome than ever to re-acclimate to humdrum activities and to dine on less refined fare. Back at home, uninspiring boxes of Jenny Craig "food" form a small mountain next to a burnt-out microwave, reminding you of what you enjoyed just hours ago—so much so you could almost taste it (emphasis on the almost).

Like vivid movie images dissipating when theater lights come up, your memories begin to create a stark contrast between the sweet pleasure of "what was" and the less appealing "what is." Upon "re-entry," you would naturally experience a period of transition back to familiar rhythms of life, local quirks, cultural, geographical, and climatic differences that reveal themselves uncannily as if for the first time.

How could such a brief period of one's life lead to such distress? I mean, what was the point of all that pleasure, you might ask, when it seems life is doubly hard to face post-trip?

Here are a few ways you might ease the re-entry:

1. Appreciate what was.

There is a way to appreciate the things that were wonderful and yet not let them get you down. This requires a bit of a cognitive shift. Begin to understand the wonderful moments as valid, critically important parts of your whole life. That is, the weekend, or week, or whatever length of time of feeling really good represents who you are and how you live life as much as any other period. Or, perhaps even more so. Given a chance to breathe without having to face necessary demands on your time and attention (read: earning a living) you would try to make your day-to-day life resemble as closely as possible your vacation.

2. Integrate your new experience into your life.

By resolving to integrate the best parts of your vacation into your routine existence, you can make a memory a permanent, living structure in your mind and life, so that it does not have to merely extinguish itself the second your return aircraft parks at the gate. You might say to yourself: "I am determined to make all things French [Japanese, Spanish, Dutch] a regular part of my life. I love it and I deserve it."

Beyond this mantra, which you may need to repeat to yourself for a while to get started, you could also begin to look for ways of maintaining your new state of mind by finding a restaurant, specialty food store, or cultural society to forge a lifeline to what otherwise might be lost. Even if you don't end up having time for language classes, maybe it would be enough to remember to buy once a week a baguette [rice ball, jamón ibérico, stroopwaffels] on your way home from work.

3. Imagine yourself, periodically, enjoying yourself in your fun place as a stress reliever.

Studies in neuroscience have shown that merely by mentally picturing yourself where you felt good yields a salubrious effect. Imagery, when knowingly used to get yourself in a pleasant mind state (but not to indulge in negativity or resentment for your current locale and its philistine inhabitants), can propel you to heights of good feeling and smooth over frayed edges of anxiety and distress.

4. Use the derealization effect to enhance how you view others in your life.

A well-established fact of international travel is the interesting mental phenomenon of derealization. Occurring in healthy people, you feel as though your surroundings are not quite real. In a new place different from home, there are so many stark and under-the-radar differences that, when absorbed by your sensorium for the first few hours or days, a dissociation from your usual conscious and unconscious expectations emerges. For many, this feels akin to a waking dream, or engagement in a compellingly realistic film, but never to the degree that one is deeply unaware of what is going on.

All this to say that when one returns, coupled with residual jet lag and a stirring of emotions, one could take refuge in a kind of reverse-derealization. Allow yourself to see friends and loved ones in a novel way, with a greater appreciation for what they mean to you. With derealistic feelings still fresh, you might intend to see a glow around the important people in a way similar to how you experienced others on your trip.

5. Co-opt new feelings as an impetus for change.

Now that you're re-energized, what better time to make good on hitherto embryonic ideas for alterations in your career, social life, or living arrangement? A change in scenery often has a mind-broadening and reflective effect, and so shortly after your return, you could ride the energy of transformative possibility right into your boss's office, being careful to effect confidence without being demanding or alienating.

6. Take a closer look at the life that you do live.

You're no shlub, so it's probably true that the life you lead most of the time—where, what, and with whom—has tremendous value to you. We all tend to over-idealize peak experiences, so when Pandora's box opens even briefly, the painful comparisons become automatic. (Although perhaps a trivial example, even soda and candy machines at home might remind us how unvaried, uninteresting, and unhealthful our offerings are compared with those in Japan, where enticing vending machines grace every Tokyo street corner with untold liquid and edible delights.)

Being able to accept the value of what you do have becomes much easier when you bring some of your comparisons down to earth and recognize that you really cannot have it all—at least not all at once or in one particular place. And with this recognition, you will hopefully experience a smooth, turbulence-free landing into quotidian life...until you return again to your favorite "other" place.

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