by Catherine Freer Clinical Director Kevin Riley, LCSW, CADC
There comes a point on every Catherine Freer expedition, usually in the second week, when the young people start looking different. Our staff refers to it as the “spark” or “signs of life” or “seeing the light in your eye.” The kids just call it “feeling happy.” And as much as we would like to take full credit for creating this feeling through cutting edge programming and brilliant therapy, I am convinced that more than half of the credit should be given to the very basics of what the kids are doing physically and putting into their bodies on a daily basis. These are usually big changes from that to which they are accustomed.
First of all, the participants typically sleep 8-10 hours a night during the expedition. Most researchers recommend that adolescents sleep 8-9.5 hours, an amount that is not usually attained given late nights on chat rooms and early school starts. Second, the groups hike on most days in the morning and the afternoon. The physical exertion varies day-to-day depending on the itinerary and terrain but it is safe to say that it far exceeds a Saturday watching television or playing with an Xbox. Exercise produces endorphins, the bodies “natural anti-depressant”, and may positively affect the levels of certain mood-enhancing neurotransmitters.
Young people eat very differently during an expedition than they typically do at home. They choose from a variety of less “processed” foods like beans and rice, and whole grains like oatmeal. And they learn to make the food taste good without deep-frying or adding lots of sugar. There is considerable evidence linking highly fluctuating blood sugar levels with ADHD, depression, anxiety, and other disorders. Blood sugar levels become unstable not only with the intake of refined sugar but also with highly processed, high carbohydrate foods like white bread and some types of pasta.
Expedition participants drink very differently, as well. Along with missing their fruit loops and donuts in the morning, many kids often complain about not getting grande lattes and caramel macchiatos. Needless to say, anxious young people who have trouble getting to sleep do not benefit from their Starbucks runs and Mountain Dew binges. Being without caffeine allows their bodies to readjust to natural cycles of energy and attention. Moreover, excessive caffeine intake may interfere with the efficacy of anti-depressant medication.
On the other hand, insufficient water intake can contribute to mood disorders like depression and anxiety, create low energy and make weight loss more difficult. Staff on the expeditions are continually reminding the kids to drink water and there are expectations for minimum consumption while hiking. Often it becomes a joke on the expedition. Sore muscles? Drink water! Tired? Drink water! Attacked by a bear? Drink water!
Most interesting to us is a study that was recently published by the University of Illinois that demonstrated a reduction of ADHD symptoms by young people who were exposed to “natural settings” on a regular basis. Even 30 minutes a day on a green lawn or a city park was beneficial for children who suffer from ADHD. Imagine what 24 hours in old growth forest and panoramic vistas does for a young person struggling with ADHD.
Eventually, however, participants on a Catherine Freer expedition must leave the woods and return to more “civilized” setting. Unfortunately, it is not possible for most kids to continue with six hours a day of hiking. And at home, parents have much less control over what their children eat and drink throughout the day. That “relapse” or falling back into old behaviors and attitudes that you experience may have just as much to do with sugar and inactivity as anything else.
There are some steps that families can take at home to capitalize on the expedition experience help make lasting, positive changes in behavioral habits:
Check out your own kitchen – Take a look in the fridge and on the dinner table. Does your family eat a lot of fast food and sugary sweets? Ask your child to demonstrate a meal he/she made on the expedition. Can you organize a more regular family dinnertime at a table that includes fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and other “good for you” foods?
Include these changes in your recovery plan – Along with not seeing negative friends and attending counseling sessions, all young people leaving Catherine Freer should make specific commitments about how they are going to get exercise and good food. Families can follow up on these commitments when behavior starts to change.
Make it easy to exercise – Membership to a gym, rides to activities, or a new bike are some ways that family can support a young person continuing to get physical exercise.
Get outside! – Even a walk in the park or throwing Frisbee in the yard is helpful. If you are up for it, go hiking or camping and let your child teach you some of what he or she has learned.
Making real change is hard and some parents may wonder why they have to give up Twinkies just because their kid got in trouble. It helps to remember the look in their eye at the end family meeting when you knew something was different, something had changed, and how you can bring home some of the expedition experience to your home.
Kevin Riley, LCSW, CADC, has worked with adolescents and families for 10 years in many arenas including tutoring and mentoring in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, adolescent service trips to Nicaragua, and working as a family therapist in Seattle. Kevin began working with Catherine Freer Wilderness Therapy Programs in 2000. He spent two years as an expedition therapist before taking his current position as a clinical director. He received his MSW from the University of Washington. His clinical areas of interest include group therapy, family systems, and adolescent rites-of-passage.