"Sunday Neurosis," or, What happens to us during the holidays?

Thanks to David Gatta, PsyD for this Sunday night reading inspiration. Find more on psychoanalysis at -  @ DoctorGatta

Thanks to David Gatta, PsyD for this Sunday night reading inspiration. Find more on psychoanalysis at - @DoctorGatta

"Sunday neurosis" was a term coined by psychoanalyst Sandor Ferenczi to describe the anxiety and stress we feel on Sundays right before we have to go back to work on Monday. I hear a lot of people in my practice talk about this, and I'm not immune to it either – that feeling on Sunday nights of all the anticipated problems in the week ahead seeming to spiral towards you, as though Sisyphus has let go of that damn boulder once and for all and, whoops, looks like you're going to be the one carrying it now if it doesn't smash you first!

This feeling of anxiety and stress is true for so many of us who work the traditional Monday through Friday schedule. It's especially true for teachers, who, able to take one day off during the weekend to relax and let go of the tight reins of managing a hundred or more students on any given day, find themselves at 5pm on Sunday with tons of preparation remaining to do, and an early start the next morning. On a Sunday, you can let yourself not pay attention to the essays you have to grade, or plan the following week's lessons. You can read the Sunday paper in bed rather than the redundant five paragraph essay from a struggling sophomore. But then, Sunday evening hits. The sun sets (this is even more pronounced in November and through the winter, when that darkness comes way too early) and you want to eat dinner and get ready to wind down. But that anxiety – and your internal self-criticism for taking time off – is now given free reign, and you're up until midnight trying to solve unsolvable problems.

This is also something that happens to many of us during the holidays. Some people experience a "vacation brain" that can be blissful while it's happening, but excruciating to come back from. While Ferenczi didn't acknowledge that this same type of anxiety can happen the day before you start your working life after a long holiday, it is incredibly common.

So what can you do about it?

While there is never a simple answer to that question (the answer is always "it depends"), I will say that I hope it gives you some small comfort to know you are not the only one who experiences this Sunday stress. It's such a common phenomenon that a Hungarian psychoanalyst in the 1910's gave it a name. And it's still incredibly ubiquitous now, though changed, because the lines between time off and work are becoming much more blurry. Now, not only is it exceptionally difficult to come back to work, but also to leave it in the first place. Perhaps we should find a new term to describe this daily neurosis with no real weekends in sight: "The Breakless Neurosis" or "The Neurosis of Being Plugged In."

Still, I would imagine that most of you go on vacation, even if you rarely have a full workless weekend. If you are planning to take time off for the holidays, and if you experience Sunday neurosis on a frequent basis, here are my suggestions for minimizing your stress and maximizing your relaxation.

  1. Take care of most of your business on Saturdays.
  2. Preserve a five or six hour window on Sunday mornings for sleeping in, relaxing with not much to do, or working on a project that you can finish and makes you feel good (I like cleaning the kitchen, writing, reading the paper, or going for a hike with the dogs).
  3. Whatever work you must do on Sundays, pick a stop time and stick to it. If possible, try to keep that stop time to about three hours before bedtime.
  4. In the three hours before bedtime, take a bath, put away your laundry, arrange your clothes and food for the next day. Do not do work. 
  5. Find a book you enjoy and read it before bedtime. Unless you're one of those people for whom reading is energizing, then do something else relaxing, like writing in a journal, drawing, knitting, listening to music, or meditating.

If you're transitioning back from vacation to work life, you could try these suggestions:

  1. Come back to a short week. Work three days instead of five during your first week back.
  2. Try to avoid too much alcohol and salt when you fly. Both can dehydrate you and make your recovery from travel feel more difficult. Water and rest are your friends when traveling.
  3. Give yourself a couple of days to acclimate back to a working life. If you've gone out of town and are set to start work on Monday, try and come back with enough time to give yourself a normal weekend to do your next week's prep.
  4. While this is by no means a scientific equation, I suggest giving yourself about a three to one ratio of days on vacation to days before you have to work again. So for example, if you are out of town for three days, come back with enough time so that you have a full day to tend to things before you start work again. If you're gone a week, give yourself at least two full days at home before starting work again. This can give you an opportunity to have enough transition time to make your arrival back home feel more relaxed and less stressful.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to take time off, even a day or two over the weekend, know how stressful it is to reintegrate back into the working world. While there are many approaches to mitigating that stress, including working less and in more creative pursuits, most of us have to figure out how to create enough space for ourselves in the minimal time we have off so that we don't lose our minds. Vacations are important, and if your company offers vacation pay, there are very few circumstances where you would benefit more from saving them than you would from taking the time off. Just keep in mind that re-entry self care is just as important for your overall well-being as taking a vacation or a Sunday off.