Recovery from mental health problems can involve some paradoxes, of which the following is one. Stress tends to contribute to mental health problems. If you try hard to accomplish something, your stress level is likely to go up, so it follows that if you try too hard to recover from mental health problems, your stress level is likely to go up to a point where you will be creating mental health problems through your efforts to recover!
Don’t despair though, people without mental health problems face the same kinds of paradoxes. For example, people like enjoyable experiences, and people have found out that money often allows one to pay for things that are enjoyable. So people like money. They like money so much, it turns out, that just looking at a pile of money can distract people from …. from enjoying things they would otherwise appreciate! Researchers showed also that the more money people had, the less able they were to savor the simple pleasures of life. You can read a summary of the research on this blog or you can read the original academic article here
I think what this means is that while it is helpful to be goal oriented at times, we also need to slow down frequently to enjoy what we already have. So even if we have some problems in our lives, and even though it makes sense to work on those problems sometimes, we also need to remember that there’s plenty to enjoy or savor or have gratitude about even if we never solve those problems. We don’t need to “recover” before we start appreciating ourselves and others around us and the sunset and a bar of chocolate. In fact, if we try too hard to “recover” or get rich or whatever, we might lose much of our ability to enjoy the simple stuff, and then we get stuck on a treadmill of needing more and more while we get less and less out of what we get.
The person who can forget about “recovery” and other goals enough to really enjoy and be grateful for some simple stuff – and hopefully to share that simple stuff with someone else – is probably making awesome progress toward recovery by doing so.
One simple thing that it is important to take the time to appreciate is any small step toward recovery. Consider the example of someone who has usually been afraid to go into a store, for fear of what people watching might think or do. Let’s say, on a given day, the person overcomes that fear enough to go in to the store for just a couple minutes, but then starts feeling fearful and shaking and leaves before they planned to.
- A person who has little attention to savoring small successes might mark this up as a failure, because it didn’t go as well as hoped. Because they see it as a failure, the person will feel more depression and anxiety, and won’t feel much spontaneous interest in trying to go into the same store tomorrow. This person may be too focused on the overall goal of recovery, and not enough appreciative of each possible small step toward recovery.
- A person who really appreciates themselves for the little success of having at least gone into the store, however, will have something to celebrate and feel good about for the rest of the day, with the result that depression and anxiety will decrease a little. And this person will probably feel some spontaneous interest in going into the store the next day, so as to enjoy the same feeling of success.
One pattern I have seen goes like this. A person will be not believing in recovery at all, and so won’t be trying anything new. Then, for one reason or another, the person starts to believe in recovery a little, and tries a few things, and they succeed. The person is happy about this, and starts to think recovery is really possible. The person’s expectations go up, until soon, the expectations go far beyond what the person is currently capable of doing. Since the person is no longer meeting his/her own expectations, everything starts feeling like a failure (even though the person is still really doing better than they were to start with), so the person soon quits trying anything new and gives up on the idea of recovery all over again.
Gratitude for each small step, and lowering expectations for a bit when they start to seem too difficult, can help prevent patterns like those outlined above. Gratitude helps us enjoy the journey each step of the way, a key skill for whatever journey we may be on.