It happens over and over again:
The work is done, the loose ends are tied up, and all your responsibilities have been handed over. You’ve been working extra hard and you’ve had to put in some extra hours over the last couple of weeks to get it all settled — but it’s all totally worth it, because now you’re on vacation!
And then you get sick.
You get a fever. Your nose drips. Your throat gets sore. Your allergies act up.
All you want to do is lie in bed and be grumpy all day.
If you’re one of those people with a tendency to get sick the moment you take a break from work, this post is for you.
Why You Get Sick
Work is often stressful, and the harder it gets the more stressful it becomes.
Our bodies respond to stress in a highly predictable way: by releasing stress hormones (corticoids, most prominently cortisol). These stress hormones help our bodies to cope with whatever life throws our way. They keep us alert and energetic under stressful conditions. Their role is to help us survive.
But here’s the thing: our bodies are going to keep on producing stress hormones continuously until either the stress goes away or our bodies adapt to it.
And the stress hormone cortisol actually suppresses the immune system and holds back our inflammatory response.
If you’ve ever caught a cold, you know what inflammation feels like. It’s that sore, watery-eyed, sniffling feeling which isn’t caused by the cold virus itself; instead, it’s caused by your immune system’s attempts to fight against the virus. It’s part and parcel of a healthy immune response.
Cortisol holds back that immune response, allowing you to be strong for longer than it’s really healthy for you to be. In the meantime, any bugs out there have a much easier time trying to invade your body.
But as soon as you’re on vacation, no more stress means no more stress hormones are produced, which then means your immune system is no longer suppressed, which then means your inflammatory response reactivates, and then wham! All your symptoms arrive.
And so, annoying as it is, falling sick as soon as your vacation begins is actually a sign that your body is more or less in good working order. (If it weren’t, you would probably end up sick all the time, not just when you’re starting your vacation.)
But What We Can Do About It?
One key way to minimize the problem is to reduce the level of stress you have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
The amount of work and pressure might be the same, but you can improve the efficiency of your recovery systems so that stress doesn’t take as much of a toll on you.
You can also take a longer time to plan and prepare before your vacation instead of leaving it to the last week or two to tie up all the loose ends.
And you can try to ease your way into your vacation period instead of dramatically stopping all work, scaling down the intensity over a few days to give your body time to rebalance itself.
Allow yourself to wind down. Ease into things. Don’t force them.
And then enjoy your vacation.