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It’s the first staff meeting after visiting day, or perhaps in the fifth week of camp after groups of campers have cycled out and new campers have arrived. While you see pockets of animated conversation here and there, the mood in the room is quiet and subdued. You see many staff members leaning on each other’s shoulders for support. Boatin Dridock, looking disheveled and wearing sunglasses, shuffles into the room, stumbles, and then collapses into an empty chair.
If Boatin were wearing a body mike, you might hear him mumble, “Oh no! Another one of these boring evening staff meetings, and I’m late again. All we do is go over stupid details. Meanwhile, I’m worn out. I can’t deal with these kids!”
Boatin whispers almost inaudibly to Barney Awl sitting next to him, “Let’s get out of here and spend the night grabbing some brews. We don’t need to listen to this stuff.” He hesitates and then adds, “Yeah, I smell. I haven’t had time to do laundry in two weeks. This job is exhausting!”
To Nancie Drew sitting on the other side of him, Boatin mutters, “You know, this is definitely not what I expected. They misled me. We have no privacy; not enough time off; and the food’s lousy. I can’t sleep; my co-counselor is no help at all. I’m dreading going back to school — something I can’t stop thinking about. In any event, three more weeks, and I’m outa here!”
Boatin has demonstrated for us some of the classic signs and symptoms of the “summer doldrums.” Can we find evidence of this condition elsewhere around camp?
A few days later, you are out and about conducting one of your regularly scheduled walk-abouts. You stop by the health center. Your nurse, June Gayle, who is usually calm and reassuring, seems agitated and short tempered. June complains about being overworked and not having enough down time — largely attributable to campers and counselors who come into the center whenever they want. She tells you that she feels isolated, not really part of the camp community, and that no one really understands her job.
Later, during the same walk-about, you stop by one of the cabins and find campers sprawled out on their beds or, perhaps, you walk past the pavilion and find kids aimlessly milling about. Several campers are surprisingly rude and testy when you attempt to engage them in conversation. They stubbornly refuse to go off to their next activity, claiming that it’s boring — not fun. Besides, they complain, the instructor, Leigh Marvyn spends the entire period putting them through repetitive, impossibly difficult drills while barking at them like a drill sergeant. Two campers are scuffling with each other off to one side. There are no counselors in sight.
The summer doldrums have arrived....
Signs and Symptoms
Signs and symptoms of the summer doldrums can be organized into at least five clusters — sleeping, health, appearance and behavior, self-focus, and relationships. Many of the characteristics and behaviors listed below were generated by participants at several summer doldrums workshops and from my conversations with Linda Ebner Erceg, R.N., M.S., executive director, Association of Camp Nurses, about emotional health markers in the camp community.
- Complains about not getting enough rest
- Finds opportunities to sleep whenever possible (e.g., the “disappearing act”)
- Falls asleep with difficulty (e.g., “My mind’s churning. I can’t turn it off.”)
- Gets up in the morning with difficulty (e.g., sleeping through lineup/breakfast)
- Stays up very late to work on projects or to socialize
- Reports illnesses and injuries more often (notable increase in)
- Lacks energy, enthusiasm, and spontaneity
- Experiences “compassion fatigue”
- Can’t relax
- Loses appetite or eats excessively
- Appears to be in a daze, lacks focus, becomes forgetful, apathetic
- Acts especially watchful, defensive, critical of others
- Lapses into carelessness with safety issues and with respect to one’s self (e.g., grooming, hygiene, skipping/late for meals, meetings, activities)
- Exercises poor judgment, violates policies and rules
- Acts short tempered, expresses anger inappropriately
- Lacks ability to solve problems and to cope with disappointments, blames others, becomes defensive
- Spends time intensively planning or worrying about how to spend their time after the summer season.
