07/03/2014 10:56 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

Get in (Mental) Shape for Your Vacation: Start Relaxing Now

By Jan Bruce

The idea of vacation is pretty sweet, isn't it? The lazy hours of doing nothing on the beach, the sunset strolls, novels that read smooth as martinis. Reams of free time. Relaxation.

Now comes the big reality buzzer. All too often, vacations don't live up to the dream. In fact, they become a negative stress trigger because you didn't have the great time you expected and maybe even head back to work more depleted than when you started.

I think this ironic and unfortunate turn of events comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to relax. Our cultural ideas around vacation are all about relaxation as the opposite of work; as in, literally doing nothing. Coupled with that ideal is an expectation that you'll be perfectly relaxed from the word go -- that a chaise lounge has a magical ability to transform you.

Relaxation and vacation aren't merely the opposite of work. They are engaging, vital parts of your life that deserve happy thought and careful attention. If you think of vacation as a big blank, that's what you'll get. And likely you'll end up with a dollop of negative stress on top.

The key is to incorporate relaxation into your life now. As those two weeks of vacation approach, you'll have a much clearer sense of how to structure your time to do the things that truly relax and replenish you. And if that includes some poolside lounging, lounge on! The point is to practice relaxation that feels great to you so that when vacation comes, you're ready for it.

Here are three ways to get in relaxation shape right now.

Calm your body. Our bodies hold onto our stress long after we think the storms have passed, and it can be difficult to practice structured relaxation if old stress is knotting your very muscle fibers. A good sweat-inducing workout, a great massage, or a calming yoga class are all ways to help your body loosen up. With a more relaxed body, you may also jump start your physical senses -- how your body feels, how the light looks in the morning, how interestingly bitter coffee is. This awareness can help clue you into to what rejuvenating relaxation feels like for you.

Give your days an ebb and flow. If you're in constant cram mode, you are going to burn out long before you figure out what relaxes you. You need to build pleasurable, non-work activities into your regular schedule. They needn't be complicated, but they do need to hold meaning. For me, that means long walks three times a week and smartphone-free meals with family, friends, colleagues and clients. A colleague of mine joined a running club that meets every Monday and spends a half hour every night watering and weeding her garden.

Surprise yourself. Part of what makes vacation fun is doing something you don't normally do (such as sleep past 6 a.m.). But it also may mean doing something on a whim, just because. Maybe instead of watching other people zip around on jet skis this time, you're going to get up off your beach chair and rent one yourself. Why not? Take advantage of the longer day, the better weather, and the fun things that are happening around you. Doing something you didn't expect -- and enjoying it -- is what will make your vacation fun and your summer memorable.

Read more on how your body hangs onto stress.

More on the four red flags of burnout.

Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, the new digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness.

For more by meQuilibrium, click here.

For more on stress, click here.