My somewhat eccentric, but altogether inspirational 80-year-old grandfather decided that he would climb Mount Katahdin this spring. I had never hiked a mountain and decided to accompany both him and my father on the trip. I am by no means a hiker or an outdoor enthusiast. My typical fitness endeavours include walking up the stairs at work and mowing my lawn (it's not a big lawn). I did nothing to mentally or physically prepare for this trip and suddenly found myself at the bottom of a 4902 ft mountain. To put it in perspective, the CN tower is 1815 ft tall. And to make matters worse, we decided to hike on a weekend when the easiest trails were closed. The trail we hiked was one of the most difficult on the mountain - almost vertical the entire way (4902 ft in 3.2 miles). In the 8 hours that ensued, I had plenty of time to muse about my experience and how it resembles the process of overcoming mental health difficulties. Allow me to explain.
Often times you aren't prepared.
As I mentioned above, I was in no shape to climb a mountain. I hadn't prepared for this. I suppose I could have trained, but life is busy and I decided to do it on a whim. Mental health difficulties can take us by surprise. We usually aren't prepared for emotional problems that arise and don't know effective strategies to deal with them.
Sometimes your only option is to take the hardest trail to the top.
It would have been much easier if we were able to take an less difficult trail, but unfortunately, they were covered in snow and dangerous for hikers. When I got home, I talked to many people who had reached the summit on other occassions, but managed to do so by taking a less strenuous path. This option was quite simply unavailable for us.
When mental health problems arise, some people are able to recover more quickly than others and do so with minimal effort. For example, some people respond very favourably to a particular medication or therapeutic modality and find relief rapidly. Others struggle for years to find the right formula for recovery and stumble along the way. Some of us have to take a more challenging route.
First view of the summit.
From the bottom it seems impossible.
The trail did not start off easy. It was difficult from the beginning. The first hour was the hardest because I couldn't stop thinking about how much further I would have to go. I was also worried about what was ahead. I kept telling myself, "I'll never be able to do this," "Who am I kidding?," I'm not in good enough shape for this," "My hiking boots are from Walmart; everyone is going to know I'm a fraud."
When you are at your lowest point and you see how far you have to go, it's easy to give up and start doubting yourself and your abilities. You may think, "I'm never going to get over this depression," or "I'm not brave enough to face my fears." Fear or negative predictions about the future can limit us before we even get started. We all feel weak at the bottom of the mountain.
Keep the summit in your mind - Don't give yourself a way out.
As I started to hike, a little thought entered my mind: "I could turn around at any time if I really need to, go back down the hill and relax in the comfort of my car." Focusing on that thought made the hike that much harder. I wasn't keeping my mind on the goal - I was trying to find an easy way out of the climb. When I realized this, I changed my thought to "I will go as far as my 80 year-old grandfather goes."
It's easy to give up when it gets tough. If you tell yourself that there is a way out, it's hard not to take advantage. Sure mental health problems are difficult to live with and nobody likes living with them, but drastically changing our lives is just as hard - if not harder. It can be easier to slip back into old habits and routines when the going gets tough. It's important to keep your eyes on the summit and challenge the little thoughts that urge you to give up.
Keep your eyes on your feet.
Before I climbed a mountain, I pictured myself looking at the summit and striving towards it. Kind of like that little mountain climber on the Price is Right. But, after actually experiencing a climb, I realized that you have to keep your focus entirely on your feet. You can't look at the scenery or the destination because you will fall. Each step is important and you have to be conscious and aware of your footing. Getting to the top takes a series of carefully planned and executed steps. If you don't pay attention, it's easy to stumble and scrape your knee.
So often when attempting to overcome problems in our lives we spend a lot of energy looking at the scenery. The scenery could be your problematic past (the path behind you) or your ambiguous and therefore, terrifying future (the path ahead). But the only thing that we can truly control are the careful steps we take every moment. The decisions and choices we make each day. It's important to stay in the present for 3 reasons: 1) if you focus on the past or the future, you will stumble 2) it's the only thing we can control 3) it takes a succession of small steps to make it to the top.
