Castles Made of Sand: Psychologists Insights to Vacationing for your Mental Health
By: DR. SHAUN WEHLE AND DR. ASHLEY MICHALSKI
On a recent vacation with my (Dr. Wehle) family, I was hit with an early vacation let down that made me wonder about the nature of vacations and life in general. My wife’s company Pillars of Wellness had a business deal in the works and while it wasn’t an absolute game changer of an opportunity, it was highly anticipated and she and several team members were very excited about it. I had some suggestions and was trying to help her navigate it. Well, it turns out my suggestions were bad, and I caused the deal to fall through. I was devastated and so sad that my ideas and my suggestions ruined something that others were so excited about.
All this happened while we were taking our first family vacation in years. COVID had put a damper on things but also while building a small business, it seems like every spare moment is spent making sure it succeeds and building a team that could ensure the company can keep going without her. Whether this was a reality or psychological, we finally felt like we had the time and so there was a lot riding on this family vacation – likely too much.
My colleague (Dr. Michalski) also recently had gone on vacation, and we had discussed some of the psychological downsides of vacation and the post vacation blues. Her experience was a bit different in that her return home caused another type of existential questioning that had her take stock of her life and her decisions to live where she lives, work as hard as she works, and just generally questioned some of life’s meaning. As we processed this together it dawned on us that this is not an isolated incident and rather a very common experience many of us face as we travel and when we return from travel.
Over half of Americans plan to travel for spring break (or obviously already did). Welp, we are a few weeks post-spring break vacation, but at least this might be helpful for summer vacation! Honestly, we just spent too much time inhibited by perfectionism. Maybe someone should have applied my tips on perfectionism (shameless plug) or taken his own advice that sometimes “good enough” is enough (a phrase he constantly tells me). Finally, I could use his own advice against him! But let’s not name names…
Anyway, while we could probably write a book on this and link all the research in the world to make this more informative, we are just gonna let good enough be enough.
The experience of post holiday blues or a feeling of depression that can come at the end of a vacation may also start during the trip itself, on the flight/drive home, or even upon return. Regardless, this sense of sadness isn’t all bad and doesn’t have to be so overpowering that it ruins the positive experience for you and your loved ones. While all the happy memories, times in the sun, laughter with others coming to an end is not a reality we want to face, there are ways to make this transition more tolerable and most importantly some ways to use the potentially underlying existential angst as a growth inducing experience. So unfortunately the sense of post vacation sadness may be inevitable for some and the feelings of happiness on vacation may be fleeting, but to what extent this brings us down and the opportunity for it to lift us up can be a choice.
We like life hacks and there are a few psychological techniques that can help you life hack your way into returning from a vacation relatively unscathed. Here are some tips on how you can make the transition home from vacation a little smoother. Remember, the goal is not to push away the sadness. Rather the hope is to find a way to make it more manageable and hopefully even use it to improve your overall psychological well being. These nine tips can help you make your next vacation a psychological success. Not only will you find a way to make the trip more enjoyable but you will be better equipped psychologically to embrace some of the associated sadness as an opportunity to grow!
Clean your house. This one is pretty straightforward, before you leave for vacation, clean up your home, finish the laundry, wash the dishes and just generally tidy up to create a space that you’re wanting to come home to. Coming back to a clean home will feel much more relaxing rather than jumping right back into the chore list and knowing that you’re coming back to a home that you’ve created to be a place of peace, calm, safety, fun, sanctuary, etc. will help you see it as a welcomed break from roughing it at a 5 star hotel! This is important as we can often leave hastily, leaving our home filled with all our least favorite aspects of your home (and life) which can make the return home an even more arduous task!
Schedule Leisure. This seems pretty obvious, but there is also research to support this. Individuals who schedule relaxation or leisure time while on holiday return happier. Even if the point of your trip is excitement and adventure, having some respite time – just like in life (this is foreshadowing another tip) – having time to recover is essential for post vacation mental health and wellness. We all want to get the most bang for our buck, but having some downtime to consolidate the action packed moments can help us retain them and not feel worn out and depleted upon our return.
