Mindfulness Retreats May Actually Have Longterm Benefits

Can you re-pattern your thinking in just a few days?

I have a terrible habit of scrolling through an Instagram full of affirmations for self-esteem, tips to nurture my inner child, somatic exercises to purge trauma, and methods to align with my higher self… and doing essentially none of them. It’s not that I’m averse to these practices — I know from past experience how impactful mindfulness can be when I commit to it every day — but my issue with “slow and steady” is both the slow part and the steady part.

Candidly, I’ve been grappling with a big identity transformation the last couple of years: leaving a full-time editor job that held a lot of my self-worth, building my own business, getting engaged and married, and reentering the “post-COVID” world as a raw new person. I’ve had to show up at a whole new level. I recently reached a breaking point when some unexpected dramas around the wedding hit me harder than I wanted them to. It was obvious that many of my old reflexes — retreating, ruminating, catastrophizing — were overdue for molting.

“We have a lifetime of doing things one way, and the brain is so much more plastic [aka moldable] when we are children,” explains Nicole Virtue, a life coach and breathwork facilitator who worked with me through some of those aforementioned big decisions. “It does take consistent practice as adults to really change our wiring. This explains how we may logically know something, but the behavior doesn’t really change.” Sigh, too familiar.

I asked, fully aware of how lazy this sounded, is it possible to find something a little more powerful; some kind of mentality “makeover” in just a few days? It turns out the mental health field has been asking the same thing. “The short answer is yes, there is evidence that retreats and other short-term interventions can affect the brain, and some can produce lasting effects,” says Diana Saville, co-founder and COO of brain science non-profit BrainMind whom I met over an industry dinner. “Specific short-term interventions that have been demonstrated to induce neuroplastic changes in the brain include body-mind training, mindfulness meditation, meditation-based neurofeedback, high-dose psilocybin, and MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.” In fact, soon-to-be-published research at Stanford Healthcare Innovation Lab showed that after a nine-day retreat during which participants questioned stressful thoughts in the method of Byron Katie (the Oprah-approved author who created a famed system of self-inquiry called “The Work”), 80% recovered from clinical depression and the effect lasted over 14 months. But, Saville notes, quality and structure of any program will make or break it.

With this new intel in mind and in keeping with my commitment-light tendencies, I was more than happy to see an invitation in my inbox from The Well, New York’s beloved wellness center, to a four-day Recharge & Reconnect Retreat led by coach Manjit Devgun at Four Seasons Anguilla. The itinerary included palm reading, journaling, yoga, breathwork, tapping, qi gong, sound healing, and (most interesting to me) self-hypnosis. Also headlining the workshop was bestselling author and founder of Girls Who Code and Moms First, Reshma Saujani. Between the talent at the helm and the idyllic locale, this was an easy yes — surely, someone there could help me unearth some new levels of growth and self-confidence. And, if not, maybe a dip in the ocean would help wash away some old versions of myself. I cleared my schedule and traveled down to Anguilla a couple of weeks later.

On the first day, I arrived at the peaceful tropical property by boat and later met Devgun in one of the Four Season’s private residences. We kicked things off with a palm reading and self-hypnosis session. Self-hypnosis, she explained, is a term she uses for a sort of guided meditation. “We are almost always in this high beta brain wave state — this fight or flight state that’s perpetuated by the phone, alarms, constant dings, and our always-on work culture,” she said as I rested on the couch. “It’s incredible that technology allows us to be in touch, but then there’s never that time or space for the brain waves to slow down and reach that the part of us that is creative and problem-solving, and that holds the longest and deepest memories. Science is proving that when you’re in that alpha or, ideally, theta brain wave state and you use your imagination to mentally rehearse something, the brain will store it in the subconscious mind.”

This also explains why it’s been so hard to me to readjust my old thinking. I’ve been an over-thinker— getting in my own way with made-up worries and hyper-vigilance — for as far back as my memories go. A defense mechanism of being in a very smart, argumentative family and placed on an intimidatingly advanced school track? Most likely. But the tricks that got me through it then are causing corrosive anxiety now. Like so many of us, I’m rarely out of the beta brain wave state and when I am, like when I’m close to sleeping, I’m not paying very close attention to what I’m feeding my brain via my screens or my thoughts.

After starting with breathwork, with my eyes closed, Devgun guided me to picture my body relaxing from bottom to top, counting down each of my vertebrae. My thoughts became calmer, slower, and less task-oriented. She asked me to bring up a memory from early childhood that held some distress, whatever came to mind first and then guided me to come up with a completely different ending in my mind. It could even be fantastical — just some way to begin rewriting and rewiring this narrative that was clearly still kicking around in my psyche. (Note: If you pursue similar work, always talk to your coach about their trauma training.)

