It’s September and the lovely summer vacation you had may seem like a thing of the very distant past. Are you feeling a bit down about being back in the office, workplace or on family duty? All of us can suffer from temporary post-vacation blues. Here we talk about the cycle of negative mood and give you some tips to avoid the post-vacation dip.
Stop and listen closely for a second. Notice all of the noises and sights around you. If you are in your office you may hear the air conditioning unit, the sound of your computer fan, the faint roar of traffic outside… But you only became aware of all of these noises because you stopped and listened. If you were focusing on your work (before you started to read this blog that is) then you were probably deaf to those distracting sounds. This is because in order to survive in a busy world, the brain has to choose what to focus on. If we were to attend to everything all of the time we would never complete tasks because the huge sum of distractions would be too great. Our brains focus on what seems important in the moment making us essentially blind and deaf to other distractions. This is called selective attention.
A lot of different factors drive what we attend to at any one moment. It could be the environment we’re in, the people we’re with and how important it is to focus on the task at hand. But another factor that strongly predicts what we attend to is mood. When you feel sad you unconsciously focus your attention on other things that are sad. When you are happy you unconsciously focus on other things that are happy. One group of researchers showed this by making one half of a group of people happy and the other half sad. They then set them a boring computer task to do in which they had to count balls moving around a screen. Halfway through the task one of the balls suddenly turned into either a happy or a sad face. After the computer task was over the researchers asked them if they had seen anything strange during the trial. People who were sad were more likely to have noticed the strange face if it was a sad face. They were less likely to have even noticed that a face had appeared it if it was a happy face .
This is called an attentional bias.
If you’re back from holiday or the vacation period is a thing of the past and you’re feeling a bit down, your attention may be unconsciously drawn to negative things that match your mood. Are you focusing on how much work you missed while you were away and how much you have to catch up on? Did you mistake a colleague’s frown of concentration for a frown of annoyance? Most of the time attentional bias is completely unconscious. For example, when people look at a normal list of words when they’re feeling down they will be more likely to remember words that have negative connotations than positive . Feeling blue like this can result in a vicious cycle of negative thinking that is hard to escape from: The lower you feel the more your attention is drawn towards negative things. The more negative things you notice the worse you feel. So how do we turn this around?
Well just as low mood drives your attention towards negative things so too does positive mood drive your attention towards happier things. If you can give your mood a little positive boost it will help you to break out of the cycle of negative thinking. Here are some ideas to boost your mood on return from vacation:
1) Welcome yourself home.
Make being home pleasant by using little treats. Have your favourite music ready for listening, stop off at the grocery store to pick up ingredients for a meal you really like or go for a walk around a part of your neighbourhood that makes you feel happy. Research shows that simple activities such as these can boost your mood enough to change your unconscious attentional bias to focus on positive things. Even better, positive mood causes your brain to focus on things that are rewarding meaning that once you give yourself one little treat you may be more likely to think of other activities that will also make you feel good .
2) Give yourself time to recover.
Take time to relax and enjoy being home. Research has shown that the beneficial effects of vacations fade relatively quickly after returning home but this can be delayed if time is taken to relax between the vacation and going back to work . Sit in your local park, go for a stroll or why not take out the Pip and spend 5 minutes bringing yourself into a relaxed and calm state before you have to jump back into your regular routine.
3) Plan something nice.
We don’t mean plan your next vacation as soon as you are in the door from the last one but plan something nice to do during the week or the weekend. Make plans to meet with a friend for a catch-up, plan a trip to the cinema or find a way to incorporate something new that you learnt on your vacation into your daily life – maybe you did some yoga classes, took up painting or started to learn a new language. Research shows that merely anticipating doing something pleasurable activates the reward systems of the brain giving you a nice little boost of dopamine and a more positive outlook .
You may feel disappointed that the vacation period is over but don’t let the post-vacation blues bite too hard. Try our tips or formulate your own plans to make that transition between vacation and home a positive experience.
- Becker, M.W. and M. Leinenger, Attentional selection is biased toward mood-congruent stimuli. Emotion, 2011. 11(5): p. 1248.
- Koster, E.H., et al., Mood-congruent attention and memory bias in dysphoria: exploring the coherence among information-processing biases. Behaviour research and therapy, 2010. 48(3): p. 219-225.
- Tamir, M. and M.D. Robinson, The happy spotlight: Positive mood and selective attention to rewarding information. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2007. 33(8): p. 1124-1136.
- Kühnel, J. and S. Sonnentag, How long do you benefit from vacation? A closer look at the fade‐out of vacation effects. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 2011. 32(1): p. 125-143.
- O’Doherty, J.P., et al., Neural responses during anticipation of a primary taste reward. Neuron, 2002. 33(5): p. 815-826.