Risks of Chronic Stress
The body is designed to respond to short bursts of stress. When stress is prolonged and the stress response is triggered repeatedly and regularly—as can happen in a stressful job or a conflict – ridden relationship - the situation turns into one of chronic stress, and real health problems can set in.
Chronic stress may make you more susceptible to conditions ranging from frequent headaches and gastrointestinal issues to high blood pressure, which brings an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. When your "allostatic load," or overall level of stress, accumulates to a certain level, stress can snowball because you're constantly in a state of reactivity.
At this point, even positive events can feel overwhelming if they take energy to enjoy. You're not able to respond from a place of strength and wisdom, but rather from a place of anxiety, or you work on auto-pilot.
Signs That You Need a Break
Sometimes, it's obvious that you need a vacation. In other cases, stress can sneak up on you. You may not necessarily recognize when you're at risk of being overwhelmed and burned out.
Everyone responds to stress in unique ways, which means that the signs of being overwhelmed are also highly individual. However, there are some general warning signs that apply in most cases.
If you're experiencing one or more of the following, start planning some downtime. This might mean a real vacation or even just a weekend staycation to recharge your batteries.
Key signs you need a break include:
- Changes in eating habits
- Cynicism about work
- Difficulty concentrating
- Getting sick more frequently
- Lack of energy
- Lack of motivation
- Low mood
- Feeling unfocused or fuzzy-headed
- Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches
- Poor performance at work
- Sleep disturbances
- Using drugs or alcohol to cope with stress
- Withdrawing from friends, family, or co-workers
In fact, unless you already feel energized, motivated, excited, creative, and fully engaged at work and in your relationships, you'd likely benefit from a vacation, because it's a good idea to manage stress before it feels overwhelming. Vacations, mental health days, and regular self-care can keep you functioning at your best.
Think of these breaks as preventative care. We need to participate in them on a regular basis in order to be able to manage our stress and prevent burnout. The key is to prevent ourselves from getting to the point that we absolutely need the break.
Benefits of Taking a Break
Vacations and even shorter breaks (take an afternoon off) where you get some physical and psychological space from the demands of life can bring many rewards. Some of the benefits you may enjoy when you take a break include:
- Reduced stress: Obviously, you feel less stress when you're not in a stressful environment. But taking breaks bring more than that. They interrupt the cycle of stress that can lead to being overwhelmed.
- Rest: By breaking out of the cycle of chronic stress, you can restore yourself physically and mentally to a healthier place.
- Clearer thinking: Because a chronically triggered stress response can lead to decreased creativity, memory problems, and other issues, this break in the stress cycle can lead to sharper thinking and increased creativity in all areas of your life.
- Increased productivity: All of this can make you better at your job, more available in your relationships, more energetic with your families, and more able to enjoy life after you return.
How to Take a Break
If you need a break, there are several different options for getting one. You can go for a long and luxurious break, a relaxing and simple one, or something short and sweet. You can even have minutes-long breaks that you take throughout the day to keep productivity higher and to keep from feeling overwhelmed.
A vacation is a real break, in the classic sense of the word, and taking a vacation is more important than many people realize. That's why many vacation days go unused when they should be enjoyed to the fullest.
The key to a restful vacation is to prioritize rest and fun when you go; don't overbook yourself with tourist activities or bring so much work with you that by the time you return you feel you need a vacation from your vacation.
The staycation is becoming more and more en vogue, especially as people have a greater need to take a break, but with fewer means to pull off an exotic trip. The staycation is all about rest and relaxation, and enjoying home sweet home—a place you are often too stressed and busy to really enjoy.
The key to a refreshing staycation is the same as the key to a restful vacation, though somewhat trickier to pull off: Don't overdo it, and don't let work creep in. That means no cleaning, office work, or dealing with regular responsibilities. You can either turn off the phones, ignore email, and make it a point to both rest and play at home, or go to a nearby hotel to make it easier.
It's important to still put your "out of office" up on your email and try to resist checking your email regularly. You can still check it occasionally as this sometimes helps decrease stress and anxiety while "on vacation," but just because you are home on a staycation, does not mean you are supposed to work.
Few people talk about having a playcation, but it's a great idea: Stay home, but make it fun! The difference between a staycation and a playcation is that staycations tend to focus more on resting and relaxing, while playcations are for—you guessed it—fun!
With the hard work and stressful routines that characterize many people's lifestyles, it's important to have some fun (like Billy Crystal did to "get his smile back" in the classic movie City Slickers) as a way to recharge your batteries and be sure you're enjoying life. You can devote several days to taking a playcation, or just be sure you pepper in some fun on a regular basis.
Sometimes you just need to take a break from stress long enough to disrupt the body's stress response cycle, and then get back into action. If you just need a quick break, take a hike or a bike ride, enjoy a movie, or even have a five-minute meditation session.
Spending time outdoors in the fresh air and physical activity can also be great stress relievers. Incorporating these into your short break, such as going for a walk outside around the block, can help you get more bang for your buck from your short break.
Everyone needs a break from time to time in order to relieve stress. Even if you can't take a big vacation, a staycation or short break can be a valuable way to feel restored and refreshed.