Mindfulness — When we sink into our present-moment experience as opposed to allowing our minds to rush off into the past or future, we are more available to be alive. We are truly living. Nine hours a day in front of a screen speeds up time through distraction and slowly numbs our senses. On a physiological level, emotions only last 30 seconds to 3 minutes; it is the story we add to them that can stretch them out for a lifetime. When we allow ourselves to feel our feelings and cope with them, they dissipate. But when we continually distract ourselves from our feelings with devices or other avoidance strategies, they keep coming back more forcefully and seem all the more consuming and overwhelming.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Lenderking-Brill, MA, LPCC is a Clinical Therapist who works with adolescent boys at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, a Durango-based outdoor therapeutic program that focuses on treatment for the whole family. Nick has a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and is passionate about understanding the ways in which screen overuse affects the developing brain, while also specializing in addiction counseling, attachment issues, trauma-informed therapy, depression and anxiety. He uses the humanistic approach to therapy, and before Open Sky, Nick worked at various counseling agencies, performed individual therapy helping those who suffer from addiction, and organized and lead backpacking trips for teenagers.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your backstory?
It has been an interesting journey leading to where I am today, living in Durango, Colorado and working as a wilderness therapist. I grew up in Boston, but some of my favorite memories are backpacking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This was actually one of the main ways I was able to cope with my parents’ divorce when I was 10 years old. I see these experiences as the beginning of my own personal “wilderness therapy.”
In high school, I struggled with substances and opposition, similar to what some of the students I work with today are going through. At the time, a career as a therapist was not on my radar at all. But a series of events and experiences changed that: leading a cabin of teenage boys at an outdoor summer camp, working and volunteering in Brazil during college, teaching in Thailand, thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, and going on a meditation retreat. I did a lot of personal work healing some wounds from childhood with my own family and realized I wanted to help others do the same. At some point, it just clicked that I wanted to work with people in a helping profession; to be in service to others in an emotional capacity. Becoming a therapist suddenly became clear and obvious.
I googled “family therapy nature meditation” and discovered wilderness therapy. The rest is history, as they say! I earned a Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling with a focus on wilderness therapy from Naropa University and have since worked for Open Sky Wilderness Therapy as a family therapist and now with a team of adolescent boys.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Believe it or not, it was something that happened just two days ago. I was leaving the field after therapy sessions to do calls and finish up on some paperwork. As I’m walking away, the boys call out to me and ask if I’d play hacky sack with them. I almost said, no, I don’t have time. But I actually took a moment to pause and think about it. I thought, how could I say no to this?
I reflected on this afterward and remembered how I was once a 15-year-old, in total oppositional defiance to my own parents, not going to school, using substances…and playing a ton of hacky sack. I spent hours with my friends playing hacky sack when I was their age! It’s still a passion of mine and I carry one with me almost everywhere I go.
This moment was poignant for me, reminding me that this is why I am a wilderness therapist. I’m helping these kids who are just like me and helping myself in the process. These boys connected me to one of my own sources of joy. It was such a full-circle moment. The lightbulb lit up and I realized, wow, how amazing to be here doing this kind of work.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
I’m excited about a book I’m writing. It’s basically a book on “how not to mess up your kids.” I’m always gathering information, doing research, and drawing from personal experience to incorporate into it. My passion is to support the next generation being in healthy connection to each other, becoming well adjusted, developing strong values, and contributing to society. And the best way to support young people in doing this is to educate and equip their parents, which I hope to accomplish with this book!
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Between work and personal life, the average adult spends nearly 11 hours looking at a screen per day. How does our increasing screen time affect our mental, physical, and emotional health?
For many of us, it takes great effort to form healthy relationships with our devices. It’s no wonder we are so drawn to our screens. Device manufacturers customize their products to appeal to the human brain. Yet, the neurological effects can be costly. For the young and malleable mind, screen time builds neural connections that support technological aptitude. This is certainly desirable in today’s technology-driven society, but the flipside is that these young brains lose the neural connections that support the development of social skills. Kids learn how to become wizards on devices, but they lose the ability to have meaningful in-person conversations. This can lead to loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
On a neurological level, we love technology because it gives our brains small hits of dopamine. Every time we get a “like” on Facebook, a “ding” of a text message, or finish a level on a video game, our brain signals to us that this activity is pleasurable. Excessive screen use increases cortisol levels, which is the hormone triggered by stress. This sends us into hyper-aroused states that suppress the brain’s frontal lobe, which regulates our moods. When our frontal lobes are chronically suppressed, we begin to lose the ability to emotionally regulate and become more likely to engage in destructive behaviors. Add loneliness to the mix and you have someone who simply wants love but doesn’t know how to cope when they don’t get it.
