(CBS) - Everyone looks forward to unwinding during summer vacation. But in this demanding, fast-paced world, it's often difficult to decompress. Sadly, for some people, taking time off is actually stressful.
Dr. Vatsal Thakkar, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the NYU Langone Medical Center, said people too often sabotage the health benefits of vacation by clinging to the habits and demands of real life. If you're spending your time off constantly checking work emails on your smartphone, you won't come back nearly as refreshed. Even staying semi-connected to work is like taking only half your dose of a prescription.
"For a true rejuvenation and healing of body and mind that should occur with a vacation, we need to have that disconnection," Thakkar told CBS News. "It's a little bit almost narcissistic to think that the world will stop if we don't answer this email or return this call."
Even if your boss disagrees, the importance of vacation cannot be overstated -- at least from a health standpoint. Getting away to the countryside can have physical as well as psychological benefits. "There's a lot of data coming out on just the fact of being in nature," Thakkar said. "There's something about the smells, the sounds, even there's some evidence on the bacteria that we find in nature actually have antidepressant property."
Research has found vacation can increase serotonin, the feel-good hormone, and regulate melatonin and therefore your circadian rhythm and sleep cycles. A week at the beach can also reduce your body's production of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Here are some tips from Thakkar to maximize the health benefits of your summer vacation.
Find a change of scenery
Sitting on your couch and watching cat videos is not restorative to your health. "I like to advocate for change in context," said Thakkar. A new locale or distinct break in routine will help distinguish your time off from the daily grind. Otherwise, at the end of the week, you might feel like you've never been away.
A change in routine can also mean spending time with friends and family you may not see as much during the work week.
Choose activities that put you in a happy place
Relaxation is not one-size-fits-all. "Some people like sit on a beach and read, some people like to be paragliding over the beach," said Thakkar. "You have to find what works for you and not overdo it. You have to find people who like to do the same thing or at least support you in that."
Whether you're craving peace and quiet or hungering for adventure, try to plan a trip that satisfies that longing and provides an experience that may be lacking in your day-to-day life.
Set the out-of-office reply on your email and try to avoid the urge to constantly check in. "It is very hard, even for our brains, to try to jump back and forth" from work to relaxation, said Thakkar. "If we're on personal time, on vacation, it's hard for us to jump back and forth into work mode without ruining both."
If you do have a job or other responsibilities that make it impossible to completely disconnect, Thakkar said it's important to plan ahead and tell people in your circles which matters warrant disruption and which can wait till you get back.
Set ground rules
Spending quality time with loved ones is important but that doesn't mean it's always low stress. This is why Thakkar advises people discuss their expectations before leaving home for a family vacation. "It's good to plan for that ahead of time, to create, maybe, house rules with your spouse about the in-laws," he said. Deciding in advance what activities you'll do together and how much time you'd like to spend independently may help avoid stress and conflict during your precious time off.
Similarly, it can be useful to set vacation ground rules with your children. Allow them to have ice cream and watch some television, but also make sure they're getting ample outdoor time. Most of all, if you're a parent, join your children in play.
Don't undo the benefits of your break
If you've gotten over the anxiety of disappearing for a week, then you've come a long way. But the benefits of a relaxing vacation can evaporate quickly if you're not careful. Digging through a mountain of emails when you return to the office can send you right to a black hole. Thakkar has a clever, albeit sneaky, solution to ease yourself back into the groove: "I carry my out-of-office message for a day or two past when I return so that even the people who email me on my first day back, second day back, never know that I'm still catching up."
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