Tourists enjoy the beach.
©Pascal POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP
Researchers from the University of Vigo and the Karolinska Institutet have studied the benefits of vacations and the period of waiting for impending holidays on the brain.
Atlantico: Work-related stress is a reality for many people. How can vacations help reduce this stress before it even starts?
Juan Pérez Fernández and Roberto de la Torre Martinez: As you mentioned, work is a constant stress for many people. This prolonged stress produces changes in neural circuitry and the release of neurotransmitters in the brain, which can contribute to emotional and cognitive imbalances. The resulting symptoms are the well-known difficulty concentrating, anxiety or, in the worst case, depression.
What vacations do to lessen the negative effects of work-related stress is to increase levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in positive feelings. During pleasurable activities, such as vacations, the brain releases dopamine, creating feelings of happiness and contentment. Dopamine helps rebalance the dopaminergic systems, which are involved in regulating motivation, attention, and emotional responses. By promoting this rebalancing, holidays can have a positive impact on overall well-being, making individuals more resilient to work-related stress upon returning to work.
Your study mentions the importance of anticipating vacations. Can you explain how this can positively impact mental and emotional health?
This is related to dopamine levels and its release. As I mentioned earlier, when we do actions and activities that are beneficial and give us pleasure, our brain, and more specifically, the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area, release dopamine in order to signal a such positive action. Interestingly, we also developed the ability to learn the utility of anticipation, which assigns value to the time spent waiting for a reward. So, during this period when we are waiting for our holidays, there is also the release of dopamine (and other neurotransmitters) which help to reduce stress levels.
Can the simple act of planning a vacation improve overall well-being? What are the psychological mechanisms behind this effect?
One of the mechanisms associated with the benefits of planning and enjoying vacations is the reward system and the value assigned to our actions. Again, one of the key components is dopamine.
Through the release of dopamine, our brain assigns value to the things we do. For example, when we do our job well and are rewarded or when we enjoy our vacation, there is an increase in dopamine. It can also happen with the simple fact of preparing for a vacation. We anticipate how we will feel, and that anticipation gives us pleasure through the release of this neurotransmitter.
It might lead us to think that if we spend our whole lives planning a vacation, we could be happily ever after. However, this is not the case. When these anticipated expectations fail to materialize, what we experience (along with alterations in other neurotransmitters) is a drop in dopamine levels, even below our normal daily levels. This leads to a feeling of frustration, resulting in the opposite sensation.
As you can see, it’s an interesting balance, not always easy to achieve, that determines how much we enjoy both vacations and preparing for them.
Certain professions or work environments can make it difficult to take regular vacations. How can employers encourage a holiday culture and help their employees take full advantage of it?
There are several factors, such as being aware that people’s performance at work is not always stable and decreases with the accumulation of fatigue and stress. Although this is intuitive and supported by numerous studies, it seems that many people do not accept it.
There are also work environments and cultures where vacations are seen as unnecessary, and those who take them are seen as unwilling to work. If you’re engaged in something you love and are passionate about, why would you need a vacation, right? Thus, it is essential to normalize the idea that taking vacations is necessary for our physical and mental health.
Although some companies are already doing this, the option of having staff responsible for the mental well-being of their workers should be considered more widely. These professionals can help employees determine when vacation is necessary and how to make the most of their time off based on their preferences and family situation.
In addition to holidays, does the study mention other means of promoting well-being and relaxation in an often demanding work environment?
The article has mainly focused on the influence of the holidays on our brains, and we have not discussed ways to promote well-being or relaxation independently. However, it is important to emphasize that wellness is a very personal matter and people derive pleasure and enjoyment from various activities based on their individual preferences and interests.
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