Let Go of Old Patterns...But Keep Your Shoelaces

One of the first things that can happen upon admission to a psychiatric facility is surrendering your belt and shoelaces. This is an important safety norm for people who are severely depressed. But for many this can be inadvertently humiliating and de-humanizing. It's one of the symbols of how impersonal institutional psychological care can be. Psychiatric hospitals are staffed by skilled and kind people, for the most part. But the system—insurance paperwork and other documentation and regulations—make it very difficult to provide personalized care. Unfortunately, instead of personal counseling, the focus tends to be on prescribing medication.

On an individual counseling retreat, you're going to need your shoelaces. We'll be working outdoors as much as possible—walking and hiking, and perhaps in winter even snowshoeing. The retreat experience is intended to connect you to what is supportive and uplifting, like time in nature. We may do some of our counseling sitting on rocks in a mountain stream. We might be walking on a Cape Cod beach, or in a forest, or sitting in front of a fire, or on the dock of a lake. You might even be swimming in that lake between sessions!

This is just one way a counseling retreat aims to bring out the best in you, rather than diagnosing the worst. There are no sterile, fluorescent-lit rooms with locked doors. Instead, there are individual or group yoga classes, counseling indoors and outdoors, meditation, and healthy food, in the inspiring setting of a retreat center or a beautiful location we choose. A retreat is designed so the location is part of the medicine.

Many hospital-based rehabs and programs use the medical model, which sees addiction and mental health challenges as a disorder or disease. There can be some benefit to that framework, but it can stigmatize and discourage as well. It can also miss the opportunity for focusing on positive growth through confronting difficulties. Retreats use a strengths-based model, looking at your inherent strengths, growing them, and building new skills to better manage what ails you.

The personalized counseling retreat develops clarity about what's getting in your way, but then focuses on building the skills of resilience, self-care and wellness. The counseling work partly draws on Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, a method originally developed to reduce relapse rates of depression, but which is a flexible, practical and adaptive way to untangle from many mental and emotional traps. You'll learn Mindful Self-Compassion, and other research-supported approaches that empower you to manage your moods and urges, and better accept past mistakes and current problems. These are all ways you'll build skills so you are better equipped to understand and manage your inner difficulties when they arise.

These skills are applicable across the spectrum of challenges, including anxiety, stress, depression, addiction and relationship conflicts.

You'll also learn the simple but powerful practice of mindfulness. Think of mindfulness as a map and instruction manual for the mind. You'll learn how to let difficult thoughts, urges, memories and emotions come and go, without getting so tangled in them. It's one of the most empowering mental health and wellness methods, strongly supported by over 5,000 research papers.

For many clients, practicing new self-care skills is an important aspect of a customized counseling retreat, and the foundation of living in new ways post-retreat. Sufficient exercise, healthier eating, wise use of electronics, and for some, connecting to a sense of spirituality, are some aspects of a retreat which you'll bring home to continue the progress you make. And grow that progress. The process is geared toward practical tools for you to use in your real life, not just in the supportive retreat environment.

Perhaps the humble shoelace is a good symbol of the self-empowerment focus of a personal counseling retreat. You learn that your inner difficulties are workable, just like when you learned to first tie your shoelaces. Shoes tied tight, we find traction to navigate the ups and downs of life so they don't boil over into a crisis.