Mix it up – and feel the benefits

When did you last try something different? When did you edge yourself out of your day-to-day routine and embrace the new, the challenging, the somewhat scary?

Chances are it was the last time you were on holidays. According to psychologists, there are enormous mental health benefits in pushing the boundaries, even daily. Changes to your “comfort zone”, no matter how small, are a good thing.

Oxford-trained experimental psychologist Ben Fletcher believes changing a habit – something as simple as swapping which side of the bed you sleep on – rewards the brain. His slogan is “do something different”.

Queensland clinical psychologist Dr Matt Worthington heartily agrees.

“It’s always good to try something new,” he says. “The reason is that by stepping outside of our sort of usual limits, or comfort zone, it helps with our confidence.

Person looking at view on Scenic Rim TrailHiker on Scenic Rim Trail Walk

“We tend to stay in our ‘safety zones’ because that’s what every person wants – they just want to feel safe. But if we stay there, it can be to our detriment. It’s a bit like not eating a varied diet, or only doing one certain type of exercise. We are super-organisms, amazing organisms. I believe we are meant to adapt, to seek change. And when we do, we get dopamine.”

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical produced by your body (the amino acid tyrosine is changed into dopa and then into dopamine) and used by your nervous system to transmit messages between nerve cells. It’s the chemical process behind feeling pleasure. If you didn’t know that before you read this, then you’ve just learnt something new, which will actually give you a little dose of dopamine, right there!

“Variety is a good thing,” Matt says. “Confidence gives us dopamine which says, ‘Yes, do that again. Do that again’.”

He says when and how you push yourself to try something new depends on your personality. Some people are “sensation seekers” and get a huge rush out of parachute jumps and bungee jumping; others find something like hot-air ballooning enough of a challenge.
“I still think though, regardless of what personality you are, regardless of the intensity of the sensation, it is really, really important to get that dopamine happening,” Matt says.

Balloon riding, soaring to heights of some 2000 feet, is an experience you’d expect would challenge someone with a fear of heights. Except that wasn’t the case for Spicers Guesthouse General Manager, Mark Whitnell, whose retreat works in partnership with Beyond Ballooning to offer rides over the vineyards of the Hunter Valley.

Hot air balloon at Spicers GuesthouseSpicers Retreats taking guests to new heights in their very own hot air balloon in the Hunter Valley

“I’ve been up a number of times now. It’s pretty spectacular up there,“ Mark says. “I have a fear of heights and it simply didn’t bother me. Not at all. I don’t know why. But if I climbed up on the roof here, I’d probably have wobbly legs.

“It’s just surreal. The only noise is the hot air going into the balloon, which is a good thing, you want that noise! It’s a great experience.”
Mark says he would encourage anyone who wants to challenge their fears to try ballooning. And the Hunter Valley is a perfect place to do it.

“The Hunter is pretty gentle,” he laughs. “We’re not extreme in any way, shape or form. Our main activity here is drinking wine!”
Things are a little more adventurous on the 1200-acre Spicers Hidden Vale at Grandchester, west of Brisbane, where mountain-biking is a popular challenge.

The retreat’s General Manager, Tom Simpson, says he tries to go riding most days.

Mountain bike rider at Spicers Hidden Vale Adventure ParkMountain Bike Rider enjoying the thrill of the hidden vale adventure park at spicers hidden vale

“I like pushing myself,” he says. “I’ve taken a few stacks, had a few encounters with carpet pythons – being from Nottingham (in central England), we didn’t get many carpet pythons there.”

Tom has a history of stepping out of his comfort zone. Before joining Spicers, he spent nine years as a white-water rafting guide on the Kicking Horse River in British Columbia, Canada.

“It was unpredictable, class-four rapids. Definitely hair-raising,” he chuckles. After completing a three-week guide training course he joined a rafting company as their rookie guide for the first year. He had a few “pretty hairy swims” during his first week in the one-person cataraft, flipping it a couple of times.

“One of my first trips with paying guests was a group of eight Asian tourists. I flew off the back and so they had a solo rafting journey for a couple of minutes. They were all leaning to the side taking photos of me.”

Nowadays, Tom says he most enjoys watching families after they return to Spicers from a day out on the bikes.

Mountain bike rider at Spicers Hidden Vale Adventure ParkMountain Bikers enjoying the Spicers Hidden Vale Adventure Park

“You see them back at dinner time and they’re beaming. They just feel like it’s an adventure and they’ve shared it together,” he says.
As to why we tend to push ourselves when we’re on holidays, rather than during our normal routine, Matt Worthington explains:

“When we come home from work, we’re tired, we don’t have much energy. We’ve got the pressures of work, the stress of homelife, whatever that may be – kids, bills, finances, whatever. So energy is a big thing. The body is all about preserving energy. If we don’t need to do something, it won’t do it.

“And then we go away on holiday, by yourself or with a group – and now you’ve got time. And we’ve had a rest. We feel good because we’ve already moved outside of our physical comfort zone, which is our home, so we’ve already had a bit of a dopamine squirt anyway. We’re doing stuff in the sun, under the blue sky, all that stuff. It’s good for our mental health to go on holidays.

“When we’re more relaxed and more happy, we’re more able to entertain more options and see the big picture and assess risks (yes, I will do that bungee jump, because the trainers are experienced, and the ropes and fixtures are safe). It gives us an energised sense of safety.”
It’s the prime time to push that envelope, to try something different.

4WD at Spicers Peak Lodge4 wheel driving at spicers peak lodge

4 experiences to take you out of your comfort zone:

Where: Spicers Hidden Vale, Grandchester
Why: It’s all downhill from here – well, at least some of the track is – but it will leave you feeling up, way up.

4WD adventure
Where: Spicers Peak Lodge, Maryvale
Why: Incredible views as you bump and rumble your way up ridges and through forests of gum trees.

Cooking school
Where: Spicers Tamarind Retreat, Maleny
Why: Push yourself beyond what you would normally cook as you transform into that master chef you’ve dreamt of being.

Where: Spicers Guesthouse, The Hunter Valley
Why: It’s a sunrise start for a breathtaking cruise above the glorious vineyard landscape. An experience like no other.