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Post-vacation blues: Psychologist explains why people struggle to sleep the night before going back to work

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Dr Katherine Hall said, “As a sleep psychologist, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and understand why post-vacation blues and difficulty sleeping the night before going back to work are so common. It’s a fascinating interplay of psychological and physiological factors.”

“You see, during vacations, individuals experience a shift in their daily routines, including their sleep patterns. Those irregular sleep schedules and disruptions in circadian rhythms can make it challenging for the body to readjust when it’s time to return to work, leading to sleep disturbances and difficulty falling asleep on the night before resuming work.”

“Moreover, vacations often create a more relaxed mindset, where people indulge in leisure activities and stay up later than usual. Transitioning back to a structured and disciplined mindset for work can create cognitive dissonance, making it even more difficult to fall asleep due to this reverse “vacation mindset.”

“Additionally, the night before going back to work is when many individuals experience a fear of the unknown. The prospect of facing new projects, challenges, or changes in the workplace can trigger anticipatory stress, which can seriously interfere with their ability to sleep soundly.”

“Finally, resuming work responsibilities after a rejuvenating holiday can also evoke feelings of anxiety and stress. Worries about pending tasks, workloads, or potential challenges can lead to racing thoughts and heightened physiological arousal, making it tough to unwind and fall asleep effectively the night before as well.”

Rested and ready: 7 tips for a peaceful sleep before returning to work post-vacation

Dr Katherine Hall added, “All of the above factors combine to create a perfect storm for post-vacation sleep struggles. The good news is that with a better understanding of these influences, there are strategies to improve sleep quality and make the return to work smoother and more restful.”

Here are Happy Bed’s top sleep tips for a smooth transition.

1. Gradually adjust your sleep schedule before you go back to work.
It’s common to feel tempted to stay up late the night before returning to work after a vacation. However, this can exacerbate the post-holiday blues and make your work week even more challenging to manage. As a sleep psychologist, I recommend a different approach: gradually adjust your sleep schedule as you prepare to return to work.

By waking up gradually closer to your usual work schedule in the days leading up to your return, you can help your body readjust its internal clock. This gentle transition eases the shock of going back to the routine, allowing for a smoother and more peaceful reintegration into the work environment. Taking this proactive step can significantly alleviate post-holiday blues and help you start your first day back at work with a refreshed and rested mindset.

2. Going back to work on a Monday? Avoid a Sunday afternoon nap.

I know this is a hard one, as I love a good nap just as much as the next person! But afternoon naps can cause even more disruption to your sleep schedule when you need to be getting it back on track before returning to work.

When you take an afternoon nap, it may temporarily make you feel less tired, but it can interfere with your ability to fall asleep later on. Feeling less sleepy at your usual bedtime can cause difficulties in getting the restorative rest your body needs, exacerbating the post-holiday blues and making it harder to transition back to your regular work routine.

The next time you find yourself feeling drowsy and tempted to take an afternoon nap, consider alternative activities to keep you awake and active. Engaging in light physical activity, like going for an after-dinner walk or doing household chores, can get your body moving and prevent the need for a nap that may negatively impact your night’s sleep.

3. Skip scrolling on your phone and read for just SIX minutes to reduce your stress levels.

The night before you go back to work, you may be tempted to check your emails or scroll on social media. However, the blue light emitted from your phone suppresses your melatonin levels, causing your brain to be stimulated at a time when you should be winding down for bed. Instead, consider reading. A study by The University of Sussex found that reading can reduce stress by up to 68%, working faster and better than other relaxation methods, such as listening to music (61%) or walking (6%).

However, what is most impressive is that the study revealed that participants only needed to read for six minutes before their stress levels were reduced. So, given that the average reading speed is 1 page per minute, this means the average person only needs to read six pages before their stress levels are reduced, making this an easy habit to form for anyone.

Plus, reading an absorbing book also makes you more likely to experience an increase in slow-wave activity (a type of brain wave associated with deep sleep) during the initial stages of your sleep cycle, meaning you’ll have a deeper sleep overall and wake up feeling more restful. 

4. Struggling to fall asleep? Try this acupressure hack that takes just two minutes.

If you’re struggling to fall asleep the night before going back to work, there’s a simple technique to soothe yourself into a quicker slumber.

Try rubbing the inner part of your wrist, where you’ll find four acupressure points known as Heart 4, 5, 6, and 7. These points are renowned for their stress-relieving properties, as they help reduce cortisol levels, the infamous stress hormones. By gently applying pressure to these points, you can alleviate stress and create a more serene environment for falling asleep.

5. If you’re anxious, you need to try this ice pack hack which calms down your vagus nerve.

Alternatively, if you’re anxious the night before and need help calming down, you should add a towel-wrapped icepack to your chest and hold it there for 15 minutes. This helps cool down the vagus nerve (the longest nerve in your body), which is responsible for your parasympathetic nervous system. Throughout the 15 minutes, you will slowly see yourself calming down and your heart rate lowering to a more still-like rate.

6. Doing this one thing the night before can help you finish work earlier the next day.

To alleviate morning stress and set the stage for a smooth work week, I recommend picking your outfit the night before. By doing so, you’ll save time and avoid the last-minute rush to iron clothes or find the right ensemble. Not only will this simplify your morning routine, but you’ll also minimise the risk of being late for work and having to stay longer, reducing additional stress during the already challenging post-holiday period.

So, before you hit the hay, plan your outfit for the next day and take a step towards a calmer, more composed morning. A little preparation goes a long way in helping you tackle post-holiday blues with grace and start your work week on the right foot.

7. Go for a sun-soaked walk before you log on/ start your shift for the first time.

We all know that the morning sun is a great natural alarm clock, helping us wake up after a restful slumber. But did you know that exposing yourself to early morning sunshine can also positively impact your sleep at night? Basking in the morning sunlight helps regulate your internal clock in sync with daylight hours, leading to a more balanced sleep-wake cycle. Additionally, the sunlight’s effects on hormone cycles and body temperature can contribute to improved sleep patterns.

So, as you prepare to return to work, consider incorporating some early morning sun exposure into your day. Whether it’s taking a short walk outside or enjoying your morning coffee by a sunny window, soaking up the sun can work wonders for your post-holiday blues and enhance your sleep quality.

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