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Some vacationers lug unnecessary stress with them


In a few short weeks, Lyn Dobrin will be on safari in Kenya, facing down leopards and cheetahs in the wilderness, where, she says, she gets close enough to the animals to risk lions nibbling her fingers.

But for now, she has a more pressing problem: vacation anxiety.

"There's something wrenching about leaving home and stopping work," says Ms. Dobrin, who lives in Westbury, N.Y., and is director of community relations at the Adelphi School of Social DTC Work. "Before I go away I get this anxious feeling. I keep thinking I don't really want to go away. It would be nice if the trip were canceled."

Richard Spector knows the feeling as well. During six separate trips to Europe, he's found plenty to worry about. "The way I see it, all sorts of things can go wrong," says Mr. Spector, a research manager who lives in Fresh Meadows, N.Y. "What if I get lost? Am I going to get to see everything I'm supposed to see? What if someone steals my luggage? What if I can't speak the language and I run into nasty people?"

According to the Travel Industry Association of America, more people than ever will go on vacation this summer -- an estimated 232 million trips, up 4 percent over last summer. Along with sunscreen and disposable cameras, many of these travelers will be packing misgivings, fears and a suitcaseful of stress.

Vacation anxiety can occur during the planning stages as well as on the actual trip, experts says. Some people can't relax, because they're worried about work they've left behind. Others fret that they'll spend too much money or that they forgot to turn the oven off. Still others are troubled about the loss of control they experience in an unfamiliar environment. How will they deal, for example, with a different language, strange customs and food -- even their physical safety?

"As much as we think vacations are wonderful, they can also be extremely anxiety-provoking," says Dr. Raphael Campeas, a research psychiatrist at the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the New York State Psychiatric Institute in Manhattan. "Part of it is fear of the unknown. When you go to a foreign country, for instance, there's a certain element of fear involved. Will you be able to make yourself understood? What happens if you get sick? How will you be able to contact a doctor?"

In many cases, the better prepared you are, the less anxious and more in control you'll feel, experts say. Checklists can be helpful to ensure that you tell your neighbor to water your rhododendron or remind yourself to pack dental floss.

Psychologists say thinking ahead is the key to reducing vacation anxiety. If you're going to a foreign country, for instance, change your money here, before you leave, to familiarize yourself with the currency. Obtain the address of the American Embassy beforehand. (The government can refer you to a doctor in case of an emergency.) And even if you don't speak a word of the language, get a book that tells you how to say basic phrases such as: How much does this cost? Where is the bathroom? I'm lost.

Planning also helps forestall financial worries. "People usually spend more money than they plan to on vacation," says Les Schad, a psychologist based in Rockville Centre, N.Y. "If you know in advance what a five-day pass to Disney World costs, you won't be as shocked when you're asked to plop down the money."

By the same token, however, psychologists caution against overplanning for vacations. "Plan the basics -- where you'll stay, what you hope to do," Dr. Campeas says. "But leave yourself enough space. It's not necessary to know where you'll be at 2 p.m. on Tuesday."

In other instances, worrying about vacation may mask concerns about spending an extended period of uninterrupted time with a spouse or a loved one. "Some people fight worse than ever on vacation because they're not used to seeing each other so much," says Richard Belson, the director of the Family Therapy Institute of Long Island, N.Y., and a psychologist.

To avoid fighting about the vacation, Mr. Belson suggests that couples divvy up the decisions to balance the power structure. (For example: He picks the afternoon recreation; she picks the evening restaurant.) And, if couples can't agree on where to go, they could trade off rather than compromise, so neither feels cheated.

"Work it out so this year the wife is in charge of planning the vacation, and next year, it's the husband's turn," says Mr. Belson.

Some psychologists suggest taking several mini-vacations instead of one major trip. "Leaving a couple of hours earlier on Friday," says Dr. Campeas, "or taking a series of three-day weekends is just as beneficial as a bigger trip, and there's a lot less pressure to pack as much enjoyment as you can into it."

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