If you need a sign to book that summer getaway, here it is. When it comes to lowering stress, one of the best strategies for women is to take a vacation.
“The number one thing women should do to reduce their stress is go on vacation,” says Dr. Kellyann Niotis, a preventative neurologist at Early Medical and Flow Advisory Council member. “You’re going to come back and feel more refreshed, be more creative, and have better concentration and memory.”
Taking time off allows your body to have a break from the constant stressors of everyday life, which over time can take a real toll on your brain health. While the body’s “fight or flight” response to stress can make us hyperproductive in the short term, too much stress over time can contribute to the decline of brain function. The loss of brain cells from unresolved chronic stress can eventually increase a person’s risk for neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia. In fact, women’s brains may even be more susceptible to the damaging effects of the stress hormone cortisol over time than men’s brains, says Dr. Niotis.
But how you take time off can make a difference. The key, she says, is to reset and disconnect.
Your time off should be longer than three days. While a weekend getaway can reset your mind, Dr. Niotis recommends a minimum of three vacation days to get the real brain health benefits of a break. “Vacation has to be for more than three days because it takes time for your cortisol to recover from the stress.”
And while there’s nothing wrong with a staycation, if you can swing time away, there may be added health benefits to a change of scenery. One study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that the stress levels of participants who spent a 4-night vacation in a hotel were lower than another group took time off, but stayed at home. What’s more, the hotel group reported increased feelings of happiness and well-being even a month after the trip.
Your out of office message needs to mean it. Dr. Niotis says it’s critical to be offline and truly disconnected from work. “Now that everything is remote, people feel obligated to answer emails when they’re away. They think, ‘Well, it’s not that hard for me to hop on the Zoom call while I’m away.’ But it’s so important to disconnect and reset.”
And while time off from work benefits everyone, Niotis says it may help women even more than men, due to gender differences in stress response. Some research suggests women have a higher activation of the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, making them more susceptible to cortisol. Women may also be more likely to experience memory problems and trouble thinking when under constant stress.
The “stress cycle” can be hard to break, adds Niotis. “The more you’re stressed, the more you shrink that part of your brain, making you more prone to stress.”
Can’t get away right now? A break in the middle of the day can help. A 20-minute break away from your work, such as walk outside in your neighborhood or the park, can be a powerful reset, says Dr. Niotis. And if your responsibilities stop you from leaving work, some research suggests 15 minutes of meditation can have mental health benefits that can match those of a day off.
So the next time you find yourself clenching your teeth or ruminating on the laundry list of things you need to do, take those as a sign that you need some time off. And if you’re feeling guilty about the thought of taking a vacation, just remember — it’s doctor’s orders.
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