Take a Vacation!

This month, I want to highlight another one of the skills that makes up the acronym IMPROVE in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). The "V" stands for Vacation.

I wrote this post a week ago because I knew that today I would be on vacation and not want to do any kind of "work". So, it's not surprising that I would be thinking about this skill. I am on a literal vacation but the skill of Vacation doesn't have to be literal.

My colleague, Gloria Whelchel, MA, LPC, created a wonderful worksheet which talks a little about Vacation. In it, she states that vacations can be "mini breaks" (I refer to them in my practice as mini vacations!) They are short--5 to 10 minutes, and can be very helpful. Ms. Whelchel suggests that you take a mini break at "the right time, not when you must meet a deadline." This is wise because if you are taking them when you're feeling super stressed because you only have a short amount of time to complete something before its "due", taking a mini break might be a really unhelpful choice as you are unlikely to be able to think of anything BUT the task and once you do return to it, you may feel even more stressed out. I recommend planning these mini vacations at regular intervals. Don't save them up and then, as Ms. Whelchel advises against "take too many vacations at once." They might be better thought of as a "use it or lose it" kind of thing.

Just like when you take a "real" vacation, you need to plan in advance how and when to take these breaks. For my vacation, I had to think ahead "what will need to happen while I'm away?" (One answer was "its skill of the month time so I'll need to write my post ahead of time"). My family and I had to decide where to go on vacation? How long would we stay? Where EXACTLY would we stay and what would we do there? We needed to make lots of phone calls and do lots of internet searches in order to rent a car, reserve hotels, search activities to help us enjoy our chosen location, purchase tickets and of course arrange airfare. LOTS of planning had to take place. For mini vacations, some planning is also required. If you plan to leave your desk for 10 minutes, you might need to let someone know or clock out or get someone to cover the phones for you. You might decide that you're going to leave the building and what might you need? Keys? Your work badge? A hat? A different pair of shoes? Sunscreen?

So what could you do on a mini vacation? Ms. Whelchel suggests to do "what you would suggest your best friend to do" and to "be kind to yourself." Excellent advice. If your best friend was sitting next to you telling you about what she was going through, what would you suggest? A short walk? A snack? A cool drink? A moment to just sit quietly outside of the chaos of the office? Any of these could be a good mini vacation but I'll tell you what my favorite mini vacation is: an imaginary one.

When I was in grad school, I had a wonderful professor, Dr. Lita Singer. She told her class one day that between clients, she would go to Machu Picchu. Typically, a psychotherapy session is 50 minutes long so usually the therapist has a few minutes to take some notes and so on before the next client arrives. Dr. Singer would take 5 of those minutes, close her eyes and imagine the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings associated with Machu Picchu. Having gone on an actual vacation to Machu Picchu, she had no trouble imagining herself there again. I have continued to use her example with my own clients and try to do this myself between clients or in the few minutes I may have before a client arrives to the office. I've never been to Machu Picchu or any of the really cool places that I would like to go, so I just use my imagination. In my imagination, the Eiffel Tower is a paragon of beauty, surrounded by grass and trees providing lots of shade and flowers, there are birds singing, very few people, and the weather is perfect. I try to really put myself there--seeing it (grass, the tower, flowers, birds), hearing it (birds singing, soft music playing from a street performer), smelling it (freshly baking pastries and breads), tasting it (the flaky croissant), and feeling it (the warmth of the sun on my face, a gentle breeze, the soft grass as I walk barefoot...). I'm sure if and when I ever get to go to the real Eiffel Tower, it will not be anything close to how it is in my imagination. That's not the point, though. I get to visit my idealized, romanticized version of Paris every day for 5 minutes at a time!

What makes this a useful skill? Just like a real vacation, when you "return" whether it be returning to the room from your imagination or returning to your home or office from the outside after having walked around the block, you feel refreshed. You feel more relaxed. You have fresh eyes to look upon your workload and see solutions that were hiding before. Unlike a real vacation, you don't come home to a cold house, dead plants, a suitcase full of dirty laundry, and thousands of dollars in your bank account lighter! It also helps you to see that you can, in fact, take a break. The world will not stop spinning, the company will not go under... just because you stepped out for a moment. Additionally, if you needed to ask someone to cover the phones or take on one of your duties to make a mini vacation possible, it gives you an opportunity to see that you are not irreplaceable and that others can help you and that you can ask for help! So, we get some humility and a shot of reality which can be quite helpful when feeling overwhelmed.

One final word about this skill. It is imperative that it not be used as avoidance. As mentioned above, it is counterproductive to skip out of work early if it means that you've delayed dealing with things that are imperative. It is not an excuse to procrastinate. It is a tool that is used to help you maintain your motivation, strength and resolve.

As I enjoy my real vacation, I hope you will try taking a vacation as well--you can go anywhere you like--real or imagined--for 5 minutes today!