Tired of taking it easy

By Annemarie Carr / Staff Writer

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Most students take time over school breaks to recover from the high-stress of a chaotic semester — but Christine Chau often finds herself fending off a fever in bed.

“Getting out of bed when I’m sick is the hardest thing to do. I feel like there’s a huge brick on my body preventing me from getting up,” Chau said, referring to her tendency to fall ill right when she gets a break from school and goes home.

Just a few weeks ago, Chau spent her Thanksgiving break with bronchitis. Now, with the stress of finals peaking and winter break approaching, one Dutch psychologist’s theory suggests Chau could get sick again when she goes home.

In 2001, psychologist Ad Vingerhoets coined a name for a phenomenon he called “leisure sickness,” meaning the tendency for some people to get sick when their stress levels drop. Leisure sickness isn’t an officially recognized medical condition — neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy make note of it — but Vingerhoets’ research suggests that certain psychological traits, like being accustomed to high amounts of stress, can cause some people to fall ill when reprieves from work relieve their otherwise constant state of stress.

According to Vingerhoets’ research, around 3 percent of adults he studied attributed their weekend migraines or consistent illness when they had downtime to leisure sickness. Vingerhoets found that some of these people reported they worked too much during the week and then had trouble shifting from work mode to leisure mode, causing their immune systems to falter.

Vingerhoets said the symptoms of leisure sickness are usually mild and people who experience them know they’ll feel better when they begin working again on Mondays. Because of this, Vingerhoets said, people often don’t seek treatment for their ailments.

“I think that there are globally two kinds of health problems — feelings of vague pains and extreme fatigue and more flu-like symptoms, including fever,”  Vingerhoets, who studies the relationships between psychology and the body, said.

Even though Vingerhoets’ diagnosis isn’t widely accepted, Marian Vanek, director of Student Health Services, said Mondays are the busiest days for walk-in appointments.

“Typically we do see a few more students on Mondays as reflected in the number of walk-ins,” Vanek said. “This is one of the reasons why we have extended evening hours on Mondays.”

Student Health sees an average of  31,000 to 32,000 student visits per year — 20 percent of which are due to cold, flu and upper respiratory illnesses, she said.

Even for those students who don’t get sick on the weekends, transitioning from work mode to leisure mode is an essential skill, according to Karen Matthews, a psychiatry professor at Pitt.

“Life engagement and purpose are fundamental building blocks of a healthy lifestyle,” Matthews said.

According to Matthews, engaging in leisure activities, like taking walks or long baths, is necessary for a person’s health on many levels.

Matthews’ own research has shown that people who participate in leisure activities tend to be healthier, suggesting those who do not take time for themselves and have large work or class loads for the week are more likely to become sick.

Vingerhoets, too, said to prevent illness, people need to be aware of their work-leisure balance and may need to make adjustments to the balance and allow the body to unwind. People may feel symptoms on weekends and vacations more than they do during the week because the break gives them time to pay attention to the signals their body is sending.

Chau said taking time for herself means watching Netflix or spending time with friends. Right now, however, she’s gearing up for another tiring finals week.

“I just feel exhausted all the time, regardless of whether or not I just woke up or have been up for six hours,”  Chau said.

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