Practice gratitude. There are so many things each one of us has to be grateful for. We each have millions of thoughts every day, and research shows that 90 percent of those thoughts are rooted in the past and in negativity. If you believe that you create your reality with your thoughts, then most of us are creating more and more negative experiences based on the past. One of the best ways to break this cycle is to practice gratitude.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Sheree Surdam. Sheree is a Wellness Coach at Mountainside treatment center. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Counseling Psychology and Wilderness Therapy and has over two decades of experience in the counseling field. She is also a certified recovery coach trainer. Her extensive work with trauma survivors led her to a deep interest in the transformative power of nature and devotion to holistic wellness, health, and healing. At Mountainside, Sheree ensures that the complementary elements of our Adventure Based Counseling and Mind Body Spirit offerings are fully integrated into clients’ treatment and care. She is also responsible for identifying and developing innovative, evidence-based therapies to further support and empower our clients.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
I grew up on a dairy farm in Washington, Connecticut, and as a farm girl, I spent most of my time in nature. I explored the fields and the forest, played in the barn, connected with all the animals, and went fishing and wandering with my father. My dad taught me everything he knew about the outdoors and nature. We had cows and calves, chickens, ducks, rabbits, horses, goats, pigs, and usually some injured wild thing that I had found and brought home for rehabilitation! I grew up with a huge garden and lots of fresh, unadulterated farm food. All our animals grazed away their days outside in the pastures. My mother canned everything that she could so we would eat from the garden all year round. We did not have lots of sweets and desserts in the house; dessert was always peaches, cherries, and applesauce — all things that my mom had canned. My “wellness” perspective begins with the knowledge that the natural world is our greatest healer and teacher. For me, it all starts there. Without a connection to nature and an appreciation and respect for all that it offers — animals, trees, flowers, and more — all of the “health food” and special diets, supplements, meditation, and exercise programs in the world are not going to connect you to the essence of who and what you are. It starts in nature, which to me is our true home.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
This is a tough one to answer. During my career as a Wellness Coach, there have been lots of interesting things that have happened. One story that comes to mind that I feel was very meaningful for me was the first time I was on a high ropes challenge course. It was in Leadville, Colorado, and I was on my first trip with Outward Bound, a nonprofit educational organization. I was there to learn how to run similar trips for domestic violence survivors. I was very anxious and believed myself to be afraid of heights. I made it out to the middle of the course and found myself overwhelmed with fear. I froze. I started to cry. I was this grown woman standing up on this crazy challenge course crying my eyes out because I was afraid.
I begged to be brought down from the course. The two female facilitators (this was an all-female program) reassuringly told me that I could come down anytime I wanted to. “You either have to go forward or go back the way you came” was their response. I could not believe they were saying this; I expected to be quickly lowered to the ground. I continued to cry for a moment when suddenly a feeling of calm came over me. I could do this. I started to move forward on the course and eventually finished feeling strong and proud. This experience taught me that I am capable of more than I know and that one of the traits of a good facilitator is a mix of patience, support, validation, and a little tough love sometimes. I learned that courage comes AFTER you do the thing that scares you and that what usually scares you the most is the thoughts you’re having about the event, not the event itself.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, I’ve certainly made plenty of interesting choices so far in my life and career. I honestly don’t view things as mistakes, just as opportunities to learn — we can say I’ve learned a lot! When I first began to develop a real interest in how nature heals the body, mind, and soul, I had the opportunity to participate in two Outward Bound programs. The first one was in the Colorado Rockies, the second in the Adirondacks in Upstate New York. This program was a paddling, backpacking, and hiking program on the Long Lakes and was facilitated by two very wise, experienced outdoor women. On day one, we had to take all the gear out of our packs for the facilitators to have a look at to be sure we had the appropriate clothing for the weather. When they saw my “rain gear” they suggested that I leave mine behind and take the gear they were offering me. By this point in my life, I had spent what I considered to be a good deal of time in the back country hiking and backpacking, and hence was a bit of a “know-it-all.” I declined their offer of rain gear, believing my own to be enough.
Fast forward into days 2, 3 and 4 … Pouring rain all day, cold, and lightning storms. We needed to take our boats off the water numerous times and sit in the wet forest while doing our best to avoid hypothermia. I was soaked to the skin, freezing and shivering. My “rain gear” was highly inefficient. I was feeling foolish as well, just trying to “tough it out.” One of the facilitators reached into her backpack and offered up the rain gear I had declined at the start. She was wise and had brought it anyway, knowing I would eventually need it. I gratefully accepted it. I learned — or should I say, I was gracefully taught — that I don’t know everything. There is always someone who is smarter and wiser, and I need to practice being humble and open to other people’s suggestions, especially when they just might know more than I do.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
In my career, I have had the good fortune to work among so many gifted and talented individuals, there are just too many to mention. I will say that I did have a great manager who taught me what it means to be a great leader. He showed me the importance of compassion, integrity, and respect. He modeled for me and the rest of our team how to show up for your staff, be authentic and supportive, and have your staff hold you in high regard so that whenever you need them to step up to do something, they do so with pleasure, even if it’s not something they’re happy about. They’ll step up because they respect and admire you.
As far as my love of the natural world, I do have to thank my father for that. He spent much time with me in the outdoors. He not only taught me about wild places but also taught me respect for animals and all things living. He was a former Marine, a “man’s man,” so it’s pretty interesting when I look back and realize how compassionate and tender he was when it came right down to it. I am very grateful to him for the lessons he taught me that have shaped much of who I am. It’s because of him that I find magic in wild places or in a simple flower garden in the backyard.
Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
As part of the Wellness team at Mountainside alcohol and drug addiction treatment center, I have the opportunity every single day to take our clients into the beautiful, magical forest that is part of the Mountainside property in Canaan, CT. I lead them on hikes to waterfalls and boulder fields, we explore caves, find animal tracks in the snow, and just wander through the trees. I tell them stories about all of the things we encounter, offering them the knowledge that I have that can help them develop a sense of connection to the natural world. It is amazing to watch as individuals discover things in nature that they’ve perhaps never noticed before. We can all be like little children again, seeing things with brand new eyes. I believe this encourages our clients to see themselves again with new eyes and to see their potential for peace, joy, and healing in recovery. When we become more compassionate and mindful, that energy spills over into everything we do. Helping people connect to this part of themselves helps heal the world, one person at a time.
Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.
- Quit smoking now! Smoking (and vaping) is one of the most detrimental things for your body and affects every organ and system. I attempted to quit smoking many times in my youth. My father died of a massive heart attack at 54. He was a chain smoker. After his death, I became more and more upset with my own smoking addiction and finally signed up for a very intense quit-smoking program. The program wasn’t kidding around. It lasted five days and involved smoking in a controlled setting during each session. It also involved electric shocks and a few other quite aversive techniques. And it worked. I have been a non-smoker since.
- Drink more clean, fresh water (from a reusable water bottle). Some people will say that “water” means “liquids” in general. Not true. The human body is up to 75 percent water — not diet soda, milk, coffee (which is dehydrating), or energy drinks. There is no substitute for clean fresh water.
- Meditate daily. Even if only for ten minutes, quieting the mind through meditation also calms all the body organs. Breathing becomes more relaxed and regular, heart rate decreases, and cortisol levels drop. Meditation is also a way to connect with one’s own inner wisdom and knowing.
- Spend more time in nature. Get outside, go to a garden, take a walk in the park. Smell the flowers, the trees, watch the bees and birds. Get quiet, drop-in, notice, connect. Practicing mindfulness in nature calms anxiety, increases feelings of well-being, helps us feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves — and less alone. Connect with animals, who are the “perfect zen”: always just at the moment, never judging, always present. They sleep when they’re tired, eat when they’re hungry, play when it’s time to play. We can learn a lot from them. I love to take my two dogs out for hikes. Watching them experience the world is calming and fun, and helps me to feel the same. When we develop a sense of connection, we also develop a sense of stewardship for what we’re connected to. Our world and planet need people who are stewards, as we only protect that which we care about. Imagine if all of us connected to and experienced love for the planet and animals, what a world this could be.
- Practice gratitude. There are so many things each one of us has to be grateful for. We each have millions of thoughts every day, and research shows that 90 percent of those thoughts are rooted in the past and in negativity. If you believe that you create your reality with your thoughts, then most of us are creating more and more negative experiences based on the past. One of the best ways to break this cycle is to practice gratitude. When you’re caught in a negative loop, stop, take a breath, and really look for all of the beauty in your life, because it’s there. You’ve just forgotten. Remember and you will immediately feel calmer and more peaceful. Life is not a chore. It’s a gift. Notice that.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Meditate at least 30 minutes a day. Meditation not only calms the mind and body, it brings one closer to the wisdom and inner knowing of the true self and connects us to the Divine. I believe if everyone meditated every day there would be more love and compassion in the world.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- Wellness has very little to do with diets and exercise, or taking the right supplements or drinking the right smoothie every morning. I know so many people, men, and women alike, who believe that being a certain size or having the right workout program or gym membership is going to bring them to wellness. Wellness has everything to do with developing an inner world where compassion and love for oneself and others is the dominating force. To walk through the world with integrity, to be authentic and tell the truth about who you are and how you feel, and to connect with all living things, these things are the foundation for true wellness.
- Perfect is an illusion; there is no such thing. We should all strive to just be the best version of ourselves that we can imagine, whatever that looks like. We are all beautiful, lovable, deserving.
- Suffering is optional. You can either believe what you think or question it. Most of the time, our thoughts are not true. So be kind to yourself; treat yourself like you would treat your very best friend in the world. Love is a healer.
- Don’t stop having fun or enjoying your life. People have become so obsessed with fitness, weight loss, and other “wellness” activities that the joy has gone out of their lives. Eat ice cream? Never!!! Stop and take the time to sit in the park and just observe life? No way, too much to get done!!! I used to function like that too. And now, after experiencing many losses as well as my own health challenges in life, I understand that this life journey is a quick ride. There is so much beauty and so many things to enjoy; don’t miss out on them while you’re busy “living.” When I get really caught up in something that I imagine to be stressful, I stop and remind myself that my life has an end to it. I then ask myself…how important is this “thing” that I’m allowing myself to freak out about? Usually, almost always, I realize that it’s not that important. Dr. Wayne Dyer used to say about problems: “If you have control over it, then it’s not a problem; if you don’t have control over it, it’s not a problem.” So, basically, you have no problems.
- Create sustainable changes, not fleeting ones. A diet program is fleeting; changing your eating habits and lifestyle is sustainable. Signing up for exercise classes or buying expensive gym equipment, when you really don’t enjoy these things, is fleeting. Taking part in physical activities that you actually enjoy is sustainable.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health, and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
Veganism or vegetarianism, because eating a plant-based diet (or at least meal options that are very low on the food chain) directly connects us to sustainability and environmental concerns. I chose a vegetarian lifestyle over 32 years ago because of my love for both animals and the natural world. The amount of resources that are used in order to sustain the meat and dairy industry in this country, along with the pollution these industries create, is horrendous. Plus, the inhumane treatment of animals that are kept in factory farms is unconscionable. It is a very violent and uncaring system in direct opposition to the peace and healing we all are seeking.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
They can follow the Wellness team at Mountainside on Instagram at @mountainside.
Thank you for these fantastic insights!