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Why vacations make us anxious by Pauline Frommer

Before I got married, and a few times since, I’ve taken vacations with a dear friend from high school. I’ve come to realize, however, that for almost all our trips over the last 20 years, she has either gotten physically ill or experienced exhaustion so crippling that, at some point in the trip, she’s had to excuse herself to go nap in the hotel room. She is, in effect, taking a vacation from the vacation.

This extreme fatigue usually dogs her for several days. Though she’d claim I’m over-analyzing the situation, I think that she suffers from a travel anxiety that’s more common than fear of flying. (No, I don’t think it’s our relationship. We spend a lot of time together outside of vacation time without these issues cropping up.)

What’s the basis for this anxiety? My guess is it has something to do with our ties to work. Another friend, Elizabeth, often gets extremely nervous during vacations. “I’m worried that everything will fall apart at the office while I’m gone,” she told me. She then confessed “No, what I’m probably worried about is that everything will be just fine without me. And they’ll realize that I’m unnecessary.” Ah, it’s wonderful living in an era of layoffs, isn’t it?

Beyond Elizabeth’s logical fears of being deemed expendable, I think there’s something about work itself that some people miss deeply during vacation. As a mother, I can tell you that my children are happiest when they’re playing at working, and that’s been the case whether they were pretending to be firemen as toddlers or setting up a lemonade stand outside our house today.

The friend I travel with is a physical therapist, and though her job has its frustrations (foremost, dealing with insurance companies), overall she loves heading to the hospital in the morning. It gives her a sense of self and of accomplishment; it always challenges her intellect.

I think the way she crowds her brain with work issues serves as a buffer from anxiety. While many of us welcome the time we have on vacation to sit back and reflect on our lives or drift like a leaf through a new landscape, others find the displacement from our ordinary lives unsettling on an existential level. The realization that you don’t have to do anything on holiday, well, it might translate into a recognition that your efforts in your daily life may, in the end, amount to nothing. From dust to dust and all that — yes, this is what I’m imagining my dear friend is pondering at the beach.

I don’t have this kind of anxiety when I travel, probably because travel is my work. I’ve found that when we take a vacation that involves some sort of project, my friend never gets tired. On a trip recently to a Mexican cooking school, she was as chipper as a chipmunk, never pooping out, though we spent a good three hours a day on our feet, cutting, mashing, sautéing and stewing. Another trip that involved spending some of our time volunteering was equally as successful.

Do you ever suffer from anxiety when you’re on vacation? If so, what do you think causes it, and what do you do to get over it? Share your solutions with other travelers in the comments section.


  • It helps to have something concrete planned for the day. Something to be accomplished. Even so it takes me at least 3 full days to acclimate to "Vacation Mode".

  • I think you're right - it's anxiety.   We're all so busy these days that in the back of our heads we know that there is a boatload of work waiting for us - decisions that will have to be made, fires to put out, tasks that are piling up in our absence.  Our culture is so geared toward productivity and accomplishment that some of us actually have trouble just relaxing.  Our bodies think we're supposed to be "doing" something. Combine that with our brains telling us we're supposed to relax, and we have a disconnect that causes physical symptoms such as exhaustion.   I think Cal's suggestion is a good one for people like your friend - if there's a schedule or task, especially if you can let her organize it, it will help.

  • Very iteresting blog. Wondering if you try and do too much and exhaust her though. People do have different rhythms. Maybe it really is exhaustion and not anxiety. Though I do agree about how obsessed with work people get.

  • I worked hard for a whole year so I deserve a vacation. I always plan that once a year I get out of my state & go somewhere I've never been to. Once I'm off the clock on my last day, I totally obliterate WORK, even if it's the hand that feeds me. Wherever I go, I DO NOT THINK of work or the company. I make the most of my time & ENJOY whatever I do, even if am just people watching @the beach, it's FUN....And this way you meet & make new friends too. I always make it a point to go on tour, see the place & meet the locals. I've been traveling solo lately but never experiencee any anxiety, maybe the travel bug in me is inherent.      

  • Oh yes!  It's crazy stuff.  When I go on vacation I am ready to leave by day three.  I am so bored and restless. I think it helps to have things to do that you enjoy doing.  Not doing just to keep busy.  And who wrote the rule book on relaxing?  

  • I feel uptight at the beginning, possibly out of guilt that I'm actually taking time off, and, of course, everything is so different from home and routine.  However, since we've been renting timeshares (and we can find great budget ones - no guilt there - at I've found that the more homey atmosphere and things to do right out the front door at the resort, gets me to relaxing a lot quicker and a lot better.

  • This is a tax where the mercy of modernity

    Escape to the desert for some time and a good and useful

    Sinai, for example

  • Thanks for the thoughtful replies all (though I don't need any adult apparel, thank you very much!). Best, Pauline

  • I think this is very true. Too many of us are so tied to work, we can't get away even on vacation. I'm going to share this. Thanks.

  • A lot of people don't even manage to get away from the work whilst on vacation and are still tied to the office via a mobile!

  • I think am like Elizabeth, I struggle to justify an entire week (or two) spent on the beach somewhere and not being productive!

  • I think alot of people suffer anxiety and exhaustion on vacation because we live such fast paced lives it is the only time we stop and actually think about what is going on for us.  We can't escape into our work and there is a snowball effect of all the emotional stuff we've swept under the carpet for the last year.

    I had a terrible anxiety attack on our 11 night cruise to the Caribbean.  It was just me, my husband a big ship and the ocean!  So crazy that on the trip of our dreams we had to think about whether or not we were going to have to visit the ship doctor for a shot!

  • I think its funny b/c I just returned from a 3 week vacation. the only anxiety that I had was worrying about bags or missing connecting flights. I know that I will be missed at work b/c I make myself nearly un-expendable. It depends on the person and the situation I have no kid, paid all the bills, took care or everything before I left home and just had a blast on my cruise vacation!

  • She might be what some researchers call a highly sensitive person, who reacts more strongly to sensory data.

  • What a good article.

    Nobody taught me how to relax on vacation.

    It was all work work work. And when  I finally got a week off, It was like ( Now what do i do ?).

    Last Oct. When I went to Las Vegas, for 3 days I was restless. What a bummer. A homless man chased me 1 block in a wheel chair wanting money.

    Have a nice day !!

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