As a clinician in private practice, one of the phrases that I hear myself saying over and over is this: “Imagine you are hiking up a mountain.” This particular phrase emerges in the context of a relapse of some sort. People generally make good progress through the beginning of therapy, but then there can be a plateau and an inevitable relapse.
Based on my experience, here’s what that usually looks like.
Imagine that you are hiking up a mountain. You have hiked along a good while and have been able to look out here and there and see your progress. But then you make a misstep. Or something in your path changes. Or some outside event happens … and you fall down.
The fall hurts, physically. That fall may hurt your pride or sense of progress. The fall reminds you of times when you have been down before. There is fear there that this is the “beginning of the end”.
That fall reminds you of the trauma again.
Because our brain’s first impulse is survival, it quickly goes back in time to how bad it felt at the bottom of that mountain. We may even physically feel some of those old feelings again. This is the time travel backward to the past that our minds do. Your brain is reminding you just how bad the trauma was. It is a warning to not go back. Yet, in this moment, we are feeling the fall … emotionally and physically.
We see the present experience through the lens of the past. Yet we would do well to remember that we are here in the present, not there in the past.
So now that we have remembered the past and how terrible that felt, our brain takes the next step of warning us about the future. We feel propelled into a possible future where we will never feel better, will never have any successes, will only know falling and failure.
Statements like “it will never get better” or “I will never be able to do this” are statements about a possible future that is not here in the present.
The tendency is to just sit where we have fallen; we have not rolled all the way back down the mountain. Yet we are immobilized by thoughts of the pain of the past and the fear of the future.
After all, I was supposed to just get better and better, progressing more and more, right?
Actually no. And the research bears this out.
One well-researched and respected model is called the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) or Stages of Change model. While it was initially developed in research on addictions, TTM has been applied widely to many health-related behaviors. What the researchers found is that change happens in stages. There are moments where we are “contemplating” change, times when we are in “action”, and other moments that are about “maintenance” of the progress we have made.
But another important finding was that change is not a straight line. We often relapse and fall back. But the falling back is not all the way back to the beginning. This is where language such as “relapse is a part of recovery” makes sense.
Our tendency to “all or nothing” thinking leads us to feel as if “all is lost” in that one single setback.
Change is more like a spiral where we are moving in a positive direction, but we may move up, then down, then up again. The trajectory is progress, but there is much movement up and down along the way.
Most certainly we feel the descent when we fall, but then we pay attention again and see that we are not back at the beginning.
Getting back to the original analogy, this phrase “Imagine you are hiking up a mountain” reminds us that we are getting somewhere even though there are times when the trail takes us down a bit before going up again. And when (not if) we fall, it does hurt. Take your time to curse the fall; that’s okay.
But then we would do well to take a deep breath, take note of the present moment, and remember:
- You are not in the same place where you started.
- Even though you feel the impact of the fall, you are not rolling down the hill all the way back to the beginning.
- Journeys are about moving and stopping, climbing and falling, and then … trying again.
This is where the fall can be our teacher if we allow it. We can learn what to do next time. “Our teacher” may be alerting us to pay attention to where we are, to notice our steps again, just as we did in the beginning.
And sometimes “our teacher” may be stopping us to show us another path.
But that’s another trail to follow for another day.