I enjoyed a great visit with one of our returning campers the other day. This camper had ton of fun at camp, loved his counselors, made a bunch of friends, and was really nervous about coming back to camp for a second summer.
Why? You probably can guess it – our returning camper remembers missing parents and it seemed to dwarf everything else. The family was surprised as every word out about camp was ‘I had SO much fun! There are so many great things to do!’
This is not uncommon at all. It’s actually pretty normal. In fact, I believe it’s built into us from our lives thousands of years ago. Let me explain….
Many, many thousands of years ago, we humans led a pretty precarious existence. There were lots of things in our world that were bigger, faster, stronger, and meaner than us. We had little in the way of natural defensive or offensive weapons – our hands and arms are not very strong compared to a gorilla, our skin not nearly as tough as a rhinos, and our teeth and speed paled in comparison to sabertooth tigers.
The difference – that which kept us alive and thriving when the physical odds were stacked against us – is that thing between your ears.
Our brains allowed us to recognize danger quickly and figure out ways to get out of trouble and fast! This ‘fight or flight’ mechanism in our brain, combined with our ability communicate and coordinate better than any other species, kept us going when we probably should have been a blip in the historical record.
Umm… And this relates to camp how?
Don’t worry – I’m getting there.
Ok, so our brains got really good at recognizing and avoiding danger. But sabertooth tigers and most other major dangers we used to face are no longer issues for us in today’s world.
But, while we’ve made the environment around us safer, our brains have not changed much at all. Our brain still puts a great deal more focus (three times as much) on situations it feels are dangerous or scary over. situations that are perceived as fun.
What this means for us at camp
When a camper misses home – which 99% of campers and staff do at some point in the summer – their brain records it as a threatening experience and weighs it a lot more heavily (300% more!) than all the good stuff.
AND, if a person has not yet come to realize that they have a great deal of control on how they react to things and what they focus on, they can very easily fall into focusing on the negative rather than the positive.
Courage and Gratitude to the Rescue!
This is why courage is so important. Courage is a like a muscle – the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. And, you do need to demonstrate courage when facing those negative emotions.
You’ve got to recognize your feelings and then think, “Okay, does it make sense to be really that concerned about this?” If it’s a sabertooth tiger, then absolutely! But, if it was remembering those 5-10 minutes of missing your parents after reading a note from home?
It’s a lot easier to battle the negative feelings when you combine courage with its best friend, gratitude. When you are remembering a negative part of an experience, you’ll need to balance it with at least three things you are grateful about concerning that same experience.
In the case of camp, when you feel a bit down or nervous about returning, you could think about all those new friends you’ve made, how you’d never get to play shaving cream whiffle ball at home (or something just as whacky and fun), and that a s’more with your fun counselors from Oregon and New Zealand are just better at camp.
So, remember – those nervous feelings are totally natural and totally normal. They are an echo of what allowed our ancestors to keep going each day. BUT, if you start building your gratitude and courage muscles, you can overcome the feelings that are holding you back from enjoying the most out of each day.
PS – One more point on this topic. Many of campers, especially the boys, have a hard time reaching out for help when feeling a bit down at camp. The common thought is ‘It would be too embarrassing to talk about it with my counselor.”
I get that and felt the same way when I was there age.
Luckily for me, I have always been a really bad actor. Good friends recognize things quickly and help me when it’s obvious I need a pep talk. The hard part comes when the kiddo in question is a really good actor for those few moments when a ‘stiff upper lip’ may seem necessary.
Let’s dispel that myth with two questions and two facts. Question #1 for our campers:
“Do you like feeling like a hero?”
I have to imagine your answer is a resounding ‘yes!’ Ok, it may be a, ‘Um, yes – why do you ask? This seems a little off base.’
Either way, yes, you like feeling like a hero! Which leads to the first fact:
So do your counselors.
Question #2: “Is it fun to help another person feel like a hero?” Of course it does! Which then leads to the second fact:
When you open up to your counselors about missing home or some other concern you have at camp, they are so appreciative. Then, when you let them help get you back to those wide-open, holy-moly, “this is amazing stuff” feelings about your day, they are going to feel like a hero.
And, it’ll be due to you showing the courage to share your thoughts and let them help. So, be hero by sharing and help your counselors be a hero by helping you!