We’ve been so happy these past few days, knowing that once we’re done with this article, we’ll be enjoying a much-deserved vacation. This is because the benefits of a good vacation can be felt before you even begin. Scientific studies show that looking forward to a future reward can be more beneficial than the reward itself. This is thanks to a small molecule called dopamine, which we will talk about later.
But before we continue, let’s ask a few questions. Are vacations really necessary? Why do we need them? And above all, what are the benefits of spending a few days out of work?
Rest improves cognitive flexibility
As surprising as it may seem, there is little scientific literature that explores the direct benefits of leaves on our brains. What appears to be confirmed is that they are essential. This was the conclusion of a 2016 study of 46 workers from a Dutch company.
These participants were asked to perform a test in which they were given objects (eg, a hammer) and asked for the most uses in the least amount of time (a construction tool, a weapon, or a paperweight). What they noticed was that after two to three weeks of vacation, workers had greater cognitive flexibility. Or, in other words, they were able to give a greater number of uses to things than the results obtained two weeks before the holidays.
Most studies agree that from a biological point of view, one of the main reasons for this increase in cognitive flexibility—and the benefits of vacations in general—is reduced stress.
We all agree that work generates stress. But here we have to put aside one simple aspect: stress in and of itself does not have to be bad. When it occurs on one-off occasions, it is usually beneficial, as it activates mechanisms that help us carry out the daily actions of our work, such as meeting a deadline (that’s what the authors of this article are now working on).
Another stress, which has negative connotations for all, is chronic stress. This happens when stress lingers over time, either because we are under constant stress or because of situations we can’t resolve. It causes fatigue, higher levels of anxiety, irritability and anger. And yes, it is definitely a bad thing.
How do you recharge your batteries?
The main thing a good vacation can do for our mental health is reduce chronic stress levels. By having time to relax, our brain will be able to reverse the negative effects of stress, at least temporarily. And here comes the key: For vacations to be really effective, we have to make sure they really free us from the stress of work. This means that we should avoid trying to finish pending tasks, reply to emails, etc.
It is also important to make sure that our vacations do not lead to new stressful situations, such as endless queues or long periods with in-laws.
Another key is to enjoy the wait. Why are we already so happy waiting for the holidays? We mentioned in a few paragraphs earlier dopamine, which is produced by neurons in a pair of brain regions known as Substantia nigra (Latin for “black matter,” so named because of its darker color under the microscope) and the ventral tegmental (located in the center) region of our brain, behind ears to some extent).
Both regions, which in humans contain between 400,000 and 600,000 neurons, send axons to numerous areas of the brain. And by releasing dopamine, they play a key role in the pleasant sensations that novelties and rewards generate. Therefore, knowing that the holidays are coming increases the levels of dopamine in our brain and gives us that feeling of happiness.
For this same reason, the best vacations are those where we are exposed to novelties – like visiting different places – and rewards – like the seafood dish we’ve been waiting for all year. Of course, what is rewarding is entirely subjective, and what is enjoyable for one person can create stress for others.
The effect of chronic stress
This hedonic system is also affected during chronic stress. Studies show that high or chronic levels of stress, such as those we experience year-round in our work day, are able to reduce the amount of dopamine released or alter the way it is metabolized.
The worst thing is that changes occur not only in the Substantia Nigra or in the ventral tegmental region, but also in the places where they send their axons. Chronic stress has been shown to alter the number of dopamine receptors in areas that receive their projections. When this happens, depressive behaviors often develop. Therefore, a vacation that frees us from stress will help restore balance to the dopamine system.
What is not yet clear is whether taking vacations for an extended period is better than taking them for shorter periods of time.
Either way, good vacations are good for us. So we encourage you to find activities that make you feel good, recharge your batteries, reduce your stress levels, and balance your dopamine system. happy vacation!
John Perez Fernandez Researcher, Ramón y Cajal Scholarship, at the Center for Biomedical Research (CINBIO), in Cell Biology, Department of Functional Biology and Health Sciences, University of Vigo.
Roberto de la Torre Martinez. Department of Neuroscience, Karolinska Institutet.
This article was originally published Conversation. you can read The original is in Spanish.