Boot camp for the brain got me back on track

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clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist. I was at SHA Well­ness Clinic, in Ali­cante on Spain’s Costa Blanca, for a boot camp for the mind.

Boot camps have typ­i­cally fo­cused on the body. But in the past few years, as men­tal-health is­sues have come to the fore­front of pub­lic aware­ness, the mind has be­come the fo­cus at many re­treat pro­grammes. Medis­pas, for ex­am­ple, have re­cently started of­fer­ing treat­ments that re­late to men­tal health, from im­prov­ing one’s memory to re­duc­ing one’s dis­tress around a trau­matic event. I was here to ad­dress the lat­ter.

Four months ago, on a char­ity bike ride from Basel to Como, I’d fallen and sus­tained frac­tures. Fol­low­ing two weeks in hos­pi­tal and another two weeks on crutches, my body re­cov­ered fully as if noth­ing had hap­pened. How­ever, I felt anx­ious about get­ting back in the sad­dle. Cy­cling is one of my favourite hol­i­day ac­tiv­i­ties, so I was keen to elim­i­nate any neg­a­tive feel­ings around it. Dr Ribeiro, who heads the clinic’s cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment unit, claimed that he could help.

We walked back to his of­fice where he gave me a se­ries of tests on a com­puter. They weren’t dis­sim­i­lar to memory and IQ tests, as­sess­ing ev­ery­thing from at­ten­tion span and con­cen­tra­tion to work­ing memory and one’s abil­ity to learn new things. One test, for in­stance, re­quired mem­o­ris­ing a se­ries of num­bers and click­ing on the touch screen if I saw a re­peat se­ries, while another in­volved work­ing out the next item in a se­quence of shapes.

“In­ter­est­ing,” he said. “You’ve scored be­tween 95 and 100 per cent bet­ter than your peer group in all the tests, bar­ring one. That doesn’t make any sense, as they’re all in­ter­re­lated. You’re ei­ther tired, stressed or dis­tressed, which is why you didn’t do too well on the last,” he ex­plained. “Come,” he beck­oned me Tr­isha con­quers her anx­i­ety, left, with the help of Dr Ribeiro at SHA Well­ness Clinic, above back to the cin­ema room. I sat down on one of the chairs. “Re­move your shoes, please, and put both feet on the ground,” in­structed Dr Ribeiro. “Now cover your right eye with your right hand. Then look at me and re­count the cy­cling ac­ci­dent.”

I did and, to my ut­ter sur­prise, I started cry­ing. I hadn’t ex­pected to at all. “Now, tell me the story again, this time cov­er­ing your left eye with your left hand,” he said. Dr Ribeiro then asked me to re-tell the in­ci­dent, this time with both eyes open. I was still cry­ing, but with less in­ten­sity. He had used a sim­ple form of bi­lat­eral stim­u­la­tion, a psy­chother­apy tech­nique used to de­sen­si­tise or de­crease the emo­tional in­ten­sity around an event.

“You don’t have any trauma around cy­cling. We can go out now and get on a bike and I can as­sure you, you’ll be ab­so­lutely fine,” he con­cluded.

“Oh, OK.” I was con­fused. “What you’re re­ally dis­tressed about is the memory of feel­ing scared on your first night alone in A&E – and af­ter all th­ese years of be­ing in con­trol, dis­cov­er­ing that you’re vul­ner­a­ble and that you can’t con­trol ev­ery­thing.”

He looked at me kindly. I tried to keep it to­gether. “The good thing is, we can teach you tech­niques to help calm your mind,” Dr Ribeiro said as he up­loaded another pro­gramme and once more strapped the head­band around my tem­ples. This time, a sil­ver disco ball ap­peared on the cin­ema screen. “Con­cen­trate on the ball. If you’re re­laxed, it will float. If you’re tense, it will stay where it is.” A few sec­onds later, the ball was float­ing and stayed mid-air for another 15 min­utes. “Mind­ful­ness is a great way to boost your beta waves and helps in­crease men­tal clar­ity. You have the sec­ond high­est float time score on the pro­gramme, so you ob­vi­ously have a nat­u­ral abil­ity to re­lax. When you’re stressed or dis­tressed, you know how to calm your mind. Use that strength.”

I had just come back from a stress­man­age­ment ses­sion fol­lowed by a med­i­ta­tion class where I had to stare at a can­dle flame for a full hour, but Dr Ribeiro didn’t need to know that.

Tak­ing ad­van­tage of my Zen state, I was now ready to tackle the streets of Al­bir, where the clinic is lo­cated. I hopped on a bike and ped­alled up and down the hilly street stud­ded with vil­las past Al­tea Bay and the Par­que Nat­u­ral de la Serra Ge­lada. I clocked a to­tal of five miles, a far cry from the 100-mile-a-day rides I was used to. But it was a start. Like Planet Earth’s po­lar bear cubs, I was find­ing my feet.

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