- Makes personal phone calls, writes letters, and fills out applications more often
- Interacts less with campers or cabin mates and lacks consideration for others
- Makes frequent comparisons between one’s personal experiences in the previous summers and the present camp season
- Focuses on the next time off and/or returns to camp preoccupied with the insufficiency of time away
- Gives less of their time to campers who need more attention
- Experiences conflicts between campers and staff and between groups of campers or staff and the camp’s leadership
- Gossips or makes backbiting comments
- Feels entrapped in a relationship or isolated from one’s peers and/or community
- Focuses intensely on relationship issues
The factors that contribute to the onset and duration of the summer doldrums vary from season to season and, to some extent, from camp to camp. Some of the most significant contributors include — the weather, level of general fatigue, unsatisfied expectations, sensory overload, the accumulation of negative “self-talk,” and an underlying sense of hurry (in part, a result of the continuous flow of events).
Let’s take a few minutes to examine two of these contributing factors — sensory overload and unsatisfied expectations. Come with me into the dining hall during a meal, to the pavilion where your campers have lunch, to morning lineup when the kids pour out of the busses or assemble at the end of the day before they climb into busses for the trip home. Listen to the volume of singing, cheering, and chanting — the animated buzz of conversations. Observe the considerable amount of movement through and around the room or within and around the camp-wide gathering, as well as late arrivals and early departures. After a while, we may become less aware of or even numbed by this continual flow of activity, especially if we’re preoccupied with other matters. When this activity, in combination with all the other activity that takes place in the course of a day, is repeated over many days, the sheer volume and continued intensity may overload our senses and contribute to fatigue and to an increased sense of being stressed.
A second contributing factor concerns unfulfilled expectations. We all come to camp with different wishes and expectations packed in with our gear. I recall at the ripe age of ten arriving at camp for my first summer with a new iridescent green fiberglass fishing rod my dad had purchased for me. I was hoping to catch a fish of legendary proportions so that he would be proud of me. I tried fishing a few times and caught nothing bigger than a sunny. There were so many other activities to capture my interest. I forgot about my “mission’’ until late in the season. The thought of facing my father empty handed dampened my enthusiasm, from time to time, during the remainder of the summer. When I arrived home, I was surprised and relieved to discover that my dad was not disappointed at all. What really mattered to my parents was the fact that I had enjoyed my first summer at camp and that I had successfully navigated my way through significant learning experiences.
Counselors also arrive at camp with expectations packed in with their belongings, for example, wanting to have a positive and significant impact in the lives of children with whom they will be working and to develop new friendships with peers. By the fifth week, when many campers and staff members at least begin to have some awareness that the season will end at a point down the road, they may sense that some of their expectations have not been realized and that these expectations may not be realized by the end of the summer. If this awareness becomes translated into feelings of lack of accomplishment and is intensified by perceptions of lack of support, increased demands, and/or criticism, self-confidence may erode, and performance may be adversely affected. We may be more susceptible to the influence of others’ reactions to the doldrums, as well.
Here is the good news. There are a number of strategies and interventions that you can put in place to reduce the intensity and duration of the summer doldrums. The following list of remedies includes suggestions from groups of participants during brainstorming activities in my summer doldrums workshops.
