Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

TIME OUT : May 2, 1999

Are holidays stressbusters?

Dr. Achal Bhagat

If there is any truth in life, then it is this, "Life is difficult." Perhaps there is another truth - we spend more than half our lives trying to pursue easy and magical solutions to the difficult problems we face. The most touted way out of the stress of everyday life is a holiday.

The minute you recognise the proverbial last straw on the camel's back you run for it. In a manner quite akin to the ritualistic witch doctor you pack your bags (and your sunscreen lotions) every few months and take off into the wilderness. You believe with a great deal of conviction that by removing yourself from the things that are stressful you will be able to rejuvenate yourself to fight back. A few weeks or a few days of space and like Superman, Batman, Catwoman, Spiderman and our very own Shaktiman, all rolled into one you would be able to take on the world, especially your inconsiderate boss.

The yearning for a holiday starts as soon as you return from the first one. Your mind goes berserk and with obsessional repetitiveness you get lost in the preoccupation, "I have got to take a break! I must, this Saturday, drive down to Rishikesh, Neemrana, Khandala or Mussoorie and let off steam." This "I should, I must" only leads to more stress and precipitates your leaving for another holiday. But does it help? Is a holiday a solution? Is it really the stress buster that it is meant to be?

Let us see what happens during a holiday. You plan for it for weeks. For days you rearrange appointments, keep resetting deadlines before the holidays and the "to do" lists before the holidays become tall instead of long. The day you have to leave, expectations rise, the last meeting before catching the flight stretches itself. You drive at breakneck speed to the airport. You try to smile away the guilt and cajole the family that for the next few days it is nothing but sheer enjoyment. You settle down in your seat. You play with the child for some time and then the thoughts come back. Thoughts of the office dynamics, the unmade decisions, the ambiguous communication from the husband and the critical comment from the closest friend who said, "You have changed so much, you used to be such a fun loving person." The mind again gets lost in goal-directed activity.


Your "space" that you created so tediously has been usurped by your every day pattern of thinking. By going on holiday you do not change the way you think. You only distract yourself. All distraction strategies, even the most engaging ones, last only a few minutes. The holiday then becomes the microcosm of life. As stressful as life itself, and perhaps more so, because with every passing day or as hope of de-stressing decreases you get more and more frustrated. You start displaying this in an inconsequential quarrel with the chanawala in the mall or by reviving the argument as to how your husband always leaves the toothbrush on the basin. The stress shows and you try harder for the holiday to succeed. Or you put on a facade that it is wonderful even when it is not.

So what is the solution? Should you not go on holidays at all or should you continue to feel stressed? Neither, obviously. You should have wonderful holidays as often as you want and you should be able to have a relatively stress conquered life.

Holidays should end up as a coping strategy for stress. One should not wait for holidays to detoxify one's mind. Stress is an activity that happens everyday, it needs to be tackled everyday. Leave it for a holiday and by that time you have allowed it to become permanent. Stress is also not an external event, it is your thoughts in response to that external event. It is not your friend's remark about your having changed that is stressful, it is your criticism of yourself in response to it that is stressful. It is not the multiple decisions at work that are stressful, it is how, in your search for the perfect time to make decisions, you postpone making decisions, that is stressful. It is not the toothbrush on the basin that is stressful, it is the lack of communication between you and your partner that it exemplifies that is stressful.

Try the following methods for conquering your stress and let the holidays be as hedonistic as you want them to be:

  • Instead of looking for magical solutions for stress ask yourself the magical question: "What situations do I feel most stressed in?"

  • Once you have deciphered these situations take one situation at a time and ask yourself: "What is it about this situation that makes it stressful? What is the worst fear I have about it?"

    Sorit Gupto

  • Then, ask yourself the final question: "What is the evidence that my worst fear will come true?"

  • Repeat this method everyday, you will find your problems gradually become more realistic and you feel less overwhelmed by them.

  • Another magical question that you can ask yourself is, "If I believe that holidays give me space to do what I want to do, then does it mean I am not doing what I want to do everyday? If this is so, can I do something to create space so that I can do what I want to everyday?"

  • Ten minutes of watering your plants or half an hour of making a pot or painting a wall are perhaps more magical in the way that they help you have a better quality of life as opposed to a $200 trip to Mauritius. Mauritius is fun, only when your mind is relaxed and does not think in a stressful manner. Happy Stressbusting!! Take care.

The author is a senior consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist at Apollo Hospital, New Delhi. He also conducts stress management and quality of life programmes.

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