This Is Your Brain On Vacation
There’s an affliction that affects probably 99% of the population, and I know that statistic is correct because I just made it up. That affliction is known as Post-Vacation Depression, otherwise known as PVD. You know the deal: you’ve been killing yourself at work all year, saving up your pennies. You put quarters in a jar on your desk, squirrel away a few dollars every time you skip your second Starbucks on a workday, and maybe even rack up points on your rewards card. You have a wall plastered with vacation destinations, and visions of Parisian weekends dance in your head before you fall asleep.
Finally, your vacation time arrives. You’ve saved enough to be able to afford a vacation, whether it’s somewhere local like eating at two dozen Creole restaurants and attending jazz fests in New Orleans, going on a Caribbean cruise where you won’t have to wear real clothes for a week, or maybe going on a wine tour of Southern France. You think, “I really need a vacation. I’ve been so stressed out. I’ve earned this.” And happily, you tie up all your work-related loose ends, throw some stuff in a teeny bag, say deuces to your home and your responsibilities, and gear up for an amazing vacation where you’ll feel carefree and totally fulfilled in life.
And you do. Every day, there’s something new to see, explore, experience. The food is to die for. You love walking through rainforests and smelling that lush green-brown earth smell, hearing wildlife and rain spattering all around you. Or you’re constantly slightly buzzed on all that fantastic Nice wine and smiling flirtily at French waiters. You wake up early, face the day. You fall asleep with a smile, excited to greet tomorrow. And slowly, but surely, your vacation days dwindle. You may be homesick or you may not. But sure enough, you’re going home soon.
There are two things that happen when you leave a vacation: wanting to be home right away, and simultaneously thinking you’d be happy if you never saw home again. I’m always both. I’m always of the mind that as soon as I get home from a vacation, I need another one to recover from my vacation. I need time to relax and unwind and let the vacation slowly drift away. I can’t just jump right back into life, because like so many other people, I get PVD.
I get PVD hard.
PVD is characterized by a persistent sinking feeling in your stomach after returning from a vacation, whether that vacation has been short or long. PVD causes mood swings, anger, frustration, general laziness, exhaustion, listlessness and dissatisfaction. There is no known cure (except for that second bottle of wine).
Why do we feel this way? On vacation, we feel like our ultimate selves. There’s so much instant gratification, pleasure and enjoyment and when we return, our lives suddenly feel inadequate. We leave for vacation thinking this is exactly what we needed—some time away from it all—and then when we return, we’re surprised to realize that nothing has changed. If you’re one-hundred percent satisfied and always completely happy in life (which is practically impossible), then PVD may have no effect on you. But for the rest of us, coming back from vacation makes us realize that escaping—however needed—doesn’t change our lives.
Sure, travel is probably the most enriching aspect of life. We learn about our earth, humanity, different cultures, the habits and norms that draw all people together, and we get to leave our footprint on the world and feel like we’ve absorbed all that beauty and everything that this earth has to offer. Traveling is one of the most important things in life. So why do we feel so depressed when we come home? Shouldn’t we feel fulfilled, satisfied, gratified and most important, different? Why do I always feel the same? Why doesn’t an escape feel like an escape?
One more side effect of my strain of PVD is life evaluation. I come home, high on that vaca feeling, only to find that I am still faced with the same worries, struggles, annoyances and dissatisfactions that I was so eager to leave behind. I am doubly annoyed because not only do I not have that fluttery, high-on-life vacation feeling, but I also have to deal with the rushing back of all those problems.
It can be a bad thing. Expecting everything to be different when you come back from vacation is sort of naive. Running away and ignoring your life doesn’t fix it. No vacation can last forever, and no one is truly “themselves” on vacation. It’s like you’re a polished, superhero version of yourself who is constantly stress-free and always chasing the best experience, willing to push yourself, try new things, and soak up all that sun. It’s definitely a killjoy to come home and come down off that high.
But there’s also a good side to that feeling of sinking reevaluation of your life. When you come back from vacation, everything shifts. Realizing that vacation isn’t real life and that it can’t last forever in that sunny, beautiful limbo world is part of the package of being a mature, fully-functioning adult. But coming back from vacation also makes you see your life in a different light. Being away from your life makes it obvious what’s been stressing you out unnecessarily, what will make you happiest, what you can and should sacrifice, and what you’re willing to hold onto. You have to go away in order to come back again. And your life is only different if you make it different.
When I come back from vacation, I see my life with new eyes and I feel motivated to change the things in my life that are making me unhappy. Because I want that high-on-life, carefree feeling back, I’m more willing to cut out unnecessary stressors and small annoyances, and focus on the things that will add to my life, not take away from it. This may be as small as making time to read a chapter of a book every day, or call your friends or family more often. That vacation feeling doesn’t lie, and even though your brain on vacation is an exaggerated, constantly-happy version of yourself, there’s also something gratifying about chasing that feeling, in small ways, in your life.
Take mini vacations. Drive a new way to work and explore the towns. Try a new lunch place. Don’t let the small things get you down. Know that you have the power to change the things in your life that you hate, and that you deserve to be happy. But don’t rely on vacation as a solution to your problems. That’s only your PVD talking.