- Extra sleep-ins, “lazy’ days, early nights
- Activities that encourage fitness, the importance of self care, and humor (e.g., humor team, humor library, and joke board)
- Pre-camp “stress busters,” stress management classes throughout the summer (e.g., relaxation training, yoga)
- Special theme meals, silent meals, and meals with relaxing live music
- Build and maintain support networks
- Changes in the day’s routines (e.g., different ways of communicating announcements, senior or support staff can lead activities; exchange jobs for a short period)
- Unanticipated free time
- New games throughout the summer
- “Stop and think” problem-solving sessions
- New staff members during the summer
- Staff appreciation (e.g., “Appreciation circles,” care packages for staff celebrations of small victories, acknowledgment of creativity and innovation)
- Informal staff meetings or “time outs”
- Motivational speakers and other professionals throughout the summer (not just during precamp orientation)
- At least one individual should be designated as the “staff resource person”
Introduce staff events
- Recreational and sports activities for staff; staff meals (time away from campers)
- Staff sing, talent show
- Costumed events
- Out of camp organized trips
- Bands to entertain
- “Secret friends” (staff as well as campers)
Two themes running prominently through these interventions are novelty and managing stress. Introducing something new, especially when we least expect such activity, captures our attention and interest and can help to refresh, renew, and revitalize all of us. Challenge people’s expectations is a piece of concise and pertinent advice given to me many years ago by Michael Brandwein, (educator, speaker, author). For example, consider announcements made at “flagpole,” at your end of the day “round up” or “evening circle,” or before, during, or after meals. If you usually make announcements from the front of the group or from the head table, consider making some announcements from the side, center, or even the back when the gathering is outdoors or in the dining room or pavilion, from a different section of the room. If people are accustomed to hearing you make these announcements, delegate this task to different people. If announcements are usually read, consider having remarks presented in limerick form or sung. “Suddenly” appear wearing an unusual hat or costume or ask some staff members to play out announcements in a skit. An important consideration to keep in mind when introducing something new and different in any aspect of life at camp is that novelty should not result in anyone feeling uncomfortable or threatened.
Let’s briefly return to the matter of unfulfilled expectations. As the summer progresses, campers and staff members may sense that some of their expectations are not being satisfied. Individuals and groups may be more sensitive to criticism and perceive demands being placed on them as being excessive. They may require more encouragement, support, and increased need for recognition of their accomplishments. By building in “Timeouts” — occasions for reflection, review, and opportunities to revisit personal and group expectations and goals, during which we strive to ask good questions (rather than tell people what they should do) and to engage people in constructive problem solving, we may help campers and staff to have more reasonable and realistic expectations for the remaining portion of the summer.
We know a lot about the impact of stress in our lives and about managing stress. We know, for example, that there is an incredible network of pathways back and forth between our minds and our bodies. We know about the “fight or flight” response, an inborn reaction to stressful situations that’s part of our physiological makeup and the “relaxation response,” a natural, innate protective mechanism which allows us to counter the effects of the fight or flight response (Benson 2000). Stress can suppress the functioning of our immune systems.
We know that positive events may have a stronger beneficial impact on immune system functioning than upsetting events have a negative impact (Goleman n.d.). We recognize the importance of simple pleasures (Ornstein and Sobel 1989). We welcome opportunities for laughter. Laughter has been described as “internal jogging” which activates the release of endorphins, the body’s pain-reducing substance (Cousins 1990). Laughter also serves as a stimulant to the body’s immune system. We also know that our attitudes and thoughts can have a significant impact on our ability to manage stress effectively.
With this in mind, let’s consider an approach we can all use to cope with the intrusion of negative thoughts in our lives.
Over the course of a day, we all engage in varying amounts of “self-talk” — internal dialogues or conversations we have within ourselves. If we’re feeling stressed, our self-talk may become increasingly negative in content and in tone. When these thoughts are repeated, fixed in mind or linked up with other negatively-weighted thoughts, we may experience counterproductive bursts of negative self-talk. Negative self-talk can intrude into our functioning and adversely affect our interaction with campers and other staff members, as well as affect our sense of self-worth.
Examples of the kind of negative self- talk we might “overhear” from campers and staff members in and around camp include thoughts related to frustration (“Uh, oh, here comes real trouble!” “_________ is slowing us down.”); anger (“I’m really getting pissed off now!” “This isn’t what camp is about!”); fear (“If they don’t stop right now, I’m going to lose it.” “I have to straighten this out myself or I will be in deep trouble.”); guilt (“This is entirely my fault.” “I haven’t been paying enough attention to________.”); and helplessness (“I give up. They win.” “I’ve tried everything. I just can’t do this.”).
