Spring is here. The days are getting longer, flowers are blooming, and nature is waking from months of hibernation. The air is still crisp, though we have enjoyed a few unusually hot days in the Pacific Northwest thus far, and mornings are cool.
With spring break come and gone, parents are planning their child’s summer adventures. For many, the American tradition of summer camp is on the books. Unfortunately, for many others, camp is out of the question. These parents are dealing with one of the millions of American children who are plagued with anxiety, intense shyness, excessive worry, obsessive thoughts, panic attacks, and homesickness. For these families, convincing their child to spend a few nights away from home is almost impossible.
The benefits of attending a summer camp have been shared by Americans for generations. We have likely experienced this, or know someone who has returned to the same camp each year, and look forward to seeing their camp friends, participating in camp activities and “unplugging” from daily stress. We know this to be true anecdotally, and the mere amount of camps available is evidence to their growing popularity and enjoyment. The question is, why are they so great, and will the aforementioned anxious kids benefit too?
Researchers are interested in this topic as well and have conducted decades of studies showing evidence that summer camps are effective for building relationships, increasing self-esteem, and achieving mastery in outdoor activities. Camps are shown to help individuals who feel “different” feel included and bring together children with common illnesses or traumatic experiences.
When coping isn't enough:
Fight Fear Summer Camp, our camp for youth with OCD and/or other anxiety disorders, strives to build the same cohesiveness for children who may not have otherwise attended camp. The gold standard treatment for Anxiety Disorders is a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Exposure Response Prevention, commonly known as exposure therapy.
The premise of exposure therapy is to help individuals experience the feared stimuli (i.e., social event, being away from home, performing in public, or eating with peers) without avoiding. This teaches the brain that no actual or real harm will come and that the body’s alarm system can turn off.
Attending camp will be exposure enough for many children - an opportunity to feel anxious around other children while supported by licensed therapists. They eventually feel safe and calm, all the while retraining the brain. Children naturally cope. We hope to help build tolerance to those yucky feelings.
Other examples of exposure tasks while at the camp:
Why Attend Fight Fear Summer Camp?
Fight Fear Summer Camp will utilize highly effective cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to teach campers self-soothing skills, confidence building techniques, thought challenging tools and provide social opportunities.
Examples of these include:
Less is more:
Camp is about unplugging and being present with oneself. Attending camp is a vacation for the mind. A place where sleep, meals, and activities are scheduled. Campers can relax from the uncertainty of daily worry, breathe fresh air, and learn to tolerate their own thoughts (and themselves). These basic changes to a camper’s day can reduce overall stress and anxiety considerably. When there are no tv’s, iPads, or phones, campers engage with one another, have fun and laugh. Camp is about fun. And when we laugh and smile, we activate mirror neurons (part of the brain designed to identify what we see and copy) in those around us. This is contagious.
Few things build confidence like challenging oneself. The intensity and degree of the challenge is less important than the act of engaging in a novel situation. Fight Fear Summer Camp, led by therapists, provides daily opportunities for campers to challenge themselves and develop a sense of mastery in an activity. This could be socially asserting oneself to navigating a high ropes course, from playing a sport for the first time to asking a peer to sit with them.
Insight is derived from awareness and feedback. Insight is often the precursor to change. At Fight Fear Summer Camp, we provide ongoing feedback to our campers, regular coaching, group therapy, and individual attention to help campers reach specific goals. Staff are trained to help campers recognize changes in mood, physiology, and negative thinking patterns.
We all experience anxiety and distress. For some of us, it’s too intense and can take over our lives. We created Fight Fear Summer Camp for children who deserve the camp experience but, due to anxiety, may have not thought about attending. We also created this camp for experienced campers who want to be around other teens and peers who share similar fears. There are few better therapeutic interventions than feeling like you fit in!
Anxiety is a normative experience that we share with each other and it becomes problematic when it impacts our day-to-day function or we develop anticipatory worry of its reemergence. Anxiety is the brain’s interpretation of perceived threat in the absence of danger. The physiological changes we experience (e.g., increased heart rate, sweating, racing thoughts, numbness in extremities) when running from a bear are never thought of as an anxious response. They may be initiated by fear but are bloody necessary!
This need changes, however, when the same damaging symptoms arise before a public presentation, or networking opportunity. In these circumstances we are not actually in danger, but our brains get stuck in a loop between our physical symptoms and cognitive appraisals. This emotional reasoning, “If I feel bad it must be because there is reason to be” is commonly experienced by individuals who struggle with anxiety disorders. For example, individuals with social anxiety use their body’s physiology as cues for their social success or failure (e.g., “Sweating, blushing, and stomach knots are ‘proof’ I’m screwing this up!”).
Effective therapies (i.e., CBT, Exposure Response Prevention, Mindfulness, & Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) help individuals shift their relationship with their anxiety by challenging distorted thinking and breaking the anxiety brain-body loop through behavioral techniques. Methods to help individuals cope can sometimes be problematic. When utilizing coping skills, individuals continue to perceive their anxiety symptoms as dangerous and run the risk of temporary relief.
Although immediate symptom reduction can be seductive, it produces continued intolerance for distress - the major contributor to anxiety disorders. Treatment should focus on increasing a person’s tolerance for distressing feeling and separating feelings of anxiety from themselves. The feelings of panic will never be pleasurable, but tips to make them manageable and ultimately less significant do exist.
5 Tips for Shifting Your Relationship with Anxiety
Written by Kevin Ashworth, MA, LPC. Kevin is a licensed therapist and co-founder of NW Anxiety Institute in Portland, Oregon. He specializes in CBT and ERP treatments of anxiety disorders in children and adults.
OCD loves your smartphone.
If an intrusive thought is the seasoned cedar logs on a beautiful camp fire then a compulsion is a plumbed line of gasoline. This combination makes for a raging fire both dependent on each other to burn. No more wood, no more fire. Lots of wood and no additional fuel, fire eventually burns out. This is common analogy used when describing OCD, and part of one’s treatment is to reduce compulsions, essentially choking the gasoline line, and suffocating the fire. OCD is cunning, tricky, and apparently hip. Similar to many baby-boomers, OCD took a little time getting use to the mobile handheld device, understanding its potential, and being efficient in its operation. It’s not only cunning but relentless. Time is always on its side. It has become proficient in the use of search engines, and now the ability to take photos and video. OCD can now force its host to search anything, at any moment, about any concern - turning technology into more of a hinderance than a help.
Has asbestos been safely removed from this current building?
Could this sensation in my leg be a blood clot?
Could I really be a pedophile?
Did I turn off the stove, and unplug the lamps?
Could I have I hit someone while driving?
Video while walking around my car.
The trick OCD plays is convincing its host that the use of the device will ease the distress. Don’t want to worry? Take a quick pic and refer back later. Need evidence you didn’t post that rude comment? Take a quick screenshot? This trap is equivalent to hooking up another gasoline line to the fire. People get stuck reviewing their pictures and videos, and become unable to delete them filling up their devices and limiting their ability to take pictures of loved ones (and their lunch!) instead. Additionally, others fear that their use of their own device will become dangerous and actually have their phones turned off for fear they may accidentally post something inappropriate, or impulsively call and yell at someone. These devices are intended to make our lives easier, not worse.
If you feel comfortable sharing, what are some ways you've used technology to feed compulsions? How has it affected the way you use your devices?