In the Trenches: Recovering from the Stresses of the Summer Season

In the Trenches

by Bob Ditter

Dear Bob,
Every year after camp, I find myself completely wound up. Coming down from the stress and demands of the summer seems to be more difficult each year. For example, I find myself unable to relax and slow down. What tips do you have for camp professionals who are trying to "re-enter" after a hectic summer?

- All Wound Up

Dear Wound Up,

Many camp professionals tell me how difficult it is for them to slow down after the frantic pace of summer. For some, the pace extends into fall or the rest of the year, as more camps develop programs for the shoulder months of September, October, November, April, and May.

Several factors, some biological and others psychological, contribute to the difficulty many camp professionals experience after the intensity of the summer. One of the biological factors has to do with acclimation.

Faced with more noise and greater stress, the body develops a tolerance to the strain by tuning out much of it (for example, the noise of the dining hall, the messy conditions of the summer office, on-the-fly programming for rainy days, or coping with under-performing personnel or anxious parents). After a while, as a kind of coping or survival mechanism, your body becomes acclimated to the pressure.

Going from an environment with a lot of stress and activity to one with much less activity can be a shock to a system that is acclimated to higher levels; adjusting to a lower level takes a while. Even exciting or positive events, such as a thrilling victory in a competition or an end-of-the-summer banquet, can be stressful and require an adjustment period.
Another aspect of the end-of-the-summer "re-entry" concerns the nature of caretaking in a camp environment. The often around-the-clock availability that many directors give to staff, campers, and parents has several consequences. It tends to obscure the boundaries between private and public life; reinforces a kind of over-functioning, where one feels important and needed; and is essentially outwardly directed. In other words, caretaking at camp often occurs at the expense of taking care of oneself.

Camp situations bring a director into the intimate spaces of many people's lives, and camp does plenty to interrupt the intimacy of the director's own life. Any recovery from the stress of camp needs to include reconnecting with the people who share your own intimate, private life. This is often a formidable challenge for many camp professionals, partly because caretakers find helping others with intimacy is easier than contending with their own intimacy issues. When helping others, the caretaker has a clearly defined role; he is needed and important. The emotional risk is different when it involves the caretaker's own life.

Steps to Reduce Stress

You can take many specific, practical steps to reduce your stress level after camp. Because camp professionals acclimate to a higher level of stress during the camp season, these steps are akin to resetting a thermostat or readjusting your stress-tolerance level. Many examples in medical and psychological literature elaborate on the long-term costs of not resetting your thermostat, including a greater risk of heart disease and other disease and a toll on one's personal life.

Change is a great elixir. Known in psychological circles as the Hawthorne Effect, change for the sake of change has been clearly linked to a rise in productivity and an alleviation of depression. A change of scene, such as a vacation, can have a tremendous positive impact on re-entry, especially if accompanied by other practical measures. The key is to get away and to do it with the least possible effort.

Gross motor activity has long been known to reduce stress and depression. After camp, exercise should be moderate. If you are having trouble sleeping, walking in the morning or afternoon is a great way to begin. Graduate slowly to bike riding and swimming. Even if you are an accomplished runner, taking it slow after camp will help you reset that thermostat.

Increase water intake
Flush your system. As a regular visitor to camps, I see what people put in their mouths. Although I am not a nutritionist, I recommend increasing your water intake (eight glasses a day are recommended, though most directors rarely get that much to drink) and cutting your caffeine intake. Also, stress eats up the B vitamins, so make sure you are eating a balanced, healthful (fun!) diet. At the risk of getting into a controversial area, I also recommend limiting your alcohol intake. Simply speaking, alcohol puts a strain on the liver. Moderation is the key, but you would not want to substitute one form of stress for another.

Meditate or pray
Meditation or prayer is a centering exercise that helps you get in touch with yourself. Some people accomplish this by writing in a journal. Others engage in yoga, transcendental meditation, or prayer. Whatever form you choose, you may find this exercise to be excruciating at first - it is painful to be with oneself after having always been with so many others. However, centering exercises will help you reacquaint yourself with your inner life (your feelings, thoughts, and experiences).

Catch up on your rest. Most camp professionals are chronically sleep-deprived. This does not jibe well with recent research, which indicates that most people need six and one-half to eight hours of sleep a night to remain healthy. Few people can get by on less than six hours, and we know that the body heals itself during sleep. Those rapid eye movements (REMs) seem to help us keep our sanity, and catching a few catnaps could be a great off-season habit to cultivate.

Have fun
Be bad! I say this in a lighthearted way and do not mean be evil. What I mean by being bad is letting go of the habit of taking care of others. Have some fun yourself. Anything that incorporates laughter is bound to be healing.

Practice visualization
Visualize rest, strength, and peace. Visualization can have powerful benefits. The practice is simple: sit or lie down and picture in your mind scenes where you are at rest, are calm and peaceful, or are quietly strong. As you begin to practice visualization more, you can introduce scenes that are potentially stressful or challenging and then visualize yourself mastering the situation and handling it with confidence and strength. Visualization is actually a form of positive thinking.

These steps are actually designed to help camp professionals do with themselves what they do so well with others - be healthy and thrive. By taking better care of yourself, you can better encourage
others to reap the benefits of the camp experience.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. He supervises content for and can be reached via e-mail at or by fax at 617-572-3373. "In the Trenches" is sponsored by American Income Life Insurance.

Originally published in the 2000 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.