Summer Stress Syndrome


All year we look forward to leaving work behind and strolling down the boardwalk, laying out in the sun, sitting around cracking crabs and spitting out watermelon seeds for hours on end.

Ah...the sweetness of doing nothing. And sweet it is for about two or three days. But after the novelty wears off, many of us start getting restless, obsessing over personal problems or feeling guilty for not doing something productive.

Why? Because we don't know how to relax. Studies measuring the quality of leisure time reveal that people are not having as much fun when they leave the office as everybody thinks, says Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of "Finding Flow"(Basic Books, 1997) and professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University, California.

People, he found, were more satisfied when focusing on work than when drifting along with no plans during their "free time." When people were at work, he says, they reported being "creative and alert and experience satisfaction because they were confronted with challenges and had to use their skills."

Once they left work, however, their motivation plummeted. They reported feeling passive and dull while engaged in activities many might think are relaxing, like watching TV or eating out.

Most people, he said, would find vacations more stimulating, meaningful and relaxing if they invested energy in pursuing hobbies that kept their interests aroused, their mind focused—and their brains from frying. Relaxation, he said, is a state of mind that can be achieved anywhere.

Doing Nothing Is Not Relaxing

Csikszentmihalyi says that people feel the best when they are engaged in an activity or thought. "It could be learning to play tennis, reading three books you think are important or getting closer to your children. The best type of relaxation is one where you are doing something that requires a skill and involvement different from what you do in other settings."

Think, Plan, and Do!

Think About What You Want to Do and Do It!

Choose an activity that strikes your interest. Laura Milstein, a fund-raiser for a nonprofit organization in Washington D.C., for instance, felt inspired by an Imax film on Mount Everest.

I figured that I may never be physically capable of doing Everest," she said. "But I thought that maybe I would do an Outward Bound trip and that would be my Everest. I was determined to overcome my limitations." She found the experience challenging, empowering and relaxing.

Avoid Stress by Planning Activities Ahead of Time

Saying, "Oh, we'll think of something to do when we get there," hardly ever works, says Harry Hoover, vice president of a public relations firm that represents the North Carolina travel bureau. Nobody wants to make any decisions, and everyone ends up fighting. Hoover's suggestion: Before going on a trip check the tourism section of that state's Web site to see a listing of activities. Choose a few.

When in Rome, Do as the Romans

Don't limit yourself to boardwalks, shopping outlets and other tourist spots. You can stimulate your senses and spark your curiosity by spending time with the natives. You might as well; lots of people are doing it!

While on vacation, nearly one-fourth of adult travelers attend regularly scheduled religious services, according to a survey conducted by the Travel Industry of America. Festivals, local concerts and even supermarkets are other great ways to experience different locations!

Mini-vacations Can Offer the Same Stimulation

Many people prefer shorter vacations. Barbara Mosgrave, a writer in the Washington D.C. area, for instance, recently spent five days in San Francisco. While there, she caught up on exhibits "I wanted to see and visited some familiar spots that re-energized me." She was able to carve out the time without wrecking her work schedule or "needing to pack umpteen different things." Weekend trips by Americans jumped by 70 percent between 1986 and 1996, a TIA study points out.

Local Day Trips Can Regenerate Your Spirits, Too

Resigning yourself to having a lousy summer because you have no money to go away is often an excuse to do nothing, rather than an obstacle to having fun. If you are stuck at home, check out local activities, spend a day at a state park, go to museums — pretend you are a tourist in your own hometown!