High-achieving entrepreneur, beauty editor and mother of twins Ateh Jewel knows first hand how stress can wreak havoc with your health - especially when you're plagued with guilt over taking time out. Could a cutting edge stress retreat put her back on track?
This is fast becoming my favourite place. Lefay Resort and Spa, an East-meets-West retreat in the hills overlooking Lake Garda in northern Italy, saved my life a couple of years ago. I tried its sleep programme and came back a new woman. It was truly a life-changing and saving experience. I went from sleeping only three or four hours a night to six or seven.
So when I heard about their new five-day stress relieving programme, called ‘Recovery of Original Energy’, I knew it had my name on it.
Like many working mothers, my adrenals are frazzled and I’m constantly on the edge trying to meet the demands of my eight-year-old twin daughters, my new beauty range Ateh Jewel Beauty (my foundation for darker skin is about to launch) and my career as a film producer and journalist.
It would seem I’m not alone. According to the Mental Health Foundation 74 per cent of UK adults describe themselves as ‘overwhelmed or unable to cope’ and out of this group, an astonishing 81 per cent are women. Depressingly, this doesn’t surprise me. I'm part of the generation of ‘wonder women’ who were taught we could have it all - omitting to mention that we'd have to do it all, which has left many of us burnt out. Being a multi-hyphenate isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. I don’t think there are enough hyphens in the world to describe what we do.
Lefay is nestled high in the majestic and peaceful mountains overlooking Lake Garda, set in 27 acres of woodland and olive groves in the Alto Garda, a national park. The hotel is 5-star glam, with breathtaking panoramic views and a touch of a Bond villain lair.
The award-winning family-owned resort is committed to sustainability - it's 100 per cent carbon neutral and the spa uses organic eco-certified local ingredients, employs local staff and oozes warmth, charm and ethical authenticity, which I really respect.
The Recovery of Original Energy stress relief programme takes a holistic approach to stress management and is overseen by western doctors trained in Chinese medicine. The focus is on treatments that calm the nervous system with acupuncture, massage, teas and gentle exercise and a guided walk in nature.
My stress relief programme
First I had a consultation with a medical doctor who also specialises in psychology. He strapped me to an ANS (autonomic nervous system) monitoring machine to measure my current stress levels. The snazzy cutting-edge device looks like the sleeve you use when taking your blood pressure and it connects to an iPad. Predictably, my readings for heart rate, blood pressure and sympathetic adrenergic function which shows how much I'm in fight-or-flight mode, showed that I was indeed very stressed. Luckily I was in the right place. I was then prescribed an array of treatments to help me bring those readings down.
The programme is jam-packed full of treatments to help you relax and more than that, to teach you to relax when you get back home. I had between three and five activities a day ranging from reflexology to rebalancing qi gong exercises, breathing sessions, a craniosacral treatment, which knocked me out within 10 seconds and made me need even more of a lie down afterwards, moxibustion treatments and several of rebalancing massages to calm down my adrenals. The programme was full but it never felt overwhelming and I had lots of time to sit and be still, which was all part of the healing.
My first treatment was acupuncture to help rebalance the energy running through your body. It felt very potent - as though I was pressing the reset button on my body. I’ve long been a fan of acupuncture. During my first session many years ago, I was told my womb was on fire (I had my twins naturally at first try) and I had sluggish digestion (I have since found out I have a gluten sensitivity). I've been a true believer.
During my session meridian points were stimulated to help boost my energy flow and relaxation using both needles and moxibustion. This is where heat is created by burning black carbon sticks which look rather like incense and having them waved above the skin on acupuncture points to help energise these meridian points. It worked so instantaneously that I nodded off, despite having a face and body full of needles.
when I started to slow down my eating patterns changed. After a couple of days, I didn't want to snack
By the end of day 1, my sleep was much deeper and I began to feel myself unfurl. The very act of saying you want to take time to recharge, look after yourself and destress is very powerful.
