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December 21, 2015

By Maureen Riley, MPH, MA

maureen_riley_450x566Thanksgiving has passed and the holiday season is upon us. However, for students in a therapeutic wilderness program like Pacific Quest, gratitude is always in season. Feelings of gratitude for one’s family members, life opportunities and material possessions, emerge quickly for students who are away from home for an extended period in a wilderness setting. Many of us can relate to the proverb “absence makes the heart grow fonder.”  For students in a therapeutic wilderness program, being away from home, family and many modern conveniences we all take for granted can actually be part of an intensely transformative experience.

The absence of life’s luxuries that many teens take for granted can be shocking at first.  Many adolescents report using their cell phones, Netflix and video games as coping mechanisms to relieve stress and anxiety.  All too often, parents and other loved ones report being shut out of their child’s world that seems to get smaller and smaller as he/she escapes into a world beyond their parent’s grasp.

In the early stages of the wilderness experience, students are commonly pondering several questions. These include:

  • How can I survive without my family and friends?
  • How can I survive without electronics?
  • How can I survive without my phone?
  • How can I survive without my comfort foods?
  • How can I survive without my clothes, jewelry, and make up?

Commonly, newly arrived students at Pacific Quest report needing these things as they cannot remember a time when they did not rely heavily on these things to abate stress and anxiety. Throughout a young person’s treatment at Pacific Quest, a gentle shift gradually takes place.  The void created by a separation from these ordinary life conveniences and comforts is filled with time connecting to nature, peers, and tapping in to their own inner experience and emotions.

At the beginning of treatment, the silence can be deafening.  Ironically, most of us have grown accustomed to our senses being constantly bombarded by the stimulation of sights and sounds of the modern world.  Paradoxically, many of our teens view this bombardment of their senses as a comfort they have come to rely on.  As students gradually settle into the sights and sounds of the garden, the need for extraneous stimulation gradually fades.

A natural by-product of this process is that many students come to the realization that they took much for granted before their experience in a wilderness setting.  Often times, adolescents who have shut out their parents and other loved ones come to the realization that they took their families and the things provided to them for granted.  In many teens, this fosters feelings of entitlement.  Additionally, the line between “needs and wants” becomes blurred.

The emotion of gratitude is born from the realization and subsequent expression of appreciation for what one has. This is the antidote to the consumer-driven emphasis on the desire to accumulate more things.  At Pacific Quest, students experience an intentional process that emphasizes delineation between needs and wants.  This process, for many, leads to a natural cultivation of gratitude for the people and things in their lives.

Gratitude is a concept that has received a great deal of attention as the trend towards positive psychology has become mainstream.  Credible research on the connections between gratitude, happiness and well-being tell us that gratefulness can be cultivated and grown.  A deliberate and intentional practice of looking for things to be grateful for can result in increased feelings of gratitude that lead to elevated feelings of optimism and well-being.  At Pacific Quest, the growth of gratitude co-occurs in the same way that the gardens are cultivated and cared for.  The results are a bounty of appreciation for people and things once taken for granted.

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