Any neuroscientist will tell you that failing to take a vacation is detrimental to the part of the brain that sustains health, happiness and peak performance. Yet a half billion vacation days will go unused this year. A third of employees will skip their vacation and of those who manage to take a vacation, 92% will take work with them. Making matters worse is the fact that people are working harder than ever, an average 49 hours a week.
A stressful year at work with no vacation intensifies a neurological condition called “neurotoxicity.” Neurotoxicity is a build-up of stress hormones that literally shrink higher brain networks. The brain becomes incapable of sustaining peak performance or goal-directed behavior. Instead, the brain’s stress response system becomes overactive, producing an endless loop of stress and anxiety.
Here’s the good news: a four week vacation can literally repair the damage stress caused and even expand networks that generate higher brain function.
So, you might be asking, who can take a four week vacation? A producer at a major news network recently asked me that same question. “No one I know!” the producer added.
The answer in all probability is very few Americans can or won’t. We don’t seem to understand the enormous gain from taking an extended vacation. What is clear to medical science is the profile of the person who must take a four week vacation. It’s the person who for years has been subjected to unremitting stress. This group represents a quarter to a third of Americans, depending on the study you read. These good people need a four week vacation because, whether they understand it or not, they are likely on the edge of developing a life threatening illness.
Years of chronic stress shortens lifespan by as much as 10 years. Stress hormones are a major factor in heart disease. These hormones are central to cancer and premature aging. Stress hormones breakdown our chromosomes causing them to produce the abnormal cells that kill us. Four weeks of vacation appears to be what it takes for the brain to repair itself and re-establish homeostasis (physiological and emotional balance).
The first thing a long vacation does is shut off the stress response system. The peace and quiet stops the stress gene from expressing and the new attitude that emerges literally stimulates the generation of neural fibers that produce peptides that extinguish fear. No fear, no stress.
In the absence of a constant flow of stress hormones, the brain rebuilds and rewires to amplify higher brain networks that make us smarter, healthier and happier. Moreover, as neurotoxicity recedes we become more creative. That’s because each week more and more of damaged systems re-sprout and start to wire together. This gain in brain power is reason enough for the other two-thirds of us with moderate or intermittent stress to take four weeks a year to recover from the previous 48 weeks. It literally builds the brain that can attain and sustain an intrinsically rewarding and successful life.
One week of vacation simply doesn’t get the job done. Europe takes a month every year and clearly neuroscience is telling America it ought to rethink its bad habit of kissing off vacation time.
And there’s more good news. When we return to work from a vacation, we can sustain the gain in brain power by taking breaks. Research has established that breaks not only lower our stress level, it is the core condition in generating the creative insights that propel peak performance. Letting go of work for a few minutes every couple of hours and allowing our mind to wander intensifies the brain’s creative processes, increasing creative intelligence by as much as 40%. Breaks allow the brain to associate two or more ideas from different brain networks. We often experience this phenomenon as an ‘Ah-Ha’ moment while taking a shower or on a walk.
So here’s the prescription: Do your best to string as many vacation days together as you can and build breaks into your daily schedule. Every couple of hours step away from your work and let your mind go. If you do, your brain will reward you with the “Good Life” instead of the stressful life.