Whether you are on a holiday right now – or most likely wishing you were – there is no doubt that the idea of a break seems to be even more of a luxury than it ever did.
Governments across the world are warning their citizen that no one should bank on getting away and that we do so at our own discretion. And then there are our own fears: Is it safe? Will we be quarantined? Is anywhere open? Is it responsible to travel at all?
Yet experts increasingly say that rather than being simply a treat, holidays are vital for our physical and mental health – especially given the stress and strain we have all been under thanks to Covid-19 and quarantine.
Dorina-Maria Buda, professor of marketing and tourism at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University, says the benefits are the same wherever you go.
"Tourism, even in our own countries or our local area, is important for our emotional and mental well-being," she says. "Not having access to this, not being allowed to or being restricted to feel, experience and act on those emotions of enjoyment, fun, relaxation so inherent in summer breaks, would only exacerbate the emotional and mental health crisis caused by the collective trauma of the pandemic.
"To deal with this trauma we need the right space to feel good again."
Cardiologists agree. "Don’t think having an otherwise healthy lifestyle will compensate for working too hard and not taking holidays," Prof Timo Strandberg, of the University of Helsinki, Finland, has said. "Vacations can be a good way to relieve stress."
Prof Strandberg studied the effect of taking time off on heart health and found that men who took three weeks or less annual vacation had a 37 per cent greater chance of dying than those who took more than three weeks. How long the holiday was didn’t matter – the crucial element was making the break.
His research, published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging in 2018, looked at a period of 40 years focusing on middle-aged businessmen. Prof Strandberg concluded: "Men with shorter vacations worked more and slept less than those who took longer vacations." He suggested their stressful lifestyle outweighed any attempt to improve their health by giving extra advice or even drugs to lower blood pressure.
Psychotherapist and hypnotherapist Nick Davies believes that the length of time we take for a break does matter because of our natural stress response (also known as fight or flight response) to all the pressure we have been under.
"This is where our sympathetic nervous system engages to protect us from danger," says Davies. "Though nowadays it’s work pressures, lockdown stresses, relationship challenges, or financial difficulties."
He explains: "When the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, our heart rate and blood pressure increases, blood and oxygen flows to the major muscle groups, our pupils dilate, digestion stops and we perspire more, preparing us for a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response.’’
When we’re on holiday and away from our everyday stresses, that allows our bodies to start working naturally to unwind us away from that state of adrenalin-fuelled readiness.
"It takes a few days," says Davies, "for the parasympathetic nervous system – the part of our autoimmune system which lowers our heart rate – to kick in to bring us back into homeostasis.
"This is that state of calmness and balance where our immune, cardiovascular and digestive systems return to normal functioning.
"And that’s why a 10-day holiday is so much better than a seven-day one – and 14 is even better for our health."
Our physical health is one thing, but who hasn’t felt the impact of the virus on their mental health?
Nobody has been left unaffected, says Dr Jane McNeill, chartered psychologist at Clinical Partners, "Covid-19 has been stressful for everyone."
Dr McNeill points out that there is a reason why all cultures have holidays and festivals – "They help to dissipate the stresses and strains that build up."
She explains: "What holidays seem to do is stop someone developing burnout – that feeling of being exhausted, listless and unable to cope. Taking back control by having a holiday or just taking time off can have a powerful effect."
Scientists in Switzerland found that employees who did not organise a clear separation between work and free time were less likely to participate in activities that could help them relax and recover from career demands.
In fact, they ended up more exhausted as a result, said the report published in the Journal of Business and Psychology in 2017.
There are other practical effects of a holiday; sun exposure can have an anti-inflammatory effect on the skin, says Dr Justine Kluk of the British Association of Dermatologists.
Dr Kluk explains: "Many people report inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis improve when they’ve been spending time in the sun."
However, she warns, "It’s important to remember that excessive sun exposure is the largest risk factor for skin cancer, so you should not spend time in the sun without protection as a way to manage a skin condition."
What can have a positive impact, however, is getting away from stressful situations. "The skin and brain are very closely connected," she says, "and research has shown that emotional stressors can lead to the worsening or development of a skin condition and vice versa.
"Exposure to the sun often occurs during holidays when stress levels are lower so this may also contribute to any improvement in inflammatory skin conditions such as acne."
If you are able to get away, it’s all important to make really positive memories, says Dr Lynda Shaw, a cognitive neuroscientist.
"Being away on holiday might be important to recharge your batteries but it’s how we remember that break when we get back that determines its longer-term effect on our well-being," she explains.
"All memories that we lay down will be anchored by emotion – positive or negative. So you might have a holiday that is rather average, yet what you will remember is that one day that is phenomenal – or absolutely dreadful. And that will determine how you feel about the whole experience."
So she advises that when we get our break: "Try to relish and savour those really enjoyable moments. Devour those elevated feelings you have."
And encouraging yourself to be "in the moment", perhaps when you go for a walk, enjoy a sunset or share a joke with family and friends, doesn’t just make a memory.
Dr Shaw explains that it is at these mindful moments when our brain chemistry is working at its optimum, ensuring the production of "happy hormones" serotonin and dopamine. "It will strengthen your immune system, too," she says.
Don’t think you have to travel too far to get these benefits, she adds. "We can do this travelling within the UK, perhaps discovering a new town nearby or your own county."
But what if you really can’t leave your house? Dr McNeill says that it is really important to delineate the time off when you should be going away. "Variety is really important, but I’m aware that some people have had holidays cancelled and must be very disappointed," she says.
"It’s really important that they still ring-fence the time: sleep, read, absolutely disengage from work. No reading emails.
"Do something that makes you feel in control and allow yourself the space to recharge, brain and body."
Victoria Lambert is the author of Boundaries – How to Draw the Line in Head, Heart and Home (Harper Collins).