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Healthy Traveler

Exiting the Information Superhighway

March 22, 1998|KATHLEEN DOHENY

The rapid flow of information in today's society--coupled with easier access to it--can motivate people to learn, research, communicate and get things done faster. But once that flow of information pushes past a personal saturation point, many rebel. They need a vacation without stimulation.

It happened to Karen Shanor, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. During the hot, muggy month of August, a time when many locals flee to cooler environs, she tried to keep up her usual hectic schedule, which includes writing books and magazine articles, giving lectures and seeing clients late into the night. But the heat, humidity and information overload got to her.

"I didn't want to see my office, I didn't want to see a client, I didn't want to do anything I normally wanted to do," she said. "My whole system shut down." One of her colleagues, British psychologist David Lewis, calls it "information fatigue syndrome," a condition that can take an insidious toll on patience and concentration and even provoke physical problems such as indigestion. When Shanor went into "info overload," a not-so-tiny voice told her to escape, and so she retreated to a quiet place on a Mid-Atlantic beach and rested up.

Taking on a restful vacation isn't as simple as it might seem, she and others say. That's because information overstimulation is not just encouraged but expected, glamorized and rewarded via daily dealings with telephones, fax machines, e-mail, pagers and Internet data. And thanks to cell phones' roaming capabilities and coast-to-coast pagers, you can often leave home still plugged in.

Even so, Shanor says, "It's helpful for everyone to be in a peaceful location sometimes and to slow down." A restful vacation, rather than one with a jam-packed agenda, "allows us to re-create ourselves," said Shanor, who is planning to go to the Cayman Islands this spring and practice what she preaches. "The main idea is to get away from what you do day in and day out."

For a restful vacation, Shanor advises clients to choose a place that is totally different from their ordinary environment and to make sure it's soothing. For many people that means being in nature, such as in the mountains or at the beach. But, she added, it's wise to investigate the environment before packing. "Don't go camping, for instance, where there are motorcycles racing and radios blaring," she said.

A restful vacation doesn't mean being totally sedentary. "Some people love to hike and sail."

The physical demands of the activity, for them, translate into relaxation.

What is restful to one person may not be to another, added Margaret Backman, a New York clinical psychologist who specializes in travel issues. "For some people, keeping active is restful to them. Focusing on a physical activity, such as sailing, helps them to rest" because it provides a complete change from their everyday routine.

When considering just how restful a vacation should be, take a look at your current schedule and how you perceive its stresses, said Hy Day, professor emeritus of psychology at York University, Toronto, and an expert on leisure time. Obviously, the more stressful you perceive your life, the more rest you probably need.

The appeal of a peaceful vacation, Day said, depends on whether you are a stimulus-seeker or a stimulus-avoider. "All people seek a certain amount of excitement in their lives," he said. If a stimulus-seeker gets adequate stimulation from family, work and hobbies, less stimulation might be needed on vacation.

Try not to take the cell phone or pager, Shanor suggested. "The technology gets in the way of reconnecting with the inner part of ourselves."

For technology junkies who feel anxious, powerless--or both--without their electronic communications equipment, Shanor tells them to step back and realize the pull of technology--constantly checking a pager for messages, for instance--is a habit that can be changed.

During the first few days of vacation, she advised, take note of how many times you get the urge to check in with the office, make a cell phone call or check your pager. Then do a little introspection. "Realize how much power you give that pager," she said. "Then tell yourself: 'But now I am focusing on myself.' " Humor can help. "Try telling yourself: 'It's actually possible to lie on a beach without a pager and I intend to prove it,' " Shanor said. Consider checking the pager just once a day.

Another question to ponder: Did I pay all this money to spend time tinkering with technology? In Backman's view, some people who look like technology junkies may actually be unorganized. For instance, they might have to check in with the office because they forgot to tell co-workers or bosses about an upcoming meeting or other information needed during their absence.

She encourages these people to delegate work responsibilities before departing on a vacation, to arrange for vacation coverage or just to plan to catch up on their return.

In Shanor's experience, the people who least think they need a restful vacation are the ones who need it most. If clients seem driven to pack as much activity as possible into every vacation, Shanor asks them: "Are you getting away from the source of your demands or are you trying to get away from yourself?"

The Healthy Traveler appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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