Get away from it all? More like take it all with you

Looking forward to your holiday? Can't wait for that fortnight in a palm-fringed paradise? Well think again. Because unless you are properly prepared, the experience could end up causing you considerably more grief than a whole year at the office.

Looking forward to your holiday? Can't wait for that fortnight in a palm-fringed paradise? Well think again. Because unless you are properly prepared, the experience could end up causing you considerably more grief than a whole year at the office.

Denise Knowles, a counsellor and sex therapist with Relate, the counselling organisation, believes the pressure mounts even before a holiday has begun, especially for the woman of the household. "It can be quite stressful getting the whole family organised - packing the clothes, making sure the papers have been stopped, ensuring the tickets have arrived and so on - and unfortunately it still falls mainly on the mother's shoulders," she says.

The journey carries more potential for stress. "You've set off from home, you've just turned the corner, and a voice pipes up from the back, 'Dad, are we nearly there yet?'" says Richard Woolfson, a child and family psychologist and author.

The misery of impatient, bored children is often exacerbated, he says, by the choice of destination. "Sometimes as parents we pick travel arrangements that are completely incompatible with the age and stamina of our children. I've seen toddlers on transatlantic journeys. After five minutes they're tearing their hair out, and after 10 minutes, the mothers are tearing their hair out too. You've got to weigh up whether this is really the right holiday for your family's stage of development."

According to Dr Woolfson, we are particularly prone to stress at the beginning of a holiday, because it takes a couple of days to unwind. "If you think you can work at the office until 12 o'clock, go home and get a taxi to the airport and get on a plane at one o'clock and you're going to be chilled out and mellow and in a holiday mood, you're wrong," he says. "By the time you do finally chill out, it will be time to think what you're going to do in your last few days." Dr Woolfson suggests stopping work a couple of days before you go, if possible.

Deciding how to spend your time is another cause of stress. "Maybe the kids want to go to an amusement park, maybe dad's thinking about golf, maybe mum's thinking of lounging about at the pool," says Dr Woolfson. "Arguments break out because expectations are not remotely being fulfilled. The answer is to plan ahead and have discussions. You've got to make it a family affair, not just a top-down thing that mum and dad decide on their own."

Something else for a mother and father to discuss is sex. Otherwise the man may well find one particular expectation will remain frustratingly unfulfilled. "For a lot of men, when they go on holiday, the major thought is that for the next two weeks they and their wife are going to have the most incredible sex," says Trevor Jellis, a consultant psychologist and director of Harley Street's Stein Clinic. "The wife, on the other hand, may well be thinking that all she wants to do is sleep. That can cause massive problems."

According toMs Knowles, too much sun, food and alcohol can also put a damper on sex. "It can be quite disappointing when it doesn't materialise," she says. "It's an area that can be fraught with difficulty."

But perhaps the major cause of holiday stress is the inability of many holiday-makers to leave their work at home. Wherever we go, a fax machine is usually not far away and the new WAP mobile phones make e-mail and the internet accessible from the beach. "It can be as if you're not away, and that can be a disaster," says Dr Woolfson, who admits he took his mobile on a recent holiday to France, to his wife's intense annoyance.

Derek Roger, reader in psychology and health science at York University, likens people who hang on to their job while on holiday to a monkey clinging to a peanut in a trap. "The monkey thinks it's the last peanut on earth, and people think they're the last person on earth who can do their job," he says. They are wrong, of course. The experts agree: leave the mobile at home. As Trevor Jellis says, "if you can't disappear for a week or two, there's something wrong with you".

In fact, if there is not something wrong with you now, there may well be by the time you come home. According to a survey of more than 20,000 Holiday Which? subscribers, 12 per cent had fallen ill while on holiday during the previous 12 months.

Stomach upsets were the most common problem for visitors, accounting for almost half the complaints, followed by coughs and colds. Only 1 per cent suffered a serious illness. The country with the worst record overall was Mexico, where more than half the visitors had fallen victim to some kind of complaint. However, India recorded the highest number of more serious cases, with one in 25 contracting an illness such as malaria or salmonella poisoning. If you want to be really safe, then the country to visit is Belgium, which had the fewest cases of any kind of illness, although death from boredom of course remains a very real possibility.

There is a common belief that we are somehow more prone to illness once we stop working and unwind, but according to Rob Hicks, a London GP, that is a myth. "The fact is that people do things on holiday that they wouldn't do at home, so they drink too much, eat the wrong foods and are less careful with hygiene," he says. "And they jump on mopeds, which they wouldn't do in this country, and then they have accidents."

With the growth in holidays to far-flung corners of the world comes exposure not just to potentially deadly diseases, but also to potentially deadly creatures, from snakes and scorpions on land to stonefish and sharks in the sea. Indeed it is worth noting that Sydney, venue for this year's Olympics, is home to the most dangerous spider in the world, the funnel-web. Like most potentially deadly animals, however, it is likely to attack only when it feels threatened.

Finally, there is good news for travellers to South America, who may perhaps be worried by horrific tales concerning the candiru fish. This tiny creature is said to swim up the urogenital openings of both male and female bathers and can only be removed by surgery. The truth remains that there is no evidence for it ever having happened. Happy holiday!

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