Packing your bags to jet off for a year-end vacation? The holiday season promises plenty of fun. But not if you hurt yourself while skiing, strain your feet due to improper footwear or suffer throbbing aches after long hours of driving on a road trip.
A double whammy of travel stress and jetlag can also wear you out, mentally and physically. Such travel health hazards can sour your long-anticipated vacation. But they can be avoided. Mind & Body has put together a handy guide on smart ways to sidestep health and safety issues while travelling abroad.
The kids have been kicking up a fuss all day. The hotel gave your room to someone else by mistake. The airline lost your luggage. Such incidents can unleash a wave of intense stress even before you begin your holiday .
But it is important to cope with travel hiccups as stress can have a physical impact, such as weakening the immune system. This will make the person more prone to falling ill, said Mr Ooi Say Leong, a psychologist at National Healthcare Group Polyclinics (NHGP).
A sudden bout of stress can trigger asthma attacks – if you are a sufferer – as well as hyperventilation or panic attacks, he said. Dwelling on the stressful incident may make things even worse. “If you keep thinking negatively about the incident, and blame yourself for the unpleasant experience during the trip, it is likely to increase your stress level and affect your mood during and, possibly, even after the trip,” he said. For some, such negative emotions can cause symptoms such as headaches and stomach discomfort. Other telltale signs of stress include angry outbursts, a poor appetite and an inability to stay focused.
Ms Teresa Fong, chief psychologist of the Psychology Clinic at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, said a little stress is not harmful. But, she said, prolonged stress can cause or exacerbate cardiovascular disease, obesity, eating disorders, menstrual problems and sexual dysfunction. Mr Ooi and Ms Fong shared some tips and stress-coping strategies.
• Allow plenty of time to reach a destination, and plan your itinerary well. Print maps of places you intend to visit, as well as useful phone numbers such as of the police and embassy. Back up important travel documents online, in case you lose them.
• Set aside time for rest during sightseeing, in case you or your travelling companions become anxious and need time to calm down.
• Don’t blame anyone or get angry about any mistakes made. Try not to react impulsively.
• Avoid indulging in alcohol, as this reduces your ability to assess the situation.
• Listen to relaxing music on your mobile device.
• Try this mindfulness breathing exercise when stressed:
1. Lie on your back or sit in a comfortable position. Close your eyes.
2. Focus on breathing. Take note of the thoughts about stressful events that enter your mind.
3. Imagine putting each thought on a cloud and allow it to drift across the sky. Repeat this with the next thought that comes to mind, without judging or analysing it further.
4. Whenever your mind wanders, try to be aware of it and gently bring your focus back to your breathing.
The sleep cycle relies on the hormone melatonin, which is produced by the brain at about 11pm and peaks at about midnight or 1am and declines by 4-5am. As melatonin production is based on “home time” and not destination time, a person may be unable to sleep at night after he travels across time zones, explained Dr Kenny Pang, a sleep specialist at Asia Sleep Centre at Paragon.
“Jetlag does not depend on the duration of travel, but the direction,” said the ear, nose and throat surgeon. “You may fly for long hours up north or down south, but if you remain in the same time zone, you will not be affected.” Generally, it is easier to fly west, as you gain time. This means more time to recover from jetlag.
Disrupted sleep patterns due to jetlag and travel – if you are on the road late into the night, for instance – are usually temporary and harmless. However, sleep deprivation can cause poor concentration, mood changes and irritability, said Dr Pang. “If a person is extremely tired, he may doze off suddenly for short periods. These are called micro- sleeps – one has no control over them, which makes it dangerous when driving, for instance.”
He offers these tips on beating jetlag and sleep issues during travel.
• Play “catch-up”: Take an afternoon nap whenever you can, including on the bus or train.
• For a short trip, stick to home time. If the trip is long, adjust your sleep pattern to match the destination time. Stay awake as long as you can and, at the destination, sleep it off on the first night there.
• Go to bed the same time each day, get regular exposure to outdoor light during the day to help regulate melatonin production, and do relaxation exercises before sleeping.
A version of this story was originally published in The Straits Times on December 1, 2015. For more stories like this, head to www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle.