Do you stress out about taking downtime?

The Germans have always been good at coming up with words for those emotions we all feel but don’t have a name for: schadenfreude, for example, or angst. “Freizeitstresse” is the latest, a term that literally translates as “free-time stress”.

Millions of us, apparently, worry about whether we spend our spare time wisely. A consequence of feeling that we have so little of it is that we agonise over what we do with our precious, unscheduled hours. Do you feel that you have to achieve something even in your leisure time? On holiday, does simply doing nothing make you feel uncomfortable and twitchy? Have you ever spoilt your Saturday afternoon by worrying about whether you should be doing something imaginative with the kids or at a yoga class by yourself while you’re pounding the supermarket aisles? Freizeitstresse could be your problem.

“Figures show that about 75 per cent of people are incapable of relaxing; even on holiday they experience high levels of stress and feel more overburdened than anything else,” says Professor Doctor Henning Allmer, a psychologist and expert in freizeitstresse at the German Sport University Cologne. “One of the reasons for this is because people take too much on. In Germany, at least, the idea of doing nothing has negative connotations. A ‘nichtstuer’ (a do-nothing) is a derogatory term. So there are people who fill their free time with a very busy schedule.”

Some people cannot switch off; they have to be constantly in touch with work because they need to be needed. Others, Professor Allmer says, store up all the things they might like or need to do in their free time for the weekend, “which means there is a massive imbalance between expectations and what is achievable”.

How you deal with free-time stress depends, he says, on your personality. Rather than dividing your life into work and leisure time, you can create a better balance, he says, by dividing your time into two thirds work/achievement, one third recovery. “Those who do not make time to recover build up a recovery debt, if you like — they will need more and more time in the future to recover from work.”

Cary Cooper, the Distinguished Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University, and an expert on stress, says: “The key lies in doing something you want to do in your free time instead of what you are expected to do.”

So what are the signs that you are suffering from freizeitstresse — and what can you do about it?

Whenever you have some time off, you fall ill
Freizeitstresse can manifest itself in psychosomatic form, which is diagnosed as “leisure sickness”. Increasing numbers of us seem to suffer from it. When eventually we get around to taking a few days off, suddenly we develop a choking sore throat or severe cold symptoms. The Dutch psychologists who identified leisure sickness, Ad Vingerhoets and Maaike van Huijgevoort, claim that about 3 per cent of the population suffer from it every weekend.

You don’t like to spend time on your own
There are some people, Professor Allmer says, who feel defined by their work and when they close the door behind them on a Friday evening “fall into a sort of hole where they don’t know what to do with themselves”. They don’t know how to connect with their families and can spend the whole weekend longing for Monday, when they will have something “important” to do again. If this is you, Professor Allmer warns that such a situation ‘implies a state of exhaustion’. Therapy may be your best solution.

Whatever you do on your ‘to do’ list, you feel you should do something else
Come the weekend, there’s such a number of things to do — chores, childcare, seeing friends, catching up with work, keeping fit — that whatever you’re doing, you are likely to feel that you’re doing the wrong thing.

“One of the problems people have is the huge choice of activities,” says Professor Allmer. “People want to try new things, perhaps indiscriminately, if only to tell their friends about it. There is a temptation to say you’ve done a lot on the weekend, there’s a fear of missing out. It is socially unacceptable to say ‘I’m bored’ or ‘I’ve been doing nothing’. The key is to step back and think “what’s important to me?”

You feel anxious if your diary is fully booked for the next two weeks, and if it’s empty
“Everyone needs to feel important,” says Professor Cooper. “And what makes a lot of people feel important is having a packed diary. By the same token, they feel unimportant if it’s empty. But if your diary’s stuffed solid, then you’ve got your priorities wrong.” You need, he says, to work out what in your diary is vital, and what are just “ad-ons to make you feel needed”. He adds: “You have to make spaces in your diary for your family, your friends — but make sure that you’ve left some thinking space in there too.

You think your life would be better if you knew how to make jam
You spend a lot of time reading about the latest crazes — for example, quilting and chutney-making — and you love recipe books by celebrity chefs, but despite good intentions you never get round to making anything yourself. You’re too ambitious about your free time and packing your weekend with self-improving hobbies.

We’re overloaded with opportunities, with things we’d like to do, so we end up not doing anything. Plus, we’re all exhausted. So just pick one thing, Professor Cooper says. “Choose the option that has the most benefit and least costs associated with it [for example, you might need to buy equipment for jam-making]. Then make the space in your week and stick to it.”

You beat yourself up about answering e-mails on holiday
On a weekend away you ban the BlackBerry because you think your free time must be sacred. But you’d feel much better if you just looked at your e-mails once or twice a day. According to Professor Cooper, the UK has the longest working hours in the developed world (we’ve recently overtaken the United States). We are in an age of non-stop electronic communication so it is natural that some people can’t switch off completely.

“If you don’t answer those e-mails, you’re going to worry about them, and although you’ll be there physically by the pool you won’t be ‘present’,” Professor Cooper says. “Make a contract with yourself and then promise that you won’t answer any more. You just have to be flexible.”

Deep down you know that you don’t really like going on holiday
A survey by American Express revealed that 40 per cent of British holidaymakers claimed that a visit to the dentist was less stressful than having a break. “First, you nearly always have to factor in someone else’s wishes — your family’s, your partner’s — so what you do is nearly always a compromise,” Professor Cooper says. “Second, your expectation is that you should go somewhere exotic, even though what you actually need is rest and your trip will involve three airports. It’s only worth putting up with all the hassle — the flights, the delays, the insurance — if you’re going somewhere you want to visit. Why do you want to have a holiday that meets peer group expectations rather than yours? Next year just go to Scotland, if that’s what you want.”

[via Times Online]
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