There are mental health lessons to be learned from nearly every activity. For NoStigmas volunteer and contributor Mike Bushman, the most indelible of those lessons were embedded on hiking trails. During the next few months, we will share the best of those lessons, and how they apply to everyday life for so many.
7) Resetting Goals is Essential to Recovery
Resetting goals is an important, and often ignored, component of recovery from setbacks.
It’s crucial when tackling mental health challenges. It’s essential when dealing with career or family detours. It’s easiest to understand when considering physical health.
Sometimes, I can feel a downward physical or mental health spiral as it’s happening. At other times, I crash before I realize I’m not good.
Over the years, I’ve realized that I can’t simply decide to feel good any more than I can simply decide to hike Pikes Peak. I hiked Pikes Peak once, after long, arduous training. Having let that training slide, there’s no way I can will myself, untrained and unprepared, to the top if I tried it again today.
If I want to make it again, or push an even harder goal, I need to put myself back through a training cycle that builds to that success.
I need to build, often starting slowly. I can push myself, certainly, but only to a point.
When my body or mind deteriorate—through neglect, trauma or otherwise—recovery requires that I set new expectations. I can’t ask as much from myself as I might have at a prior point. I can’t expect my best when I’m feeling my worst.
Just because I once accomplished a goal doesn’t mean I’m prepared to accomplish that goal again today.
I was reminded of this last week when I did my first outdoor stair workout of the year at Swallow Cliffs. A severe cold cost me nearly a month of the energy for anything more than just a slow walk. A deeply impacted tooth extraction extended my physical downtime. Still, when I went with backpack and hiking poles to do cycles of the 293 stairs at Swallow Cliffs in Palos Park, Illinois, I had no idea how much my body had deteriorated.
Instead of doing 28 cycles, as I had done last fall, I was gassed after eight cycles. My legs were shot. I could feel the tops of my thighs and backs of my calves throbbing for days. The few times I’d worked out on an incline treadmill or Stairmaster were too limited in length and intensity to keep my legs strong.
That’s the case with mental health recovery too. Sometimes we need to just accomplish one simple goal on day one. On day two, we aim for two simple goals or one harder goal. Then we build from there. Getting to where I feel good always feels like a long, steep climb. It requires painstaking attention to each step, often moving at slower speed than when I’m at my best.
A downward depression spiral can be slow and barely noticeable. At times, though, it feels like I’ve taken a high-speed slide to the bottom. I might hit an icy patch, sliding into a pile of rocks aimed at leaving me immobile. When I crash into those rocks, it might take me days to stand straight and start moving again. Slowly, I start a new upward climb, from a lower elevation.
When I’m starting from this lower level, I need to set different objectives. I need to rebuild my strength at a pace that doesn’t leave me disappointed by continuous failure.
Moving forward matters. But it’s best if I know what I can realistically achieve, so I can get the sense of accomplishment that energizes my next day’s progress.