When people think summer camp, they think tranquil natural setting, fun, happiness, and bliss. While this permeates throughout camp life, the threat of stress — and a lack of resiliency to that stress — can derail those wonderful elements.
The following scenarios may sound familiar.
Denise is an eight-year-old girl attending sleepaway camp for the first time this summer. She complains often of stomach aches and wants to go to the camp nurse daily; she struggles with homesickness at night; and she becomes anxious the moment dinner ends.
Jake is 12 years old and this is his third year at camp. Jake has had difficulty connecting and being accepted by his peers, likely because of his impulsive and often disruptive behavior. He struggles with sportsmanship, often blaming teammates for losses. He is emotionally volatile, frequently yells, and wears down everyone around him.
Tim is a first-year counselor who is having a tough start to the summer. As the director, you wonder if you made a mistake in hiring him. Several parents have called and e-mailed with questions and concerns about his interactions with their children. Parents wonder why they never see him smiling when they look at the weekly upload of photos on the website gallery. There's a good chance Tim won't last the season.
These types of cases are becoming more and more common in camps. Difficulty managing emotions is the norm for adults and youth. The American Psychological Association just identified teens as the most stressed group of people in America (2014). The recently released report paints a picture of extreme stress and ineffective coping skills that appear to be ingrained in our culture, and it is not just limited to teens. Stress starts young — really young. Depression and anxiety rates among elementary school students are at an all-time high and continue to rise. Nearly a third of high school students report feeling sad or hopeless. One in five school-age kids has a diagnosable mental disorder (Child Trends Databank, 2014). Between the teen-age counselors arriving for duty and the campers rolling off the bus mid-June, camp directors and leadership staff are facing more challenges than ever when it comes to helping kids cope and manage their emotions, and creating the ultimate camp experience.
The Brain on Stress
Denise, Jake, and Tim are not much dif ferent from most kids today. The majority of kids today have a brain that has been wired to remain on high alert, regardless of whether they are faced with immediate threats. When the stress response in the brain is constantly triggered young people have difficulty using their prefrontal cortex, the part of their brain that helps them regulate emotions, pay attention to themselves and others, and process positive emotions.
Our kids are growing up in a culture that constantly stimulates the stress response — fight, flight, or freeze — in the brain. In their lives outside of camp, kids are confronted with packed schedules, pressures to perform, relentless media and technology, and often too little sleep. All of these things trigger stress in the brain, and when these repeated stress responses add up, they rewire the brain to be in a constant low-grade state of fight, flight, or freeze. The alarm part of their brain becomes stronger while the smart part of their brain that helps them manage their emotions, solve problems, and make good choices sits idle, becoming less and less functional.
Building Resilience Brings Hope
While you cannot eliminate all stress (nor would you want to), there are many ways to help both your campers and your counselors build resilience to the stress that modern life presents. These simple practices stimulate the prefrontal cortex of the brain, making it stronger so it can regulate this constant stress. The key to this transformation is a practice called mindfulness.
I def ine mindfulness as paying attention to the present moment with kindness — very old knowledge that new science demonstrates will improve your relationships, your performance at work, your health, and happiness in general. Research demonstrates that mindfulness strengthens those neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex, the smart part of our brain, making it stronger, more efficient, and easier to use.
In the same way that physical fitness relies on repeated exercise to generate specific muscular and cardiovascular changes, mindfulness relies on specific exercises to create change in the structure and functions of the brain. Just as the body changes physically by exercise, areas of the brain may shrink or expand becoming more or less functional based on experience and training. It is possible to literally rewire the brain to be more effective and resilient. And in the same way as physical fitness, these changes only occur with repeated exercise.
Formal practices include breathing exercises, meditation, body scans, and mindful eating. Informal practices include pausing to listen to the sounds around you when paddling on the lake, noticing each step as you walk the nature trail, dancing, and star gazing. When you practice mindfulness, formally and informally, you learn to pay attention to the present moment with all of your senses. When you practice mindfulness daily you rewire the brain to become happier, healthier, and more functional.
In the controlled environment of a camp you have the unique opportunity to create lifelong habits to generate this positive restructuring of the brain and, in doing so, create a more positive camp experience. You create the schedule, you respond to the most challenging of camper behaviors, and you coach staff like Tim to provide a positive camp experience. Mindfulness allows you as the director to get back to creating that synergy between the idyllic natural setting and the priceless experiences you crave for everyone who steps into your camp. Forming new habits, which research demonstrates can occur after 21 days of formal practice, is well within your grasp.
Three Simple Practices to Make Lasting Changes in Your Brain and Life
Regardless of whether you are an eightyear- old struggling with anxiety like Denise, a 12-year-old struggling with attention and emotional regulation like Jake, or a counselor who is simply stressed and overwhelmed, three simple practices can reduce stress, increase happiness, and create lifelong habits for wellness and resilience.