Many of us, especially women, have grown up to believe that taking care of ourselves is to be selfish - telling that the word self-care has only just entered our vocabulary! I know this only too well as I paid the price for not listening to my body when it told me to slow down. I used sugar to fuel my 100mph lifestyle and my pancreas and body came crashing down. I gave myself type 2 diabetes.
I have learnt the hard way that self-care isn’t selfish, it’s essential if you want to take care of yourself and be strong for your loved ones. You can’t give to anyone if your tank is empty. Health is wealth - not tuning into your body, resting and taking care of yourself can lead to serious illness. If you don’t stop once in a while your body will do it for you through exhaustion and, as happened to me, literally crashing.
Flotation therapy - why it's bliss to feel weightless
At first, it felt indulgent and decadent to have so many wonderful, healing treatment such as the La Luna Nel Lago, salt lake flotation bath. This was a surreal and moving experience. I was able to have a float in a dark grotto with a huge moon sculpture, which made me feel I was all alone blissfully on another planet, by myself, weightless. The fact I was by myself in silence, with no one asking me for anything or making any requests was bizarre and calming in itself. To able to float, be still and quiet made me tear up, which really surprised me.
Living in such an overstimulating world, filled with screens and anything you want just a click away is exhausting in itself. Just to stop, float, be quiet and still was incredible and one of my highlights of the whole experience.
I also loved the energising reflexology massage followed by beautiful balancing La Quieta massage, which felt very healing spiritually. The craniosacral anti-stress treatment used gentle touch to relieve the compression in the bones of the head. The fact I fell asleep within minutes of each treatment told me my body was screaming for a rest and to slow down.
How slowing down changes your attitude to food
Interestingly, when I started to slow down my eating patterns changed. After a couple of days, I didn't want to snack, I felt fuller quicker and I was really mindful of the delicious food on offer at Lefay, savouring every bite I ate, alone and in happy, centred silence.
I love the fact you can opt for the cleaner, leaner spa menu with its delicious grilled fish and easy on the carbs approach or eat from the main menu with options of pasta, steak, red wine, the choice is yours with no one tutting and glaring at you. I went for a mix of menus eating fish and veggies one day and steak the next, without feeling judged by the staff or myself. It felt good and how we should eat every day.
The great thing about the programme was there were so many takeaways I could implement in my life when I came home.
My favourite take-home tools were the group qi gong sessions. This is a centuries-old art, which is a little like tai chi which uses movement for a gentle spiritual and healthy release and form of meditation.
Learning how movement and the breath can lower your cortisol and tension was really relaxing and something you can do whenever stress levels are climbing. I was also taught deep breathing exercises, learning to be still and tune into your breath by placing your hands on your stomach and chest to help centre my mind and body, which have come in handy instead of reaching for a snack in times of stress. I also took a guided walk my qi gong instructor around the stunning grounds, in the energy and therapeutic gardens all part of the programme. We stopped at five different garden each with a Chinese symbol, such as the green dragon representing renewal of nature, to help you reflect. It all helped remind me that simply going for a five-minute walk in nature is one of the best things you can do to heal yourself.
The whole stress relief programme was deeply healing, moving and peaceful. My initial ‘mum guilt’ drifted away, as I could see the whites of my eyes becoming brighter, my energy levels rising and ‘moody mummy’ retreating with each deep breath. At the end of the trip, my stress levels were taken again and had dropped significantly by over a third especially in terms of blood pressure and my heart rate.
There’s a good deal of guilt and negativity associated with winding down and taking a pause. Our fast new digital world admires being busy, multitasking and juggling. The Lefay Stress relief programme taught me the importance of being still, looking inwards, being in nature and truly taking care of yourself. We are bombarded with so much noise from the world from social media that it is making us ironically both isolated and sick with stress being the cause of many illnesses both physical and mental. Pressing pause and reset is a powerful thing to do and I intend to do it far more often.
The ‘Recovery of Original Energy’ programme costs 2,500 Euros per person for five nights accommodation, all meals and treatments lefayresorts.com