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Whether relaxing on the beach or in the mountains, vacations can provide important mental health benefits in addition to being fun.

When you hear the word vacation, what comes to mind? Many people conjure images of the beach and faraway destinations filled with relaxation and luxury.

But what type of vacation truly provides the best remedy for stress? How long should the vacation be, and what activities should be involved? Will de-stressing benefits be spoiled if your children argue or throw tantrums during the trip?

Vacations are not only fun, they offer important mental health benefits, including increased creativity, improved sleep, increased productivity and general stress reduction. These effects can last for weeks after the vacation is over.

Vacation planning is not an exact science. Fortunately, science has provided some useful information to help you receive the ultimate mental health benefits from your vacation.

Shorter vacations are better than longer ones

Research shows that a short vacation provides just as much mental benefit as a longer one.

The optimal vacation length is about four to seven days. If you vacation longer than one week, your subjective well-being and positive feelings about the vacation will not be enhanced.

Sure, you will prolong your enjoyment by stretching a one-week vacation into two weeks, but there will be no longer-term benefits of the longer vacation.

If you only have two weeks of vacation time available each year, it will be better for your mental health to take two or three shorter vacations rather than one long vacation.

Be fully present during your vacation

The importance of mental presence cannot be overstated. Research has consistently shown that being present is linked to improved happiness and general well-being.

Being present simply means being fully engaged in the present activity without distracting thoughts, worries or anticipation of the next activity.

Although this sounds simple enough, the demands of life often interfere with this practice. To increase your focus on the present, guide your attention to the sounds, smells, textures and sights in your environment.

When your mind wanders, bring your focus back to your immediate environment and its sensory input. Additionally, you can work on noticing small moments that provide a sense of gratitude and awe.

Novelty contributes to mental health benefits

Maybe there’s a special place you like to go each year. If so, be sure to add some new activities and seek out novelty to make this vacation memorable.

Novelty, adventure and unpredictability provide an opportunity to see the world differently. Perhaps a problem that seemed unsolvable will be seen in a different light after a vacation.

So often we get stuck in mental patterns that are familiar and unproductive. Children are excellent at finding novel solutions to problems and thinking creatively, as well as seeing the bright side in tough situations.

Adults have a more difficult time with this. Our routines and lives easily lead to habitual thought patterns and behaviors, as well as a sense of being stuck mentally. Stepping outside of these routines can help change your brain’s neuronal firing pattern and allow new thoughts, insights, emotions and behaviors to emerge.

If you have ever returned from a vacation feeling rejuvenated and more optimistic, chances are that it was not the magic of the beach that produced this change. Instead, it was the novelty of the situation that provided the opportunity for small mental changes.

Adjust your expectations

When planning a vacation, it’s natural that an attitude of perfection can creep in. It can be frustrating and disappointing when things do not go according to plan.

Fortunately, this does not have to detract from the mental health benefits of your vacation. How you react to stressors is far more important than whether or not stressors occur.

Fostering an attitude of acceptance and planning ways to deal with setbacks will help you feel less stressed and experience greater joy.

Remember that it’s not the destination, it’s the journey

The destination of the vacation is ultimately not important. The emotions, thoughts, fun, enjoyment and relational connectedness you experience on your vacation are important to your mental health.

These intangible benefits can be achieved whether you go to a luxury Caribbean resort or take a camping trip 100 miles from your home.

The word “vacation” does not simply refer to a place where you go. Vacation can be used as a verb, meaning the act of making the journey toward improved mental health and wellness.

Dr. Julia Becker is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Waco. She provides counseling to adults and adolescents dealing with depression, anxiety, relationship concerns and life stress. She believes counseling is beneficial for anyone who desires to have a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life. Email her at dr_becker@psybecker.com or go online to www.psybecker.com.