Vacations are supposed to be relaxing. But anyone who's ever felt the particular anxiety of returning to work sun-kissed and blissed out only to discover that their cubicle has been transformed into a USPS storage center and their digital inbox is even bleaker knows that the first few days following an OOO adventure are brutal.
This may be exacerbated by the fact that Americans are uniquely bad at taking vacation. The U.S. is the only advanced economy that doesn't mandate paid time off, and according to a recent survey, 54% of Americans left paid vacation days unused in 2016.
But post-vacation stress is a universal phenomenon. "What’s difficult upon the return is not knowing the next time you will be free," psychologist Jessica Koblenz, PsyD, explains. "The rush and thrill of being away and free quickly becomes overshadowed by the daily grind." On the long run, vacations have been scientifically proven to boost your health and happiness. But think of the post-vacation blues as an epic case of the Sunday Scaries, the anxiety that sets in before the start of the workweek, no matter how much you love your job. There is no point in time that's farther away from the weekend—with its alarm-less mornings and bottomless brunches—than Sunday night, and that's a scary notion.
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Luckily, though, the winter blues are beatable, says Koblenz. Scroll down for six tips that will make your return to work a smooth one.
1. PLAN YOUR NEXT VACATION
"Start thinking about what to look forward to next," Koblenz suggests. That can mean starting a Pinterest board to inspire your next vacation or simply planning a night out with friends. "Even the next weekend can be enough to get you through the interim days." Visualizing the next time you'll be able to fully indulge will make the Return to Work feel less like an open-ended abyss and more like part of routine that includes both tasks like waking up early and fun rewards.
A 2010 study found that, bizarrely, our brains get even more enjoyment out of pre-travel planning than they do out of actually traveling. Why? Because anticipation is sweet. So to maximize your out-of-office bliss—as soon as one vacation ends, start planning the next one.
2. EASE BACK INTO IT
The best way to make the transition from vacation to work less jolting is to make sure that there is a transition. Don't: Head straight from the airport to your office in order to prolong your trip. Do: Return home a day early after a long trip and use the buffer period to take care of errands, recover from jet lag, and get back into your routine. If you're in charge of your work schedule, postpone important meetings until several days after you've returned to the office so you have time to catch up.
3. RESPECT YOUR BOUNDARIES
Vacation is, above all, a mindset. And the best way to hold onto it while working is to "be aware of your daily work boundaries," Koblenz says. "Do you immediately return to working through lunch, keeping late hours, and prioritizing work over yourself? Stop that in its tracks and make sure you make some time for yourself."
That's not always easy to do, especially if you work in an office setting that encourages workaholic behaviors. But a return from vacation is actually the perfect time to reset the clock on bad office habits. In all likelihood, you're the only person who takes note of what time it is when you head out for the day. Even so, making your exit at 6 p.m. is much less noticeable to others when you've been gone for a week than it is after a string of in-office all-nighters.
4. RECALL WHAT YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR ROUTINE
"The best feelings from vacation may come from when you’re excited to go away but also comforted upon your return," says Koblenz. "Remind yourself of the aspects of your daily routine you find grounding and comforting. Maybe it’s a favorite place you go for lunch, being able to sleep in your old bed, or seeing familiar faces in your friends."
Relish the things you love most about home. Your first week back from vacation is a great time to light all of those scented candles or dine at your favorite restaurant. And sprinkle in reminders of your carefree vacation vibe: Tell stories about your epic hike up Machu Picchu, change your desktop image to a photo you snapped on the beach, and recall how relaxed you felt eating breakfast in bed the next time a stress-spiking email lands in your inbox.
5. PRACTICE SELF-CARE
"Activate your coping skills: Make sure you eat healthy, exercise, or do anything that helps you to relax in daily life," says Koblenz. Making sure you feel rested and energized is the key to facing the stressors you left at the office during vacation. "Making a special plan of getting a massage, doing a mani-pedi, or something else you may not usually do may be the special treat you need."
6. ADDRESS SEASONAL AFFECTIVE DISORDER
If your lows feel more severe than an average case of winter blues, talk to your doctor or therapist about whether you might be experiencing seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression brought on by the change in seasons. Because vacations often coincide with the beginning of winter, it's possible to mistake the side-effects of SAD—which can include loss of energy, trouble sleeping, sluggishness, agitation, difficulty concentrating, hopelessness, and disinterest—for regular work stress. But if you identify the problem as SAD, there are a number of treatment options, says Koblenz, including Vitamin D supplements, phototherapy, and spending time outdoors (even if it is ridiculously cold).