Internet advertisements for hotels, beaches and amusement parks show families laughing and enjoying their time together. They show smiling parents lounging on a sunny beach while kids play in the sand and ocean. They show happy parents and their kids on amusement park rides or meeting Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.
We know this isn’t the whole story. Real life often involves dealing with one stressor after another, whether it’s small (like finding a button missing on your only clean shirt) or more serious, like coping with financial or relationship issues.
Common stressful events experienced by families on vacation include spending too much money, waiting until the last minute to pack, and booking hotel rooms too small to accommodate their family properly. Unexpected problems may arise during vacations as well that you may not have any control over: spats between siblings turning into a week-long feud, weather-related stress (too cold to swim, too hot to do anything outside), or leaving for vacation with unresolved problems percolating between you and your spouse.
Vacationing with Someone Who Has an Addiction or Mental Health Issue
Recovering from addiction or coping with a mental illness is difficult enough without being confronted with additional stress. How the body responds to stress plays an influential role in the development of substance addiction and mental illness. Stress-related brain chemicals such as serotonin, cortisol and dopamine activate a physiological system called the HPA axis. Addiction scientists think this plays a major role in exacerbating cravings during recovery or worsening a mental health problem in people dealing with psychological problems.
If you plan to take a vacation with someone who is dealing with mental health issues and/or recovery from addiction, be aware of how stress acutely affects these individuals. Inform the person that you want them to tell you if something or someone is causing them to feel anxious. Let that person know you understand how difficult it can be to cope with stress and that you will do everything possible to help that person deal with unexpected problems interfering with their recovery or mental illness.
Coping with Unexpected Vacation Stress
The next time you feel stressed, take a moment to focus on how you are breathing. Fear, panic and stress force you to take shallow, rapid breaths because muscles involved in breathing have “tensed up”. Although breathing rapidly gets blood to your muscles faster by doubling your heart rate, it indirectly worsens feelings of stress and anxiety.
Inhaling deeply, slowly and rhythmically is an instant stress-buster. Mindful breathing, or simply focusing solely on breathing, expands airways, relaxes chest muscles and inhibits the release of cortisol into your bloodstream. Try mindful breathing exercises to help control stress during a family vacation.
Similar to meditation, guided imagery involves thinking about experiences or places that are calming and soothing to you. Remove yourself from a stressful situation as soon as you can, find a quiet place away from others and focus on whatever makes you feel calmer and more in control of what is happening around you. This is something that requires practice and is something you should do before you are in a crisis. Recognize the things that bring you back to your center, the things that remind you of who you are and bring you joy. When you have these things memorized it will be easier to focus on them when you need them in moments of stress.
Humans thrive on social interaction and communicating with each other. Writing down what is bothering you or talking to a trusted family member or friend is a great way to help you cope with stress while on vacation. People who are depressed often tell their therapist that if they had someone whom they could talk to about their thoughts and feelings, they may not feel so depressed and alone.
7 Ways to Proactively Lower Vacation Stress
Take Advantage of Travel Agents
Planning a vacation can take hours of research and more hours making reservations, checking hotel reviews and gathering necessary documents if you’re leaving the U.S. Travel agents can do all the grunt work and save you money on hotel/location packages.
Splurge a Bit on Larger Hotel Rooms
While you might be thrilled at saving money on booking cheaper, smaller rooms, packing your family in a small hotel room increases stress and squabbling. In addition to protecting their personal space, everybody needs a certain level of privacy. Spending several days together in one, cramped hotel room may be a primary factor in ruining a vacation.
Don’t Do 10 Things in One Day
If you have a strict time limit on your family vacation and plan to visit a large venue like Disneyland or Six Flags, reconsider your choice of vacation venue or plan the vacation when you have plenty of time. Try to cram in three days’ worth of stuff into one, exhausting 12 hour day is the surest way to doom a family vacation.
Start Packing a Few Days Ahead of Your Vacation
Packing the night before may cause you to underpack or overpack because you’re in a hurry and haven’t had a chance to re-check what you have packed. The main item you don’t want to forget packing: prescription medications. Also, make sure you have enough medication to last you over your vacation.
Is It Going to Rain or Snow? Is a Hurricane Expected to Make Landfall?
Knowing what kind of weather will impact your vacation is also essential to making family time as enjoyable as possible. Although we all know how notoriously wrong weather forecasters can be, you should still check the extended forecast for the place you are heading to.
Examine Directions Beforehand If You are Driving to Your Vacation Spot
Waiting to dig the map out of the glove compartment when you are hopelessly lost is not a good way to keep stress at a minimum during your family vacation. If you don’t have a GPS system, take the time to write down directions on a piece of paper.
Give a Family Member of Friend the Key to Your Home
You don’t want to be anxiously wondering if you left the stove on, if the pipes froze and burst or if someone has broken into your home while on vacation. So ask someone you trust to check your home at least once a day while you and your family are away. Peace of mind lends greatly to enjoying your vacation.