Falling ill on holiday: the whys and wherefores of how to stay well during the festive season

HOLIDAY BOOHOO: Getting ill on holiday may be warning you about what you're doing the rest of the year. Picture: File photo
HOLIDAY BOOHOO: Getting ill on holiday may be warning you about what you're doing the rest of the year. Picture: File photo

Aaaah! You’ve made it through the year to the holidays. You got through the Christmas frenzy and now you’re ready to wind down and relax.

But instead of hanging out on hot sand, or taking a quiet walk in the bush, or standing thigh-deep in a river angling for trout, you’re on the couch feeling like death.

Is it the ‘flu - at this time of year?! Was it over-indulgence over Christmas - well, possibly.

But all that matters now is that you feel crook.

Migraines, aching muscles, fevers, stomach-aches, colds or even suddenly becoming accident-prone - all could be symptoms of a syndrome dubbed ‘leisure sickness’.

To be fair, the doctor who came up with the term, Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Netherlands’ Tilburg University, has done us a favour.

He’s answered that nagging question of, “Why do I always get sick when I’m on holiday?” Which is usually followed by, “Why didn’t I get sick while I was at work?”

Likely candidates are people who are consumed with work, who have demanding and high-stress positions.

Professor Ad Vingerhoets

Apparently the whole thing starts in our heads and works its way to our bodies. 

“Likely candidates are people who are consumed with work, who have demanding and high-stress positions and who have trouble making the transition between a work and non-work environment,” said Professor Vingerhoets of his research into leisure sickness in 2002.

He found that leisure sickness could erupt in our bodies for a variety of reasons, which others have since added to.

While at work we flick on an ‘over-ride’ switch in our brains, which tells our bodies we can’t afford to take time off right now.

Once we go on holiday, we turn the switch off, and our body says, “Great, time to rest, recuperate and repair.”

While we are pumping adrenaline and getting things done, our bodies go along with us. But when we turn off the adrenaline, our immune systems slow down and bingo! We catch bugs.

Refusing to notice little niggles

Then there’s the ‘I refuse to notice anything’ syndrome.

During stressful times at work, we focus on getting the problems solved and ignore the faint signals from our bodies that something is going wrong.

Once we don’t have work to distract us, suddenly the faint whispers become a loud roar in our ears demanding that we let our bodies take time to restore health and balance.

Or maybe we don’t like being forced to spend time with people (including family) that deep down, we don’t really like that much. What better way to avoid enforced time together than a retiring with a splitting headache?

Possibly we feel guilty because we’re not working hard. If we believe our worth is tied up in what and how much we do at work, suddenly having no work to do can be frightening.

Others of us don’t like being jolted out of our routine.

And some prefer order to prevail in their lives.  Holidays can mean scary spontaneity and sudden, disruptive changes of plan.

But there are ways around leisure sickness, if you really want to spend your holidays relaxing rather than nursing monstrous migraines.

Top tips for tip top holiday health

RELAX: Like the doctor says, learn to relax - especially DURING the year.

REGULAR: Exercise. Build regular, vigorous exercise into your routine during the year. This counteracts the effects of stress on your body, and keeps your immune system ticking over.

ROUTINE: For waking up and going to sleep. Try going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time in the morning, even during your holiday. Your body appreciates routine.

RELATIONSHIPS: Keep up those relationships with family and friends and keep your social life active so you stay connected with your circles.

READY: Organise for your holidays well in advance, and wind down at work before you leave. Then your body won’t be so shocked when you switch from an adrenaline-filled, stressed peak to a period of zero appointments, deadlines and decisions.