Why you feel so stressed after taking a holiday – and how to cope

Written by Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

Feel guilty for your OOO and return from a break more tense than when you left? You could have post-holiday anxiety. Here, a psychotherapist explains the key signs and the best coping mechanisms, too.

With a cost of living crisis and Covid-19 still impacting our daily lives, going on holiday may still look a bit different for some of us this year, but it’s still important to take annual leave: failing to do so, as we all know too well, could lead us to a point of exhaustion.

But, let’s face it, sorting out all the admin that comes will booking time off work is stressful. And, while we know that taking time off is vital for good mental health, there are many of us who find it challenging to return to work after a holiday.

What is post-holiday anxiety?

As psychotherapist Ruairi Stewart (aka The Happy Whole Coach) explains to me: “Being able to switch off completely and unwind is essential, but for some people, the thought of returning to a hectic work environment that previously had them tired, exhausted, stressed and anxious can be overwhelming.

“Some people can find it difficult to fully switch off their work mindset in order to let themselves relax, and can actually become more anxious thinking about the work that hasn’t been completed, what might be awaiting them when they return, bills that need to be paid or projects that require their input in order to be executed properly. 

“Some people might even feel guilty for taking this time to themselves, believing they don’t deserve it or that it is somehow selfish for them to be away when others are still in the workplace.”

Participants who were told they may be up for a promotion were found to have a significantly increased heartrate.

Stewart continues: “Anxiety is rooted in fear-based thinking. It usually leaves a person feeling like whatever situation they are focusing on, the perceived threat of something going wrong, will mean that they won’t be able to cope or manage the situation.

“For someone on their holidays, anxious thoughts about returning to work can really sap the joy of their remaining time away and leave them keyed up and dreading their return to work.”

What are the common signs of post-holiday anxiety?

  • Disrupted sleeping pattern, trouble getting to sleep
  • Prolonged periods of worry and irrational thinking
  • Feelings of restlessness and irritability
  • Feeling unable to concentrate, stay present, or pay attention
  • Feeling jittery
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Self-medicating with comfort food, alcohol, or drugs
  • A knot in your stomach when thinking about work
  • Shaking/trembling
  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • A pounding/racing heart

“You don’t need to be experiencing all of these symptoms before you do something about it, the aim is to take action before things become overwhelming,” Stewart reminds me.

“If you become aware of these symptoms you can use some of the strategies below to alleviate your anxiety, as well as having the option to reach out to a professional if needed.”

What are some effective ways to reduce post-holiday anxiety?

1) Focus your attention on what YOU can control before you go away

“This may mean looking at what currently stresses you out the most about your job, decluttering your workspace, making the extra time to get through emails,” says Stewart.

“Then make a list, work through it, write down essentials you can sort yourself, and prioritise this before you return to work.”

Post-holiday anxiety: Focus your attention on what you can control before you go away.

2) Become aware of your self-talk

“How you speak to yourself and the thoughts you regularly have about your ability to cope in stressful environments, is impacted by the energy you give to the thoughts,” Stewart reminds me.

“For most anxious people these thoughts are often disempowering, fear-based, and catastrophic in nature, assuming that the worst possible outcome will happen so they can prepare themselves for what could go wrong.

“When you catch these thoughts, pay attention to them, sit with them, and challenge them from an evidence-based perspective there usually isn’t much truth behind them.”

3) Be kind to yourself, and focus on self-care

Stewart says: “Just because you were away on holiday does not mean you need to overdo it to compensate when you return. There is no point working yourself to the bone just because you were away for some downtime.”

Our focus should be on getting enough sleep, exercising, eating nutritious food, and engaging in activities that help us feel good, he adds.

“Make time for the things that help you unwind and connect to yourself. You will have a perspective shift about your work when you feel grounded and relaxed, work won’t seem as overwhelming or bleak when you are feeling rested.”

4) Give yourself something to look forward to

It’s easy to fall into a cycle of doom and gloom if you don’t have anything exciting on the horizon.

As Stewart says: “Many people book a holiday when they return to work because it gives them something to focus on and work towards.

“It can also distract you from some of the anxious feelings you have about settling back into your routine, knowing that you will soon be away on holiday in the near future.”

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5) Challenge any feelings of guilt

You might be struggling with feelings of guilt knowing that your colleagues may have had to carry your workload while you were on holiday, but it is important to acknowledge that this is part of working as a team.

More importantly, though, try to remember that this is also something that you will do for them when the time comes for them to have time off.

“If you are really struggling with feelings of guilt it may be worth exploring why you might feel that taking time for yourself is a ‘bad thing’ in your eyes?” says Stewart.

“Do you think it makes you selfish? Or are you carrying a negative judgement about yourself for taking time for self-care while others are working?When you return to work, make time to catch up with your colleagues and get in the loop about what was worked on while you were away so you feel in control moving forward.”

6) Seek professional help

If you feel overwhelmed, stuck, and unable to manage any feelings of anxiety, depression, or stress please seek out professional help.

As Stewart says: “You will be able to explore what is going on within you in a safe, non-judgmental, and encouraging space, and you will learn powerful tools that will help you overcome these feelings and equip you to deal with any anxiety in the future.”

You can find more information on anxiety, as well as support and resources, on both the NHS and Mind websites.

Images: Getty

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