If You've Hit Rock Bottom, Don't Just Sit There, Climb Out!

If You've Hit Rock Bottom, Don't Just Sit There, Climb Out!
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

If you’ve hit rock bottom, don’t let it scare you. If you’ve reached the limit of your strength, if this last failure or disappointment has affected you more than ever, don’t let that paralyze you, don’t be embarrassed by it, and don’t make a home in this personal, psychological hole. Push yourself and make the brave choice. The choice of gathering up your dignity and refusing to fall.

We’ve all heard the saying about “hitting rock bottom” at some point in our lives. As strange as it might sound, most medical professionals don’t like this saying very much. Every single day, psychologists and psychiatrists talk with patients who’ve reached their limit. These are people convinced that they only have one choice left after hitting rock bottom. They think their only option is making a change and getting better.

It’s by hitting rock bottom, even if that means bitterness and degradation, that you come to know who you truly are and start to walk on firm ground.”

-[Translation] José Luis Sampedro-

But the sad truth is that this rule of three doesn’t always work out that way. Why? Because some people find themselves permanently stuck at rock bottom. There are also people who realize that there’s an even darker, more complex level underneath it. So that very widely known attitude can, ironically and unfortunately, backfire. A lot of the time, it actually stops people from looking for help. They don’t seek support because the problem doesn’t seem serious yet. But this is the point when it’s easiest to find resources to help you get better and make a change. 

Person at rock bottom looking at the exit to the cave they're in.

We’ve all hit bottom at some point, and it’s not easy to climb out

We’ve all hit rock bottom at some point, and we all know it hurts terribly. A large part of the population has fallen into that place because of fear, desperation, or failure. They feel stuck, trapped in amber like a fossil. They lose their balance and, a lot of the time, this can lead to all kinds of mood disorders.

The idea that only the deepest desperation is capable of helping you see the light and making you better just isn’t true. In the same way, it’s not true that you have to suffer to have an authentic life. Pain can only teach you and shine a light if you have the willpower and resources to let it. So as nice as that idea sounds, there’s no autopilot in our brains that puts us in “resilience mode” when we reach our breaking point.

Philosopher and psychologist William James wrote a book called The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In it, he talked about a cavern of melancholy. There are people who, without knowing how or why, are able to hit rock bottom and find a sliver of light they use to guide them toward the exit. On the contrary, there are people who can’t get out of this melancholic place. It’s a place full of shame (How did I end up here?) and a constant feeling of hopelessness (There’s nothing I can do to make this better, it’s all over).

Woman in dress floating underwater surrounded by flowers.

If you’ve hit rock bottom, don’t settle in, climb out!

Hitting rock bottom means you’re at the ground floor of discouragement. That’s obvious, but you shouldn’t want to go any farther down. Don’t let yourself fall into desperation and go even further down, into the basement. Hitting rock bottom means being in a place of deep loneliness. It’s like a cave where nothing happens. Your mind gets tied up and your thoughts become tangled, strange, and obsessive. But always remember that you have a return ticket. All you have to do is take one step to see that there are new opportunities out there.

But the act of climbing out is extremely difficult because it means overcoming your fear. One way to deal with that is to use the downward arrow technique advocated by cognitive therapists like David BurnsAccording to this theory, a lot of people find themselves here because they’re blocked. They’re suffering and they feel lost. Most of the time, they know they need to make a change to get through this “impasse”. The problem is that they either lack the courage or don’t know how to.

The main idea with this technique is to do away with all the irrational beliefs you pick up when you’re in this motionless, desperate place. The therapist picks one of their patient’s negative thoughts and asks them a difficult question. “If this thought of yours were true, and really happened, what would you do?“. Their goal is to establish a series of questions that are like downward arrows leading you to understand why these thoughts are wrong. They want you to be able to see your irrational ideas, get rid of them, and find new ways of thinking. In other words: ways to make a change.

Flock of birds in the shape of an arrow.

The downward arrow technique in practice

We’re going to give you an example. Think about someone who’s lost their job and has now been unemployed for a year. There are some important questions you can ask to get them to confront all their fears, one by one. What would happen if you got a job again? What would happen if your partner lost their job too? What would you do if all of a sudden you had no resources at all?

This might seem like a really tough exercise to go through. It’s always making you think of the worst case scenarios. But it also involves pushing you and getting you to react, confront, and debate possible strategies to deal with desperate situations that haven’t come up yet (and aren’t necessarily going to).

It’s basically trying to show you that, even if you’ve hit rock bottom, there are always worse and more complicated situations. What that means is that you still have time to react. In fact, once you’ve confronted all these fears, you’ll see that there’s only one option: to climb out. It’s t he decision that will truly change everything for you.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.