1) Mindful breathing is merely bringing your awareness to the breath, and is at the core of a formal mindfulness practice. It also happens to be one of the best ways to calm the stress response in the brain. When you practice mindful breathing regularly you strengthen the prefrontal cortex and create a calm yet alert state of mind by bringing your awareness to each inhalation and exhalation.
Keys to practicing mindful breathing at camp:
- Take two to five minutes a day to bring your awareness to your breath just before morning circle and announcements, just before a meal, or during transitions between activities.
- Start with five mindful breaths, softening your face and bringing your full attention to the inhalation and exhalation. Notice what parts of your body move with the inhale; notice if your breath is labored or smooth, long or short; invite your exhalation to be a little bit slower.
- Introduce finger breathing, an excellent technique for the camper who cannot sit still through directions or announcements. Line up each fingertip with the corresponding fingertips of the opposing hand. Draw the fingers close together and with the inhalation expand the fingers, stretching them out while keeping the tips connected; with the exhalation, let the fingers draw back together. Allow the fingers to follow the breath in and out, expanding and contracting.
- Practice when your campers are relaxed and not under stress so they can access this skill when stress rises.
- Make sure your counselors practice along with your campers. Research on our program demonstrates stress reduction benefits for the adults who practice with the youth with whom they work.
2) Mindful listening teaches you how to pay attention. It helps you focus, concentrate, and be more efficient and productive with a less distracted mind. When you practice mindful listening you are stimulating the Reticular Activating System (RAS) in the brain. This system helps the brain to filter through all incoming stimuli and determine which stimulus is the most important to focus on at that time. It allows you to filter out thoughts about what you need to do later and what you forgot to do yesterday, to focus on what you need to do right now.
Keys to practicing mindful listening at camp:
- Take two to five minutes a day to bring your attention to your listening at the same spot you pass by each morning, during snack, or before your end-ofday closing.
- Practice focused listening. Using a chime or a tone bar, ring the bell and have your campers listen to the sound for as long as they can and raise their hand when they no longer can hear the sound.
- Practice open listening. When sitting at the chapel or gathering space, take 60 seconds to listen to the farthest sound you can hear. Then share what was heard.
3) Paying attention to emotions strengthens the neural connections in the prefrontal cortex and allows you to bring a more positive focus to your day-to-day lives. Making "Rose, Bud, and Thorn" part of your daily routine does just this. Paying attention to your rose, something good that you experience over the course of the day, enables you to bring conscious awareness to good experiences so they don't bounce right off. You have to hold your attention on them for several seconds to engrave them in your neural pathways. A bud is an act of kindness that you witnessed or initiated. When campers know these acts will be discussed around a campfire or in the bunk at the end of a day, they will look for opportunities for kindness throughout the day, and their brains will begin to focus on the positive experiences rather than the negative. Acknowledging a thorn, a mistake you learned from that day, reminds everyone that mistakes are a part of life and an opportunity for growth. It diminishes the perception that your campers need to be perfect, which triggers a lot of stress in the brain and results in kids not wanting to take risks.
Keys to practicing paying attention to emotions at camp:
- Around the campfire, or with a small cabin group at the end of the day, play Rose, Bud, and Thorn.
- Go around the circle and have each person share their rose, their bud, and their thorn.
- Remember that roses need not be grand, buds need not be earth shattering, and thorns need not be scandalous. Have your counselors model noticing and acknowledging the little things that shape their day.
The Opportunity for Positive Change
The image of camp life and the reality of camp life do not need to be two disparate visions. Camp provides the opportunity to make significant, positive changes in your campers' lives when they leave your summer program. Practicing mindfulness during the time you are together as a camp community allows you the opportunity to dramatically improve your camp environment. You do not wish for a Denise, Jake, or Tim to suffer at camp. Providing them with tools to become resilient to their stressors is a wonderful gift that can last not just for a summer, but for a lifetime.
American Psychological Society. (2014). Stress in America™ 2013 highlights: Are teens adopting adults' stress habits? Retrieved from www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/ highlights.aspx Child Trends Databank. (2014). Adolescents who felt sad or hopeless. Retrieved from www.childtrends.org/?indicators=adolescentswho- felt-sad-or-hopeless
Dr. Kristen Race is the author of Mindful Parenting and founder of Mindful Life. Kristen fuses the science of the brain with simple mindfulness strategies for adults and children, designed to create resiliency towards stress. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, NPR, the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and she is a regular blogger for the Huffington Post.
Sylvie Piquet is the camp director at Camp Beech Cliff in Mount Desert, Maine. Sylvie is also the training coordinator for Mindful Life, with which she travels the country to train educators on the effects of mindfulness on the brain and learning and how to incorporate mindfulness into their work with youth.
Photo courtesy of YMCA Camp Ernst, Burlington, Kentucky.
Originally published in the 2015 January/February Camping Magazine.