Turns out we’re not just craving adventure – we want head space and healing, too. From Ireland to Ibiza and Barsham to Bali, Anna Hart finds the place for your ‘emotional detox’
Fifteen years ago, it would have been a brave banker, teacher or journalist who admitted they were heading off for a WildFitness boot camp in Scotland, or a week of vinyasa yoga in Ibiza. We are British, and like to bang on about having a stiff upper lip, a lip inclined to slip into a sneer at anything that smacks of quackery, gimmickry or self-indulgence. But today it is entirely run-of-the-mill to dedicate our holiday time to physical wellbeing. What we are less comfortable with, however, is announcing that we are off on holiday to work on our emotions.
This is about to change. The biggest growth within the robust “wellness travel” sector is in retreats catering specifically to mental wellbeing, reducing stress and healing emotional trauma. Caroline Sylger Jones, founder of Queen Of Retreats (queenofretreats. com) has observed this rise. “The world needs retreating now more than ever,” she says. “We are right in the middle of a mental health pandemic, and as a consequence, we have seen a huge rise in retreats of a very high calibre that cater explicitly to psychological wellbeing, stress, emotional trauma and mental health in general.”
Every year, one in every five travel pounds is spent on a cleanse, yoga retreat, fitness boot camp or other healthy holidays. And if a decade ago such options proliferated, primarily ministering to our physical bodies, today we are seeing the emergence of so-called “emotional detoxes” in retreat centres from Bali to Somerset and San Diego to Switzerland. The Covid crisis has brought the most radical shake-up of routines, priorities, social structures and life-styles since the Second World War, and what we expect from a wellness-oriented break has changed forever. Modern-day wellness devotees are demanding a much greater emphasis on emotional restoration and psychological fitness – and, as the pandemic continues to disrupt our lives, this sort of trip will feel less like a luxury, and more of a necessity.
Chris Connors is a wellbeing coach and mentor, and founder of the guided meditation app OPO (opo.world). “We are in an unprecedented time where uncertainty and anxiety are testing our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health on all levels,” he says. “But we also have unprecedented access to knowledge, understanding and practices that can restore our well-being, no matter what is thrown at us. ‘Wellbeing’ is no longer a passive, pampering fix-me-up, it’s an active choice to balance our perspective, build resilience, work on our self-awareness, regulate our emotions and support our physical strength.”
For better or worse, I am an early adopter and dedicated dabbler in most wellbeing trends. And although I still have a lot of unopened spirulina powder in my kitchen, I am a much more faithful devotee of transformational retreats. I’ve seen, and felt, lives change in the course of a week, with the right sort of expert attention.
Five years ago, when my ex-husband Sean and I were slowly and painfully parting ways, we both attended the Bridge, a grief processing and personal-awareness immersive course run by Donna Lancaster, who now runs an “online gym for the soul”, a six-month course called Deepening Into Life (deepeningintolife.com). “If you don’t share your story, you show your story,” is how Donna describes the value of grief-processing practices and retreats. “Honest sharing in a safe environment leads to healing.” Yet “honest sharing” about our past traumas isn’t as commonplace as it sounds. Even with the best support network in the world (and I have one), there are some things we are just too socially attuned about to say aloud to friends and family.
Sean is a no-nonsense, bearded Shetlander who insisted on pronouncing the word “retreat” like an alarmed army commander, “retreaaaat! retreaaaat!”. But he returned from that week announcing he was transformed, ready to work on personal issues that irrevocably harmed our marriage – and ready to let me go. Sean and I are divorced and have a wonderful friendship today, which is one of my proudest achievements, and I completely credit Donna Lancaster with this. An emotional detox or transformational retreat does not come cheap, but neither does a bitter divorce. And I use the communication and self-awareness skills she taught me every single day.
In the five years since I attended the Bridge, I have been curious about other retreats that explicitly cater to our psychological wellbeing. Lancaster’s previous experience was as a trainer for the Hoffman Process (hoffmaninstitute. co.uk), a seven-day residential retreat which works on the basis that an intense, immersive week is infinitely more effective and less time-consuming than years of traditional weekly therapy sessions. Hoffman alumni include the singer Katy Perry, the DJ Goldie and the psychologist Oliver James.