The negative effects on the body are more obvious. Screen time precludes physical exercise; the two negate each other. Eleven hours in front of a screen does not support physical health — it actively discourages it.
Can you share your top five ways people can improve mental wellness and create a healthy relationship with technology?
- Time outdoors
Richard Louv reminds us that time spent outdoors stimulates our imaginations and encourages a sense of fascination, which allows our brains to rest and rejuvenate. On the other hand, the apps found on phones can discourage our imaginations with their predetermined layouts and functions. In my role at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy, I’ve seen again and again how time spent outdoors encourages young people to use their creativity to occupy their time.
Time spent outdoors can also offer respite for our nervous systems, counteracting the hyperarousal caused by screen overuse. When our basic physical needs are already cared for, nature can provide a peaceful sanctuary for our brains, whereas in a city we have to reckon with loud noises, flashing lights, and fast cars.
Because nature moves at a slower pace than the city, it offers us opportunities to pause, breathe, and emotionally regulate. Intentional breathing is one of the many ways we teach students at Open Sky to regulate their emotions. The other coping skills we teach involve literally coming to our senses by naming the qualities of our present sensory experiences. These skills are most effective in nature when our nervous systems are relaxed enough to notice our present experiences rather than rushing forward to solve the next mental problem.
Time in nature can also build self-confidence in children. Survival in the wilderness rebuilds the physical resiliency that we have sacrificed to the ease and convenience of our phones. This restoration of physical resiliency spurs emotional resiliency as well. When we succeed in caring for ourselves, our self-esteem heightens. A device discourages us from coping with difficulty, because it seems to have all the solutions to our problems. As convenient as this is, it unfortunately does not prepare us for reality.
When we sink into our present-moment experience as opposed to allowing our minds to rush off into the past or future, we are more available to be alive. We are truly living. Nine hours a day in front of a screen speeds up time through distraction and slowly numbs our senses. On a physiological level, emotions only last 30 seconds to 3 minutes; it is the story we add to them that can stretch them out for a lifetime. When we allow ourselves to feel our feelings and cope with them, they dissipate. But when we continually distract ourselves from our feelings with devices or other avoidance strategies, they keep coming back more forcefully and seem all the more consuming and overwhelming.
We need to be in a relationship with other beings in order to heal. Nature is really good for allowing our nervous systems to rest and to experience a wide breadth of the emotional experience. Yet it cannot attune to our emotionality or offer emotional reciprocity the way another human can.
We need these in-person, face-to-face relationships with friends, family, peers, and co-workers. Through these relationships, we’re building empathy with each other. If we allow our devices to continually interject into our relationship, whether sitting at the dinner table with family or spending time with friends, we may be depriving ourselves of growing from the genuine experience of conflict and “rupture and repair”. Having a phone mediate or moderate an experience can take away from the depth that you can get from an in-person relationship.
If we can sit in silence, awkwardness or discomfort with each other, and not reach for our phones, we’ll be more creative and fulfilled in our relationships. Boredom breeds creativity. It allows us to be influenced by an unstimulated mind.
Let us also shift our focus back towards local community. See what happens when you develop relationships with your neighbors, volunteer at a local organization, or spend the afternoon picking up trash as you hike on a local trail.
I’m not anti-expansion and globalization. I think it’s great how connected we are to each other across the world with technology. I just think that Industrialization and living in harmony with nature are not compatible without extra work. The problem is, we haven’t done the extra work. In modern society, we have moved away from nature, and thus away from our nature as humans. It is only in the most recent chapter of human history that we have moved indoors. Modernity is convenient, and even welcomed, but let us not allow it to numb us. Hanging out with our families in nature, supporting local businesses, and connecting with our community taps into our roots and makes us more human, more alive.
5. Personal insight and therapy
Personal insight, therapy and doing work on yourself is another way to have a healthier relationship with technology. Ask yourself: Do I have a healthy relationship with my phone? Do I reach for my devices in inopportune moments, or in times of boredom? Am I happy using a computer during my work hours and watching television during my leisure hours?
