After a recent week-long, ultra-relaxing yoga retreat in Panama—where I spent time doing yoga twice daily in a rainforest treehouse surrounded by monkeys and overlooking the beach—I expected to be relaxed, particularly because details were planned for
When a friend asked if I felt refreshed upon returning, however, I felt ridiculous telling the truth: I was hardly relaxed.
Instead, I felt overwhelmingly anxious and sad. I had a ton of laundry to do, what felt like a thousand emails to answer, a handful of looming deadlines to meet and an overall dread at being back to a life that didn’t include daily hammock naps and water from fresh-picked coconuts.
It turns out I’m not alone in this feeling of post-travel depression and anxiety.
George Gotay, a 32-year-old IT engineer in New York City who vacations at least three times a year, told The Daily Beast that he experiences similar feelings after every trip he takes.
“More often than not, toward the end of a trip I’m kind of ready to come home, but once I land at JFK and settle in at home and realize reality is back, that’s when it all starts to kick in,” he said. “You’re no longer in relaxation mode, it’s full hustle mode.”
David Rosmarin, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard and founder of The Center for Anxiety, told The Daily Beast that this feeling of dread upon re-entering reality has to do with not fitting relaxation into our reality.
“The upshot of it is that anything that you don’t practice is going to be difficult. If you don’t practice going on vacation and taking time out to relax and rest then it’s going to be a challenge,” Rosmarin said. “A lot of people in our society don’t take out time within their year or even their day to process and just be and just exist and just enjoy life.”
A 2016 Bankrate survey found that 52 percent of Americans don’t take all of their vacation days, with many people leaving up to a week of vacation days unused.
The attitude toward vacation can be tied back to western culture, Rosmarin said, which pales in comparison to the way the rest of the world treats vacation, as a right. A 2013 study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research that examined vacation policies of 21 countries found that the United States is the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee vacation time for workers. In European countries, it’s illegal not to provide at least 20 days of paid vacation per year, and in Canada and Japan, workers are mandated to take at least 10 days off.
Ilyse DiMarco, PhD, who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy for stressed mothers, told The Daily Beast that there’s a mistaken impression that people can only be kind to themselves on vacation and that once vacation is over, people stop being kind to themselves.
“If people were willing to put more self care into their lives as a regular feature of their lives, they’d be much better equipped to handle the vacation let down because then it’s not going from paradise to purgatory, it’s just going back to regular life but having things to look forward to,” DiMarco said.
Practicing self care—which has gotten heat for becoming a trend more than a priority— doesn’t mean you need to fill your life with bubble baths and hour-long meditation sessions. Rosmarin suggests practicing some basics like taking naps, turning off your phone’s data for 30 minutes a day, spending time with friends and family in person (not via text or FaceTime), or taking just a half day from work to just chill, not run errands or tackle a to-do list.
DiMarco said it’s also important to prepare for the post-travel depression by giving yourself time to get back into your normal routine. Try to preemptively clear your work calendar for the first few days you’re back and schedule fun things like a manicure or an intramural sports game to be excited about.
“Knowing that you’re going to be a little bummed out your first two days back from vacation can help mitigate that,” she said. “You can also do some self care when you get back, yes you were just on vacation but it doesn’t mean you need to come home and punish yourself.”
The way the brain functions when you’re feeling this post-travel depression or anxiety is complicated. There’s no one-size-fits-all biological reason that everyone feels depressed or anxious upton returning from a vacation, but what we do know about the brain’s function of these emotions can help make sense of it. Researchers know that depression can be triggered by a handful of things, including the neurotransmitter serotonin, also known as ‘the happy hormone.’ It’s long-been known that an imbalance of serotonin in the brain can lead to depression, and some studies mention that social interaction and support can affect levels of serotonin.
Meanwhile, anxiety has been linked to the hippocampus part of the brain, which regulates emotions, memories and complex environments. Neuroscientists from Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the University of California, San Francisco found ‘anxiety cells’ in the hippocampus of mice that are fired up in an uncomfortable or scary situation.
Sarah Burchfield, a 32-year-old who works in advertising in San Francisco, takes trips about eight times a year, including at least one international adventure. She told The Daily Beast she thinks of post-travel depression as the most intense version of the Sunday Scaries, when workers feel sad and stressed on Sunday nights at the end of a weekend. But Burchfield, who said she used to book the latest possible flight out of her vacation destination, now flies home in time to have half a day to return to reality, which she’ll use to unpack or run errands or simply decompress by facing the fact that she’s sad to be home.
“I definitely feel sad for about a week. I call it The Come Down, and it’s really hard. I can definitely feel it emotionally,” she said.
Rosmarin said a weeklong sadness after a vacation is normal, but any longer could be an indication that something is really wrong. This doesn’t mean you’re clinically depressed or in need of life-long therapy, but it could help you prevent any further mental discomfort and manage whatever anxiety or stress you’re dealing with that makes returning home so incredibly difficult.
“We see people in our office often just once or twice and maybe they come back in six months. We see lots of people who are very high functioning and not clinically depressed and frankly the prevention piece is important,” Rosmarin said.