Enjoy the moment. You made it! You’re on vacation and whether you’re go go go or you’ve scheduled plenty of chill time, we have a tendency to let life slip by because we are worried (or even excited about) what’s next. A quick confession: I (Dr. Michalski) have a really bad habit of thinking about the future and how things will end before they even started or are still happening at the time. Instead of being present in the moment, I start to feel the dread of it coming to an end and going back to the reality of a work and home routine. Challenge yourself to be mindful of the present moment. We all get into a habit of going through the motions but vacation can be an opportunity (and a great opportunity at that) to challenge this tendency. Whether you’re super well planned out or flying by the seat of your pants, you’ve intentionally created a time and space that was built to help you find something that you’re wanting more of, so look for those magical moments while on your trip and embrace them as they come. Be present!
Journal and look at pictures. Journaling your memories and favorite times on vacation can be a great way to stay connected. This is not just the narcissistic look at me culture behavior, rather, documenting special experiences – or even the seemingly mundane – can help you solidify those experiences in your memory and help you identify them while on vacation, but you can also look through your pictures, poems (or blog articles) and relive the meaningful moments you or others experienced during vacation. As with the other tips in this article this doesn’t have to be limited to vacation experiences and instead can be a daily practice. Asking friends and family to reflect on their favorite part of the day or spending time expressing or experiencing gratitude over the events of the day can focus our attention on the positive aspects of the day and wire us to look for and anticipate the more enjoyable parts of our life!
Schedule something vacation-self would love at home. Yes, vacation is built to be awesome, and we want every bit of it to count. We might push the limits leaving the evening after school or work and staying all the way until we have to stumble into work the next day with sand still in our hair, but the goal here is to see if you can take some of what you’ve learned from your vacation self and integrate it into your real life. Set aside time to meet with friends, spend time outside, or just have a day of relaxation at a local spa. The trick here is that you’re bringing vacation-self home and letting some of what you loved most about your trip, and most importantly what you love most about yourself on the trip to be more readily integrated into your daily life.
Unpack. You’ve enjoyed the trip and maybe stocked up on memories and knick knacks and some stinky clothing. I think everyone is guilty of this, living out of your vacation suitcase for a week after coming back, or not doing the laundry and letting it pile up. Unpack your stuff (this can even be mental unpacking too) and integrate it into your daily life. If you bought something that you think would look great in your living room, put it up. If you have a t-shirt that says, “I survived my vacation and am using Dr. Wehle and Dr. Michalski’s tips to successfully integrate vacation-self into real-self” pick a day to wear it. Unpacking does not have to be just physical. We can call a friend and process the trip, upload some of the fun photos to our favorite social media or just share with some loved ones. Regardless, shortly after returning you can help reduce the clutter and overwhelming feelings of not being organized, by unpacking. While there are some great insights into the psychological benefit of mentally unpacking, let’s be very clear – you also just need to wash your dirty clothes!
Take an extra day off. I know you want to get everything you can out of your trip. You spent good money on this so you want to take as many days in your vacation spot as possible and let life be damned you’re enjoying this to the fullest. Well, this doesn’t always work as planned. Leaving an extra day is kind of like giving yourself a rest day between workouts. You need time to recover and reset. This return day can not only help you comfortably get back into the swing of things, it also helps you consolidate those psychological GAINS. So, when you are planning your vacation, consider adding a free day between your return from the trip and the return to work or school. Allow yourself to have a rest day to recover from the chaos of vacation and prepare for the chaos of life.
Start thinking or even planning about the next vacation! I know that this appears to be in contrast to the whole “be in the moment” thing, but being in the future isn’t all bad, especially when you see the future as awesome. What did you love about this trip? What might you improve? Do you want to go back? Do it again? How can you leverage these psychological tips to have an even better trip? Do you want to quit your job and sell your home to become a travel blogger and just document your vacations as a full time gig or side hustle? Regardless if you are ready to go big or just have to go home, it might help to spend some time thinking about the next trip. Research actually shows that a big part of the psychological benefits to vacationing is knowing that you’ll be vacationing. So, if you have something set or you’re just tentatively thinking about what you can do next, you can soak up all the benefits of looking forward to this awesome next trip. Thinking about what you want to do next doesn’t have to be overly complicated or a burden and the next trip doesn’t have to be an extravagant vacation, but it can have positive effects on your mindset if you even start to set some tentative plans for the next one! Having something to look forward to gives you a sense of hope and sometimes that’s a key factor to getting the self-care we all need to thrive.
