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The Healthy Traveler

Making the Best of Unwind Time

August 14, 1994|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Americans are taking vacations more frequently but trips are getting shorter. The question is, then, is it possible to unwind in only a few days and are there tricks for making it happen fast?

This year, Americans on vacation will average fewer than five nights away, compared to more than six nights a decade ago, according to figures compiled by the federal government's U.S. Travel Data Center.

During these briefer stays, vacationers must shift from work to leisure mode more quickly, if they hope to reap the vacation benefits of rest and rejuvenation.

Easier said than done, according to Dr. Mark Goulston, a Santa Monica psychiatrist who often hears his clients embarking on three- or four-day trips fret: "That's not enough time to unwind."

"A week off is ideal," said Dr. Ray Sahelian, a Marina del Rey family practice physician and former travel medicine specialist. "The first three or four days most people are still unwinding."

Yet as Sahelian and others acknowledge, three or four days away may be the most we can manage. When that's the case, vacationers should make a conscious effort to shift into a more relaxed frame of mind even before departure, experts said. That means making trip preparations in an organized, unhurried way.

Start collecting things to take along in a single place at home, said Sheila Cluff, owner of spas in Ojai and Palm Springs and a frequent traveler. Doing this gradually can help reduce last-minute stress. Getting sufficient rest before leaving can help too, although Cluff admits this isn't always easy to do.

Many vacationers wrestle with several conflicts before their departure date, making them feel even more stressed, said Goulston, who heads the Direct Conflict Resolution Group, a company that helps businesses resolve inner-office conflicts.

There's often guilt. People tell Goulston they feel torn about vacation plans, thinking they should really stay home and spend the money fixing up their house, buying a new sofa or paying bills.

If finances are tight, they might be right, Goulston said. But often it is just a case of people not treating themselves well. "A part of them thinks they don't deserve a vacation," he said.

Focus on the permanent value of vacation, Goulston tells them. Yes, the meals and the good times will be temporary, but the memories will be long-lasting. And time spent with family or friends can bolster relationships.

"No dying man ever wished he'd spent more money on couches," he tells clients.

While en route, continue to focus on unwinding, experts said, using a whatever-works approach. Cliff, for example, takes along brochures describing the destination and reads them cover-to-cover on the plane, getting more excited about the trip with each succeeding page.

Sahelian likes books written by authors from the area he is about to visit. He read the novel "Rebecca" before a visit to Cornwall. He also studies the history of his destination, which makes sightseeing and tours more enjoyable. "But I don't look at a lot of pictures of the destination, I just read text. That way I don't have a preconceived notion of what a place will look like."

Other seasoned travelers have become adept at shifting into vacation mode through differing measures. When traveling with his family, Los Angeles publicist Michael Saltzman tries to book accommodations that don't have telephone or television. Terry Wills, president of a Hermosa Beach marketing communications company and the mother of two young boys, tries to book a hotel with a fitness facility so that she can enjoy exercising--something she finds difficult to fit in as often as she would like at home.

Once at the destination, some vacationers wrestle with yet another conflict: how to shift from the adrenaline-driven style typical at work to the relaxation mode that makes for a rejuvenating vacation.

To help encourage the downshift, Cluff and Goulston both recommend engaging in intense physical activity as soon as you arrive at your destination, even if it's just a self-guided walking tour. With the exhaustion that follows, relaxation is inevitable.

Certain personality types have an easier time shifting into a leisure frame of mind, said Dr. Seppo Iso-Ahola, professor of social psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Those who have learned to value leisure as an important part of life unwind quickly, he said, while workaholic types may find relaxation more difficult. Those who have the easiest time unwinding on vacation, in Iso-Ahola's experience, are travelers who are as passionate about an avocation as their work. It's also easier to slip into a vacation frame of mind if you leave familiar surroundings, he added, so at-home vacations might be difficult for many people.

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