Why illness often strikes right before a holiday

Have you ever had a period of time where you were under stress and felt you were going to barely survive it? Of course, we all manage to meet the work deadline, do those important exams, complete the full marathon or get through a period of nursing or caring for a sick family member. But so often, once the stressful time is over we get sick.

It’s a common story. You have been looking forward to that holiday in the Maldives for a long time. You were being a great co-worker and getting everything in order at the office before you board the plane, and no sooner have you stepped on the plane that a horrible virus strikes. You sneeze, freeze, sweat and ache your way through seven of the 14 days you have put aside for your relaxing beach holiday.

Not fair!

So why do people get sick when they come out the other end of a stressful time?

What you’re experiencing is the “let down effect” or post-stress illness. Dr Marc Schoen is a psychologist who first identified the “let down effect”. During a stressful period our body releases stress hormones called cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones activate our immune system to fight against illness during that time. Who really wants to be sneezing their way through an important phase of your career or family life? What happens is our white blood cells are like soldiers patrolling the gates and stopping opportunistic infections taking us down.

Then once the stress is over, those soldiers retreat from the front line, exposing us to viral, bacterial and/or fungal infections. There is an increase in inflammation as a residual response to the high cortisol and adrenaline period too.

What we can also see in people who have had viruses like herpes simplex 1 (think cold sores, Epstein-Barr or Cytomegalovirus (think Glandular fever) in the past, is a re-activation of these dormant viral infections. They become active and after a few days we see cold sores re-emerge or the terrible fatigue of glandular revisit.

Interestingly, we also see a drop in dopamine after a stressful time and often people with go through a period of overeating or substance use to try to raise their low dopamine levels to feel pleasure and reward again.

While the illness is inconvenient, especially if you have been working towards two weeks of glorious beach time, it is a natural process within the body when its defences have been weakened.

The trick, as I so often tell clients, is to be aware of the let down effect and to support your body through a period of stress. Whether that's diet, exercise, supplements, maintaining your sleep or active stress management (like not taking your work home with you), you want to do everything you can to protect your precious holiday time. You've earned it!