If you are a current or a future parent, increase your awareness around your device use, and model the behaviors you would like to see with your children. Exercise the same constraint with your devices that you desire from them. It’s not immoral to use a phone. In fact, studies have shown that if parents co-interact with educational technology and their child, and then repeat the teachings through daily interactions, this practice can have a positive effect on children’s learning. And yet, we so quickly become smitten with the pleasure our phones bring us that we forget to put work into forming healthy relationships with them.
If we are on our devices 11 hours a day, it is my strong belief that we’re trying to fill some sort of void in our lives or meet our basic needs, such as love and belonging. We need to deal with the discomfort in ourselves and listen to our own emotional experience as much as we listen to the emotional experiences of others.
I think it’s important to note that if we do all five of those things, a healthy relationship with technology will naturally follow because our needs will be met. We’ll no longer need phones to fill the void that we fill with technology.
Between social media distractions, messaging apps, and the fact that Americans receive 45.9 push notifications each day, Americans check their phones 80 times per day. How can people, especially younger generations, create a healthier relationship with social media?
This might sound morbid but I’m honestly not sure that young minds can create healthy relationships with social media on their own. I say that because social media is designed to keep teenagers using it constantly. I’m not anti-social media, but I don’t think it’s particularly helpful for a developing mind. I think teenagers need to focus more on in-person relationships, which is incredibly challenging when it’s so easy to interact online.
They have an uphill battle, and social media isn’t going anywhere. Teenagers are not going to make the choice on their own to “have a healthy relationship with social media.” It is not a priority of theirs. It is up to parents to create and encourage meaningful social interactions for their kids, so that the need for love and belonging is met without a screen.
And for adults, the answer is…use it less! Of course, this sounds simple, but it is not easy. Again, the key lies in finding other ways to meet your basic needs. So, put controls on your Facebook if you need to, such as removing the app from your phone and only using it on your web browser on your home computer. Use email or text instead of Snapchat and Instagram to connect with your friends. Use social media simply as a means to meet up in person and create connections that have more sustained meaning, rather than to pass the time in line at the grocery store. Make an effort to spend more time in person with people you care about.
80% of smartphone users check their phones before they brush their teeth in the morning. What effect does starting the day this way have on people? Is there a better morning routine you suggest?
Starting the day this way programs the brain to addict itself to your phone. It breeds dependence. It ties the habit of phone-checking to your morning routine, which develops a neurological need to continue checking the phone throughout the day.
The way to break a habit is to detach it from other habits. The best thing I did to break this habit in my own life was to go to the store, buy one of those cheap, old alarm clocks, and charge my phone in a different room overnight. I only check my phone once I’ve gotten ready and have my coffee in hand.
Give yourself 30 minutes before checking your phone. If you need to, wake up sooner. Notice how anxiety-provoking checking your phone can be. Do yoga or meditation instead. Take a walk. Cook some eggs. Say hello to your partner or kids. Open a window and breathe.
Can you please give us your favorite life lesson quote?
“Feeling good isn’t the point.” I don’t even know who said this, but I read it on one of those daily inspiration calendars when I was 20 and it rocked my world. I was floored. I always thought feeling good is the point and it took me years to accept that it isn’t. Since, I have been so much more content and satisfied. I stopped chasing highs and learned how to suffer well. Suffering is a given in life, but if we suffer well, we will be ultimately happy! It’s all about acceptance and rolling with the punches of pain, sitting in discomfort, and feeling the spectrum of emotions. Understanding this has been completely liberating and freeing. I don’t need to be a slave to my emotions.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
The number one affliction in our country is loneliness. Despite technology and social media, people are separated, isolated, and lonely. And they live shorter lives because of it. Human connection brings happiness, physical health, and overall wellness. So, I’d start a movement to reconnect Americans to their local communities. A movement to promote local business, local agriculture, and local outdoor recreation. A movement to create community gathering spaces, get people out of their houses and off of their TVs. To actually spend time together, talking and understanding one another. I truly believe this would bring about so much compassion and dissolve the political divide in our country. It would make people happier.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
I find this question to be hilarious given the topic we’ve been discussing! You’re asking the wrong guy…I actually gave up social media many years ago for many of the reasons that I’ve mentioned. But please do follow Open Sky Wilderness Therapy to learn about this amazing field and keep up with what my colleagues and I are working on! You can find them on Facebook, Instagram (@Open_Sky_Wilderness), Twitter (@OpenSkyWild), LinkedIn, and YouTube.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!