This summer I took my 12 and 9 year old boys on a river rafting trip in Cataract Canyon, camping on the river for three nights, gently motoring downstream for four days, with one of those days going through some of the famed white water rapids of the Colorado River (luckily or unluckily, the rapids were far tamer than usual due to the drought).
I was blown away by the effect it had on our nervous systems. The first night camping, I woke at 3am to a bright full moon and had a panic attack. There I was, on a sliver of river beach, surrounded by the canyon walls on both sides, with absolutely no access to communication and hours away from help, responsible for my two little boys. I knew I was safe, that I had guides with a sat phone, and could potentially be motor-boated out (though only at daybreak!), but surely this was the height of irresponsibility? I started imagining the worst, and was panicked by my complete disconnection. It was a frightening and unfamiliar feeling in our hyper-connected world…
I calmed myself down through breathing and meditation, and eventually even managed to fall back asleep. It was my first panic attack in years, and how strange that it had been brought on in such a beautiful and peaceful place… It made me realise what a connection junkie I am, and how warped my sense of “reality” and “safety” had become.
With each night it got easier, despite the fact that we were going farther into the canyon and further away from help. By the third night, I was sleeping soundly through the night, and did not want to leave the absolute peace I had found. And my boys, who are usually glued to their smartphones, blinkered to anything going on outside their virtual world (in the present maybe, but a whole different present than the one surrounding them) actually started to notice things about the landscape, the wildlife, the temperature.
The boys who tended to read only under duress, read entire books as we drifted down the river, since there was nothing more exciting to do. My eldest, who is always overstimulated and fights going to bed every night, actually asked to go to bed because he was tired, and much earlier than usual. Because his nervous system was not amped up by phones, games, and the constant connection of social media. I realised something had radically shifted when I woke up on the last morning to see them peacefully teaming up to build a sandcastle on the river banks. That was a first, ever…
We all felt a peace unlike any we had felt in a long time. I was so happy not to have to deal with the myriad messages that I knew would be waiting, each one loaded with its own version of junk – emotional junk which would send me into a tailspin of unwelcome thoughts and feelings, administrative and work junk I would have to deal with, boring and burdensome junk that required effort.
The peace from taking a break from all that was priceless… it felt almost as if I had taken a break from myself – the neurotic, overstimulated, hyperactive part of myself –to spend time with a better version of myself — the peaceful, still me which was so much wiser and more pleasant to be with.
Dinner back at the hotel restaurant was overwhelming. The noise, the people. My boys said they wanted to go back to the room, because there were too many people and too much noise, and I felt the same way. Just days before we had been enjoying the same dinners, but neither the noise, nor the people had bothered us. Our nervous systems had been reset, and now the contrast was overwhelming.
We have to regularly reset our nervous system by allowing it to rest, away from the continual external stimuli, technological and social connections. It is essential to our emotional, mental and physical wellbeing.
Only by allowing ourselves a full reset on a regular basis can we become aware of the madness that we live in, and the effect that it has on our nervous systems… It reminds me of the frog in cold water, slowly being boiled alive as the water heats up, because it has unknowingly adjusted to the temperature. We have adjusted to unhealthy levels of stress, stimulation, and even possibly connection, and it is essential that we regularly switch off and give our nervous systems a break.
Chronic overstimulation can lead to exhaustion, anxiety, insomnia and depression, through its negative effect on our hormones, neurotransmitters, and gut.
A reset allows us to detach from the more neurotic parts of ourselves, from the external feedback loops we are addicted to and which help us to feel alive, important, vibrant and loved. A reset helps us to connect with our deeper, wiser, more still selves, the selves that thrive independent of any external feedback or external connections.
If we were ninjas of the mind, practicing mindfulness on a daily basis, and bringing that practice into our daily lives, maybe we would not lose ourselves in the midst of all the external stimuli and remain attached to ourselves. But let’s face it, most of us aren’t there yet, and so imposing some physical detachment in the form of a regular (at least yearly, but ideally monthly) retreat, allows us to mentally and emotionally detach from external stimuli and attach to ourselves instead.