I didn’t feel “hypnotized” per se or not in control of my own thoughts, but I did feel relaxed and open, and my train of thought was less scrutinizing. What I’ll share about the specific memory I chose is that I, like so many women, tend to make myself the responsible party for nearly everything, often when that designation is not logical. I was thinking of a bad accident I saw when I was about eight years old. Obviously, there’s nothing I could have done to have caused it, but when you’re that age, your imagination can make up reasons. What I wouldn’t have given at the time to have had my favorite superheroes show up and fix everything. So now, 30 years later, I gave myself that ending instead. The opportunity to take some of those old ruminations off of my mind’s coulda-woulda-shoulda list is more than helpful, experts know that critical for the health of women to deliberately free up their mental load.

We are in an era when women take on way too much as primary caregivers, under-compensated earners, and people fighting for their bodily autonomy. The self-care and “new age” movement isn’t just about putting crystals and pretty candles around a bath, it took off because we are at an edge. “Burnout is the most important thing we need to be talking about as women,” says Saujani when we sit down together later in the weekend — this is the underlying subject behind her newest venture, Moms First. “And it’s radically different than the current thought in corporate feminism, which is: ‘How do you stay in the workforce? How do you get the corner office? How do you do everything to excel?’ But if it was true that all our hustle action paid off, women would run the world already. And we don’t. We have to really unteach this because it’s not working and people are burning out.” When she says this, it feels so deeply true in my body.

Through the remainder of the weekend, my goal was to stay out of my alert, active beta brain wave state as much as possible. We did mindful movement, sound baths, tapping, meditation, and journaling. During one morning breathwork and yoga session on the patio of the Four Seasons spa, a perfect half-circle rainbow appeared over the ocean right in front of the class. I wondered how often I miss rainbows — literal or figurative — because I’m looking at my phone or future tripping on everything I’m supposed to do.

Granted, this long weekend was only possible because I didn’t have anything to take care of other than myself. A true privilege. The real test is what this looks like at home in New York City with my real-life obligations to answer to and my coping habits that come with. What I took home wasn’t a major transformation or a newly devoted habit; it was more like seeing the light of what’s possible. Say, a day when a meeting goes wrong or I don’t get to my entire to-do list, and instead of spiraling long past my bedtime, I actually let myself go to my dinner date and be present for each joyful minute of it. There are people in the world who do this. I can be one of those people. The short period of time proved that access to my relaxation is not as far off as it seems.

Don’t get me wrong, I know mindfulness will always be a long game and any program (even those that use clinical psychedelics) requires integration into a person’s regular life after the fact. But noticeable leaps forward are motivating. I downloaded Devgun’s app, Manjit, which holds a library of meditations similar to the self-hypnosis work and I use it when I recognize that I’m in a spiral. I also started to get way more discerning about what info I consume before bed and right when I wake up. Even though I still find myself on my phone, I don’t let myself ingest negative images or messages, and I’m surprised at how strict I am about it. Finally, I know my baseline stress level and mental busyness has been much lower over the last month and a half — during a time of year that is usually quite chaotic. Basically, I’ve been hustling myself less.

“Connecting your childhood to your adult patterns is a big deal and can give you a burst of excitement and even some short-term behavioral changes,” says Virtue when I described my retreat experience. “And we can’t brush our teeth once a year and expect them to stay healthy and clean. Long-term change involves a combination of this awareness plus nervous system regulation and pattern interruption. So, if you put in work to make that pattern interruption more habitual, you can wake up five years later thinking ‘whoa, I don’t do that thing anymore!’ Anything that puts you one step closer to that is worth celebrating.”

If you’re interested in exploring a mentality makeover of your own, ahead, five different mind-resetting retreats worth checking out for 2023:

Re-Balance Retreat: April 26 – 30, 2023

Where: Santarena Hotel in Las Catalinas, Costa Rica

Escape to a warm beach town to spend the better part of a week doing an intention ceremony, yoga, hypnobreathwork, hiking, sound-bathing, journaling, meditating, and more with the guidance of multiple practitioners. The retreat is intended to help you to reduce overwhelm, overstimulation, and anxiety.

Aether Spring Retreat: March 31-Apr 4, 2023

Where: Juniper Preserve in Bend, Oregon

Each season, this beloved wellness destination in the Pacific Northwest organizes a three- or four-night retreat to reset for the season ahead. Activities include delicious meals and fitness classes, but much of the time is devoted to bodywork, meditation, creative activities, and neuroplasticity exercises.

Wellness Warrior 4-Day Retreat

Where: Stanly Ranch, Auberge Resorts Collection in Napa Valley, CA

A customized, anytime-you-want retreat that can include targeted treatments for sleep, hydration, mindfulness, as well as private yoga and meditation and even bike rides around the beautiful valley scenery. Consider adding relaxation and restoration therapies offered at Halehouse, the on-site spa at this buzzy, newly opened property.

Mind Your Brain One-Day Wellness Program

Where: Six Senses in Ibiza, Spain

Why not go all-in for a one-day mindset reset? While you wouldn’t fly to Ibiza just for one day, consider incorporating this intensive one-day program in your itinerary if you plan a longer trip to the island (believe it or not, Ibiza is becoming a wellness hot spot!). The itinerary includes yoga, breathing, a Cellgym altitude training treatment, massage, and more to help clear brain fog, reduce stress, and interrupt bad habits.