Going on holiday? Beware the ‘let-down effect’

Looking forward to a summer holiday? Really feel in need of that break? Good for you – and yet, watch out. You may be heading for a holiday illness as part of the ‘let down effect’. The term was coined by Marc Schoen to describe the way our immune system can also pack its bags and go on holiday just when we need it to keep us well. What’s going on?

  • Ever caught ‘the airplane cold’ on holiday – yet you fly on business all the time and don’t get sick?
  • Ever blamed the holiday tickle in your throat on your travel companions/the climate at your holiday destination – even though you work in a city?
  • Ever felt really stiff and tired on holiday, when all you wanted to do was relax – yet you don’t get those symptoms at home and you work out?

These three examples are classic ways the let down effect can show up. When we’re working hard, busy, getting stuff done under pressure, our immune system is working hard too. We’re often under stress and our bodies are releasing a whole chemistry set of hormones to help us cope. This is hardwired evolutionary stuff: it’s how we’ve been able to ‘fight or flight’ in the face of extreme danger. But this is office work we’re talking about here, not fleeing a sabre-tooth tiger. And we do this constantly, not in occasional extreme situations. Which all takes its toll.

And then we go on holiday.

Our immune system gets the signal that the stress has gone – and takes a well-earned break. The chemical cocktail simply stops – well, once we’re through the airport… We sleep for ages, laze around, get horizontal with a good book or three, and catch the bugs that we’ve been able to resist until now. We may also experience low mood as well as aches and pains. Welcome to your holiday let down.

What can we do?

We need to take steps (literally) to inform our immune system that we’d really like it to stick around and be vigilant, whilst not on red alert. For example:

Exercise – this makes a huge difference, even a short brisk walk can help. If you have some form of activity built into your holiday, such as walking, swimming or cycling you’re going to feel much better.

Keep your brain active – that could be puzzles, games, and maybe a few more challenging reads than the airport blockbuster. I don’t recommend the humiliation of being easily beaten at chess by your spouse however 😉

Meditate – Start by paying attention to your breathing, make it slow and deep. Then aim to get your outbreath longer than your inbreath. Get an app if it helps (here’s a list from The Independent – I like Headspace).

I’m a fan of Dr Ken Nowack’s work in this area – and quote him in our ‘How to handle stress’ workshop. You can check Dr Ken out here in his post ‘should talent be allowed to take vacations?’ 

You may also find this blog post interesting: ‘Perfectionism can spoil your holiday’


Dawn is the author of ‘How to be Zoomly at work’, available on Amazon

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