You’re going to have good days, and you’re going to have bad days.
I know, I know. This seems obvious. So why even say it?
Because bad days— or even bad moments— have a way of endangering peoples’ recovery efforts in a unique, and sometimes heartbreaking, way.
Our brains are smart. Our brains, generally speaking, want to lead us away from pain and toward gratification. (Granted, sometimes they get their wires crossed and associate gratification with various types of pain, but the general principle still holds: all things being equal, our brains want to nudge us toward things we like, and away from things we don’t like.)
The problem with our brains is NOT that they are not smart. The problem with our brains is that they can be reactive as hell.
When pain occurs, our brains are NOT big on sitting around, processing it, analyzing it.
Rather, our brains have a tendency to be like, “WHAT THE HELL IS THAT AND HOW CAN WE GET THE HELL AWAY FROM IT AND MAKE SURE IT NEVER HAPPENS AGAIN?!?”
This is the context our brains generally bring to moments of pain, despair, or hopelessness.
This is also the context our brains bring to symptomatic or behavioral relapses. They want the pain to end and they want to maximize the odds the pain will never recur.
In the process of getting out of pain and trying to ensure that pain will not recur, our brains leap to some…hasty conclusions.
They like to propose permanent solutions to temporary problems. Temporary problems, such as having a bad moment or a bad day.
They’re trying to protect us, God bless those brains of ours. In fact, they’ve been wired by eons of evolution to try to get us the hell away from pain in as quick and permanent manner as possible.
Which is why we often need to take the time and trouble to recondition our brains to think— really think— when confronted with certain types of pain, to not be quite as reactive as they might otherwise be wired to be.
A bad day doesn’t equal a bad life.
A bad moment doesn’t equal a bad day.
A relapse doesn’t equal “I will never recover and trying to recover is pointless.”
How, then, can we keep our brains from being all “SCREW IT ALL AHHHH” when we have moments of pain or failure?
The answer is both simple and yet not terribly easy: we have to plan for the 100%, absolutely certain eventuality that we are going to have a bad day, we’re going to experience pain, we’re going to at least partially relapse at some point; we need a strategy for what, exactly, we’re going to do when those bad moments happen; and we need to rehearse this strategy, again and again and again, until we start to develop confidence that it is a plan that can and will work when the time comes to employ it.
Sounds easy, right?
Not so much.
We are not good at planning for failure. We like to plan for success.
When we even THINK about planning for failure, our brains very often ask us, “Uh, if it’s a realistic possibility that we’ll fail, why are we even bothering to do any of this ‘recovery’ stuff at all?”
(If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice this is EXACTLY the kind of thing our brain does, as described earlier in this blog post— when it gets even a WHIFF of pain, its very first impulse is to say “SCREW IT!”)
Planning for relapse or a bad moment or a bad day doesn’t have to be overly complicated— but it does need to be through and it does need to be realistic. It needs to involve coping skills you know you’ve developed, skills that very specifically draw your focus away from the pain or failure of the moment and place your focus in a more productive, less painful place.
Then we need to rehearse it.
We need to visualize ourselves successfully using our backup plan to get back on track from a momentary derailment of our recovery efforts.
(Notice, again, your brain pushing back at that idea— “HE’S TELLING US TO VISUALIZE FAILURE?! WE ARE NOT OKAY WITH THAT!” I’m telling you, your brain’s inclination to push back against pain and failure is strong and well-conditioned.)
The good news is, mental conditioning works.
The good news is, as you mentally rehearse yourself using your skills to dig out of a hole, the more likely you’ll be to be able to dig out of any hole you happen to fall into.
The good news is, our brains can be made less reactive…but we need to be consistent and patient with them as we work on reconditioning them.
But the good news about THAT is: you can, in fact, do this.
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