Get Existential: We have really left the “be in the moment” station here, but bear with us for a moment. Fighting off these feelings of what it all means and “do I even like my current life” and “I just want to sip margaritas on the beach” are not bad thoughts. Yes, we know very “therapist” of us, but don’t push these thoughts down as silly or just depressing. There is a theory (and we believe) that there are actually evolutionary benefits to depression, including this meta experience of what am I doing with my life and what does it all mean! These are not bad questions and while they may be scary sometimes the greatest beauty of our life is on the other side of these questions. The trick is not getting stuck in these loops and finding a way or finding others that can help you work through them.
I (Dr. Wehle) am on the beach – my absolute happy place – and I’m struggling through my preemptive post vacation malaise and letting my real life ruin my fantasy of vacation me! I ruined this deal for my wife and people I really care about. I’m coming to terms with it but I’m still pretty freaking sad. So, I decide to play catch with my son to get my mind off the blah but also see my daughter is playing alone in the sand and decide to try to find a way to incorporate both of them in an activity that can be fun for all of us. I’m still in a funk but I decide building a sandcastle might be the ticket to a sense of joy and satisfaction. As we are constructing our “castle,” the song “Castles Made of Sand” by Jimi Hendrix plays on repeat in my head. Still a bit depressed, I think that this doesn’t matter, just like the business deal doesn’t matter, just like life and this vacation are just castles made of sand that will fall into the sea eventually. Yeah, I go pretty dark. I keep humming the song while building sand castles and as the waves ebb and flow, there are waves that are hitting our crappy little sandcastle. I pose the question to my kids about how we might be able to protect it? My son suggests building a wall, so we go all in on protecting the castle (flipped over bucket of sand) by building a wall with other flipped over buckets of sand. When a wave crashes it protects the castle but now we have water in the courtyard, so we build reservoirs. My son is ecstatic to see that the reservoir is working to clear out the water, and we are now using wet sand to further fortify our wall. All while my daughter is demoing castles that she feels are too ugly to be left standing. At the end of this, the original castle remains, and we leave for the pool. My existential angst has passed, but I kept wondering about that little castle that could. I know it’s now gone and just intermixed with the beach but those moments are not gone. The lessons remain, and I can still vaguely see the smiles. Those may fade as well but even as I’m writing this I’m thankful for those moments. Thankful for my kids. Thankful for the vacation. I’m thankful for that time we had. I’m thankful for the waves and the sand and I’m thankful for the castles made of sand even though I know that they will fall into the sea eventually.
Bonus Hack! Tell your story: What the heck, share our story. The point is: sharing your experiences with those who support you can be helpful to those people and others. We realize that we may only get a few readers on this blog and while we did write this for people to read, this was really a pretty selfish venture. After processing our shared vacation experience, we had a fun time thinking about the positive and negative aspects of vacationing and wanted to think through some lessons learned to make vacation a better experience and this is the result of some of what we discussed. Our discussion alone and processing through the “icky” feelings left both of us feeling more optimistic and in some ways transformed in our day to day. We want to live life more fully and bring home parts of what we love about our vacation selves so that we can access that part of us in our day to day and even have specific goals for how we can do that! This may not be a huge dent in bringing attention to mental health issues but this was a step for us, as we were both surprised by our “negative” vacation experience, we thought this story should be told. This was step one for us, but your step one may be different. Your step might just be scheduling the damn vacation that you’ve been putting off. Regardless, we’d encourage you to take that step and if you’re really questioning things and or just want to process this with someone. We obviously think therapy could be a good place for that, but so could calling (or texting) a friend. Obviously, this is a blog created for Pillars of Wellness, but go anywhere, likely not as cool as Pillars, but we digress. We happened to process our experiences with other psychologists, but that’s just because we are friends and can both tend to get a tinge too existential. Tell your story! We will try to not go too far here but narrative therapy is an interesting conceptual way of making meaning out of your life and it’s definitely worth considering. Regardless, bring the parts you love, discard the aspects that don’t serve you, and find ways to integrate your vacation life into your “real” life.