Some boulders are bigger than others.
Boulders come in all shapes and sizes. Some were as small as a pebble and others were bigger than my entire body. Some steps were easy and others were extremely difficult. It's much the same on the journey to recovery from mental health problems. There are some obstacles that are significantly difficult to overcome, while others may seem effortless.
I would not have made it up the mountain were it not for my climbing companions. We commiserated together, helped each other up when one of us stumbled, and cheered each other on. The journey to the top was an individual achievement. And I didn't make it up as fast as the others, but they helped me to get to the top.
Supportive interpersonal relationships are crucial on the road to recovery. We need people by our side to act as cheerleaders, nurses and supportive listeners. It can be hard to reach out to others and ask for support, but trying to climb a mountain alone is miserable and isolating. It's possible, but it makes the journey much harder.
Keep these things in mind as you climb your mountain!
A copy of the presentation I gave today about youth self-injury.
One of the things that I often find myself discussing with clients is our concept of time. Time confuses me. I once went on a trans-Pacific flight to Thailand. It was light out for 15 hours and I watched the sun set and rise. When I got off the flight, I was in the future, but it was actually the present. It was hard for me to wrap my mind around until I began to view time differently. In our Western culture, time is understood as being linear -> past-present-future, and researchers have found that this perception of time has a major impact on our emotions.
Some people spend a lot of time and energy getting stuck replaying problematic events in their past like a movie (e.g. "If only I hadn't been taken advantage of, I would be happy"). Others worry incessantly about the outcomes of far off, future events (e.g. "What if I never meet the man of my dreams?"). Ryan Howell at San Francisco State University determined having a "balanced time perspective can make people feel more vital, more grateful, and more satisfied with their lives."
A balanced time perspective is the ability to hold the past, present and future in equal regard. If you focus too heavily on the past, the present or the future, negative emotions and outcomes can result. For example, focusing too much on a terrible childhood could limit you from experiencing the joys in your life each day. Treating your self to a night on the town may be a great way to enjoy the present, but could create problems if you were to "live in the present" every night of the week. Finally, too much emphasis on the future may leave you worrying about the unpredictable nature of the unknown or leave you paralyzed to make changes in your day to day life. If you find yourself focusing on a certain time perspective more than the others it may be worthwhile to try to balance your focus.
San Francisco State University. (2012, April 30). "Happy People Have A 'Balanced Time Perspective'." Medical News Today. Retrieved from
Do you find yourself texting or surfing the web when you have a challenging task to complete? I'm multitasking right now as I'm writing this article. A recent study from the University of Ohio suggests that media multitasking gives us an emotional boost. Researchers suggest that we are more likely to multitask when an activity is cognitively difficult. For example, as a university student, I found myself spending more time on Facebook and surfing the web when I had important term papers due or exams to study for.
Many studies have shown that multitasking makes us much less productive. However, researchers suggest that we continue to do it because it makes cognitively strenuous activities more enjoyable. It's a way of coping with the stress of a mentally taxing task. Unfortunately though, the positive emotional feelings that accompany multitasking behaviour send us the message that we should continue to do it even though it lowers our productivity considerably.
I suggest taking scheduled breaks when you are working. Divide your time into increments and work uninterrupted for a period of time (e.g. 30 minutes). Then, reward yourself with a short media break. Creep on Facebook, check your Twitter or text a friend. Then go back to the work that you are trying to complete. You will get the same emotional boost as you do when you multitask, but the positive feelings will act as a reward for your hard work instead of a reward for distracting yourself from work.
Do you have any productivity tips?
Ohio State University. (2012, May 2). "Media Multitasking Offers Emotional Boost But Could Be Detrimental To Performance." Medical News Today. Retrieved from
Licensed Psychologist in Fredericton, N.B.