Why camping is so good for my deviant brain
When we return from our multi-week camping trips, one of many as part of our family tradition, we spend most of our summers camping. We’re tired, dirty, a little smelly… and happy.
What I’m most looking forward to with my son this summer is camping, camping and more camping.
Not only do we have a fantastic time, but being outside is also hugely beneficial for our bodies and brains.
After a full day outdoors, biking and hiking everywhere, we all sleep so much better. At home and for the first night or two when camping, I can’t fall asleep until between 11pm and 1am. On the third night of camping, I get ready for bed around 9pm and fall asleep at 10am. I am not joking. This comes from a lifelong insomnia turned night owl.
A 2013 study found that after just a week of camping, participants’ brains produced melatonin — a hormone that promotes sleep and physiologically prepares the body for the night — about two hours earlier in the evening.
This certainly corresponds well with my experience.
A later study also found a bi-directional influence of sleep and ADHD on each other, meaning that when one improves, so does the other.
I feel clear in my head
In their book The Self-Driven Child, Strixrud & Johnson described walking in nature as a “cleansing” for the prefrontal cortex, which induces a sense of calm.
The PFC is a key brain structure involved in ADHD, so it’s not surprising that when our PFC works better, our ADHD symptoms improve—but that’s true for everyone.
You certainly don’t have to be neurodiverse to reap the benefits of spending time outdoors in nature!
I see this PFC cleaning as more of a “decluttering” myself. The inside of my brain often feels like a run-down shack full of pots and pans that keep falling off the shelves. They rattle around making a lot of noise and it’s a disorganized mess.
Extended time in nature is like having a professional organizer visit my brain: putting everything neatly where it belongs, putting cute little labels on everything so I can find my thoughts more easily, even disposing of the junk on the way out.
After a few days of camping, this nagging, what should I do, that I forget? the feeling is gone and the constant buzzing in my head has stopped. I’m finally able to be fully in the moment.
Camping allows me to give my son my full attention without distraction—without even making mental lists of things I need to do later.
In order to give our son our full attention, it is necessary to turn off the technology for the entire trip. My self-imposed rule is that I can only use my phone for photos and music. Although I use technology daily for my business and writing, it’s actually very easy, even liberating, to disconnect.
Regular peeling serves to remind me of my priorities. It’s funny how little you actually miss when you stop checking social media. Two years ago we went on a 3 week camping road trip and when I got back my work email was ridiculous but other than that I really hadn’t missed anything important.
People with ADHD are at higher risk for addictions, including to smartphones and other technologies, so it’s especially important for us to monitor our screen time.
Obviously the main reason we go camping is to have fun together. We all enjoy going to the beach, going on hikes and bike rides, and playing card games around the campfire. Exercise in the fresh air and in the sun lifts our spirits. We come home exhausted but refreshed (and dirty).
When we play in the sand, throw frisbees, and go swimming with our son, we have fun together and feel more connected. Camping is a fun family time building sand castles and making memories.
Even if you don’t like camping, you can still get out with your family by going to the local park or playground, or by walking a nearby hiking trail.
(c) Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB
Kocyigit, S., Güzel, HS, Acikel, B. et al. (2021). Comparison of smartphone addiction levels, temperament and character, and parental attitudes of adolescents with and without attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-021-00494-2
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Stixrud, W. & Johnson, N. (2018). The Self-Directed Child: The Science and Feeling of Giving Your Kids More Control Over Their Lives. Penguin Books.
Weiss MD, Craig SG, Davies G et al. (2015). New research on the complex interaction of sleep and ADHD. Current sleep medicine reports 1, 114-121. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40675-015-0018-8
Wright, KP, Jr., McHill, AW, Birks, BR, Griffin, BR, Rusterholz, T., & Chinoy, ED (2013). Integration of the human circadian clock into the natural light-dark cycle. Current Biology: CB, 23(16), 1554-1558. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.039