The same mind that generates bursts of negative self-talk can reverse this process by producing and directing specific positive thoughts. Developing positive self-talk skills requires training. Here’s a four-step process:
- Monitor self-talk
Tune in to your internal dialogues. Deliberately make an effort to throw a net around these thoughts as they come into mind. Can you discern specific words in the stream of thought? What is the tone of these thoughts (harsh, critical or fearful)? Do you hear the same negative thoughts repeated over and over? Do you “hear” your own voice as a child or as an adolescent? Do you hear someone else’s voice (a parent, teacher, coach, best friend or adversary)?
As soon as you are aware of negative self-talk, tell yourself to “stop.” Shut these thoughts down. Turn them off. Visualize a stop sign — imagine closing a spigot — or imagine turning a light switch off.
- Center yourself
Take a deep breath and hold it for only a brief moment. Let the air out slowly until your lungs are emptied. Resume breathing normally. This brief stress management technique can help us to instantly calm down and regain focus or perspective.
In this step, “I’m not strong enough to do this” is converted to “I am strong. I can do this.” “I feel awkward in this group” can be switched to “I’ve been comfortable when I’ve been in this group before. I will be at ease, now.” This may also be a great time to recall those mantras and quotes that help us to stay on track — that support our efforts to feel good about ourselves. A few of my favorites are: “Expect pleasure in much of what you do.” (originally found in a fortune cookie); “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now . . . .” (from the movie Groundhog Day); “Perseverance! There’s no short, easy route to success.” (Lonnie G. Johnson, inventor); “. . . work and hope. But never hope more than you work.” (Beryl Markham, West With The Night) and “. . . our choices . . . show us what we truly are far more than our abilities.” (Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets).
What Do We Do Next?
We have identified many of the signs and symptoms that let us know the summer doldrums have arrived, examined some of the contributing factors, listed a number of strategies and interventions to reduce the doldrums’ intensity and duration, and considered the importance of novelty and stress management (in particular, self talk). I hope that you are determined to either introduce this topic into your master plan for the summer or to make whatever approach you may already have in place even more effective. How?
You can provide your staff with some written material containing, for example, a Signs and Symptoms checklist, a review of contributing factors, a list of remedies, and some material about managing stress. You can also introduce novelty and challenge people’s expectations by conducting a summer doldrums session, drawing, for example, on the expertise and experiences of your leadership team and returning counselors. Incorporate play outs or role plays (let everyone know that what they are about to see are enactments, not the real thing); brainstorm lists of signs and symptoms; make time for discussion of contributing factors (what other factors may be relevant or unique in your camp setting?); brainstorm remedies; and develop a plan through which doldrums management can be revisited throughout the summer.
Benson, Herbert (2000). The Relaxation Response. New York: Morrow, William & Co.
Cousins, Norman (1990). Head First The Biology of Hope and the Healing Power of the Human Spirit. New York: Penguin Books.
Goleman, Daniel. n.d. Seeking Out Small Pleasures Keeps Immune System Strong. New York Times
Kabat-Zinn, Jon (1990). Full Catastrophe Living. New York: Dell Publishing.
Markham, Beryl (1983). West With The Night. New York: North Point Press.
Ornstein, Robert and Sobel, David ((1989). Healthy Pleasures. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.
Rowling, J.K. (1999). Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Scholastic, Inc.
Elkind, David (2001). The Hurried Child. New York: Perseus Books Group.
Goleman, Daniel (1998). Working with Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.
Seligman, Martin (1994). What You Can Change & What You Can’t. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Sobel, David & Ornstein, Robert (1998). The Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook. Los Altos, California: DRx.
Bruce Muchnick, Ed.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Glenside, Pennsylvania. His work includes psychotherapy with youth and grownups, management consulting in a variety of organizational settings, and a “specialty” in camp psychology. He is the founder and director of Summer Camp Resources, a group of experienced professionals who provide a variety of organizational and mental health services to camp communities. Muchnick can be reached at 877-362-8278 or email@example.com.
Originally published in the 2002 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.