Can Principles of Mountaineering Help in Recovery from Mental Illness?
The picture shows me standing on top of the summit of Cotopaxi (19,347 ft.) in Ecuador (Allow me just a little bit of self indulgence here). I spent less than 2 minutes on the top and had to make arrangements to safely descend. All I had was a brief ‘dopamine squirt’ providing me with a mild dose of euphoria. Was this the most valuable part of the journey?
At first glance the title may seem like a strange question, but let’s have a look to see if some of the principles of mountaineering apply to individuals in overcoming depression or for that matter any psychiatric disorder or life’s obstacles in general. Over the last few years I have used this analogy with many of my patients with mental illness, with some success in encouraging them with recovery. After the acute phase of illness has been treated, a particular challenge is helping the person get back to recovery. In my experience, a large part of it is a mental shift, equipping individuals with the right mental model.
Coming back to my analogy, let’s look at the key steps in mountaineering. When looking to “conquer a mountain” (I don’t like this word as it denotes a certain arrogance over what should be a serene journey) one chooses to climb a mountain without really having any idea about what that journey will be or what the final destination will look like. In order to reach the top, it becomes essential to focus on the process – taking one step at a time quite literally, one leg after the other, doing it a thousand times, battling altitude sickness, keeping your eyes peeled downwards, ensuring that if you slip you don’t slip too far, ensuring you are roped to your climbing partner looking after both yourself and your partner which then becomes a shared experience – in order to reach the desired outcome. Now the interesting aspect is that that final outcome i.e. the summit, is actually not the real goal, as one needs to safely descend. The descent in mountaineering is considered to be the most dangerous part, as one can get complacent when exhausted. What remains after one reaches base camp, is the experience and a sense of satisfaction but not necessarily euphoria.
Euphoria, which is the dopamine release experienced right at the top is a short-lived experience, but the real joy is in the satisfaction achieved through the entire process.
An ongoing euphoria when coming down the mountain can potentially be dangerous as it can affect concentration and increase the risk of accidents. The feeling of achievement and satisfaction having gone through a process that was gruelling and at times unpleasant is invaluable. Have you already begun to see some similarities with recovery from mental illness?
Let’s look at recovery from mental illness. I do not profess to be able to describe the experience of every mental illness and this analogy does not apply to every person on the path to recovery, but for many that I have shared this analogy with, they’ve appreciated it. I tend to say “Focus on the process, the outcome is a by-product of a good process. One step at a time, focus on the steps, the outcome will evolve and shape itself.”
Your therapist is your climbing partner, slips may happen, manage major slips, and keep supports in place to avoid a major one. Keep your eyes peeled on the process of recovery. It’s the sense of achievement and satisfaction that matter. In other words,euphoria is not equal to happiness. Many may recognise that the dictum may apply to general life as well. It’s an attitude that can enhance resilience.
Most importantly, just like in mountaineering, the summit may not be reached on the first attempt or in fact on many attempts. It is simply up to oneself to evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses and have realistic expectations. Similarly, in recovery from mental illness, not all outcomes should be the same for all individuals. Each goal should be tailored to the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Goals are fluid and changeable and hence it is important to keep expectations realistic. Not everyone can climb Mount Everest.
The 7 Commandments
So here are my 7 commandments derived from my experiences in mountaineering:
1. Focus on the process and not the outcome
2. Your outcome will be shaped by your process
3. Take the process one step at a time
4. Enjoy the process
5. It may take more than one attempt to reach the summit
6. Not everyone can climb Mount Everest. Choose your own mountain to climb and be realistic
7. Know your strengths and limitations before you make the climb
Most importantly, I couldn’t have done it without my climbing partner (below). So find your’s and get climbing!