At any emotional detox, some guests arrive with specific traumas in mind: a painful divorce, redundancy, bereavement or some other transition. Others feel that issues like burnout, stress and anxiety are impacting their professional and personal lives. Some feel “stuck” in destructive patterns, behaviours and habits, and they sense that their emotions are having a knock-on effect on their physical health, such as weight gain or digestive issues. We all have one thing in common: we are honest enough to accept that we need some help and support in order to live happier lives. Some of us feel desperate, some of us are impatient, some are simply curious. But we are all honest enough to admit that we need something more from our next holiday than a suntan and a hangover.
Right before the pandemic, I spent a week at the Place Retreat in Bali (theplaceretreats.com), run by the renowned psychotherapist Jean-Claude Chalmet. “Having therapy is not selfish or weak, it’s a sign of bravery and self-awareness that should be celebrated,” he says. “In good therapy, you learn how to recognise your emotions and how to deal with them in a conscious and appropriate way. Unfortunately, many of us – particularly men and boys – are still being told that discussing feelings indicates some sort of weakness.”
Having therapy is not selfish or weak, it’s a sign of bravery and self-awareness.
— Jean-Claude Chalmet
Chalmet treats high-flying clients all around the globe and has built successful psychotherapy practices in both Greece and London, but he is particularly passionate about the sort of full-immersion and nurturing psychotherapy he can offer at a residential retreat – especially for men who struggle with the stigma attached to seeking help for mental health issues. “Of course not all men need therapy. There are men who are emotionally developed, men who have an interest in growing emotionally by themselves, who become emotionally intuitive by observing and living life consciously or by reading self-help books,” says Chalmet. “That said, talking to a professional can uncover any blind spots. And if we had any issues simmering, it’s likely that the stress of this year has brought them to the boil. I tell my clients to look on therapy as being like a gym for the brain, as a workout for the most important ‘muscle’ in your body.”
And if you think that an “emotional detox” is a niche concept, some therapists are now designing retreats tackling a specific trauma, such as bereavement or a breakup. In 2021 counselling psychologist and lecturer Alice Haddon founded the Heartbreak Hotel (theheartbreakhotel.co.uk) with resilience coach and speaker Ruth Field, described as “a radical new concept in transformational therapy run over a three-day luxury residential retreat”.
“We believe that heartbreak connects us to the essence of what it is to be human, and that our vulnerability is also the birthplace of compassionate change and daring creativity,” Haddon explains, making being heartbroken sound almost aspirational, a soothing idea in itself.
Their inaugural retreat in the summer of 2021, “Moving Beyond Betrayal”, focused on teaching women how to transform their anger into agency, make sense of pain, and identify one’s “love language” and attachment style. Participants discover how to spot narcissists and infidels “so you can avoid them forever”, and learn how to meet your “core love needs”. Their three-day retreats now run on a monthly basis at Barsham Barns in Norfolk, led by a women-only team of psychologists, therapists and coaches. Personally, I am never keen on a strictly-gendered approach – and I break a lot of men’s hearts, so could send them some clients – but I adore the fierce honesty of this concept. And the fact that there is now somewhere a heartbroken woman of any age can go for dedicated care and support feels truly progressive. How many of us have booked heartbreak holidays hoping they would heal us, almost by accident? Emotional retreats acknowledge, isolate and target what needs to be healed. By comparison, the “emergency holidays” I took during my 20s seem like an archaic and scatter-gun approach to emotional recovery.
We view fasting as a three-dimensional experience affecting the body, mind and soul.
— Leonard Wilhelmi
The Heartbreak Hotel is a shiny new concept within the emotional reset sector, but the pandemic has also prompted the grand dames of the retreat world to modify their retreats with a renewed focus on mental health. The original – and many say still the best – therapeutic fasting clinic, Buchinger Wilhelmi, is a no-nonsense medi-spa with a medical pedigree going back nearly 100 years.
“We are a mixture between a private clinic, a hotel and a monastery,” says clinic director Leonard Wilhelmi. Fasting has been used as a fast-track to emotional lightness and spiritual wellbeing for centuries, but in recent decades the Buchinger, like the famous Mayr and Lanserhof clinics, have preferred to focus on the physical benefits. Until now.
“We view fasting as a three-dimensional experience affecting the body, mind and soul,” says Wilhelmi. “When the body is fasting, we nourish the soul with art, poetry, meditation and nature. The pandemic is a medical crisis, but it is also a psychological crisis.”
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