In this article counselling psychologist and CARITAS Malta director Anthony Gatt gives helpful tips on how to get out of rock bottom situations, those life situations when we find it very hard to see hope and light.
Rock bottom meaning & examples
The phrase rock bottom can be used when one is feeling heavily weighed down by a very tough or tragic moment in one’s life. When you’ve hit rock bottom, emotionally the situation feels so bad that it can’t get worse, you are at your lowest level. Examples of rock bottom include circumstances like feeling you can’t survive the loss of a loved one through death, separation or a breakup; being unemployed or finding it hard to make ends meet and feeling like you can’t see a way out; being overwhelmed with drug dependence and a long list of consequences (overdose; rejected by family; chased by authorities; penniless; financially, physically, and emotionally bankrupt). It’s when life hits hard.
Also, facing your worst nightmare can be experienced as a rock bottom such as ending up in a prison cell; being diagnosed with a physical or mental health condition; an unsuccessful suicide attempt; being expelled from one’s own family and ending up homeless, failing at a plan (a university course or a business) that you just could not fail at; forced migration; a bad accident; ending up in a domestic violence shelter or living in fear of threats of loan sharks. These situations can all lead to the experience of rock bottom.
“hidden in the desperation of the situation lies an opportunity for change”
Rock bottom is a harsh moment in one’s life and very hard to face. Rock bottom is experienced as a state where one feels overwhelmed by the situation, thinking and feeling it can’t get any worse and feeling like something drastic has just happened. However, inspite of the tragic human situation, many a time, hidden in the desperation of the situation lies an opportunity for change, a turning point and the potential to transform the very tragedy in a life-changing event. While some remain stuck in a situation that spirals down with tragic endings, many others who experienced the ravages of drug addiction or other types of serious difficulties, express how getting out of rock bottom is possible: “my life has changed after I hit rock bottom, from there I started to pick up the pieces and started to slowly move upwards, getting out of rock bottom.”
Signs you’ve hit rock bottom
Hitting rock bottom is associated with a range of unpleasant feelings that can range from grief and depressive feelings, helplessness and hopelessness to fear and anger. These feelings are usually associated with thoughts that his phase will last forever or that there is no way out.
6 basic important steps to get out of rock bottom
The road to get out of rock bottom can be a long one but rock bottom in itself has a transformational potential.
1. Ask for help
Many people, even in tragic situations, try to cope on their own. There is a tendency for one to try and make it on their own before reaching out for help.
Yet reaching out for some form of help is a crucial step to get out of rock bottom. Not remaining alone is highly beneficial to get up again. As the saying goes “a problem shared is a problem halved”. Feeling that you are not alone in carrying your burden, and knowing that there is someone accompanying you, can be the start to getting out of rock bottom.
Help can mainly take two forms:
- Basic human helping like sharing one’s feelings with a trustworthy family member and/or friend. We are social beings, we need this basic social support. As a caution bracket I would say that your family or friend will not necessarily give you good advice. People tend to speak from their own experience, and what has worked for that person will not necessarily work for you too. One has to be careful when s/he starts taking this type of advice. Many a time the best help from a friend of family is mostly attentive listening.
- Professional help. You might also need to get some professional help like from a psychologist, psychiatrist, psychotherapist, counsellor, social worker etc. Professional help is delivered by a trained person. Many a time a professional helper at an early stage in the helping process will explore what social support you can reach out to in your crisis. A professional helper will listen attentively and help you explore and understand the situation you are confronted with. A psychologist will help you understand yourself and the situation and become aware of how thoughts, feelings and behaviours can contribute to make the situation better or worse. A professional helper is also cautious about giving advice, and usually the client and the professional try to arrive at a solution together weighing out the pros and cons of a course of action.
Asking for help involves a certain amount of humility. You have to be humble to accept that you need help to get back up again. It is admitting that you cannot cope with your own resources. Some keep postponing and postponing this until they arrive at a crisis stage when you end up saying to yourself: “I can’t keep going on like this”.
Both professional help and basic human support have a role to play to help you get out of rock bottom.
2. Think straight: from “This should not have happened” to “I prefer that this didn’t happen to me”
What you think about your own situation, how you interpret your situation, will affect how you feel. If during your rock bottom moment you say to yourself, “I am so unlucky, I can’t be happy anymore, I won’t find love again, my life has stopped here, I will never feel good again, I will never come out of this, my life can’t go on, this was not supposed to happen to me,” these words will not help and will contribute to feeling more helpless and hopeless.
What you say to yourself in these moments is crucial. In rock bottom circumstances it is difficult not to feel the sadness, the anger, the pain. What we are talking about here is how much you let these feelings control you. That is where you can do something about it.
I do not want to minimise the pain that the person can experience but there are degrees of sadness which you can feel. One can learn to regulate feelings to feel less overwhelmed by unpleasant emotions. How I interpret the situation and not thinking in terms of black and white is very important.
Albert Ellis, a psychologist founder of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy explains how musts and shoulds are unhelpful and persons can get overhelmed when they turn preferences into musts. Frequently I ask clients to reflect about their thinking: Where is it written that this shouldn’t happen to you? How is it that this cannot happen to you? I encourage clients to accept their own limitations, the limitations of others and that of human predicaments “I prefer to not have had to go through this experience instead of Ã¢â‚¬Ëœthis must not be happening to me’. Such interpretation of events helps one face their situation and get out of rock bottom rather than fight against it.
3. Body Care: “The more we care for our body, the more we care for our mind”
We live in a body. What is physically going on within us matters and helps or hinders our well-being. Therefore the more we care for our body, the more we care for our mind. When it comes to caring for the body, exercise is crucial. I am aware that in times of rock bottom exercise for some people can be the last thing which they feel inclined to do. However, the effort is rewarding. This is considered to be free medicine.
Healthy eating, is another crucial important factor. Substances like omega 3 and omega 6 are especially known to help the sustainability of a healthy mind. Some people turn to binge eating, alcohol or drugs as these are substances which give immediate relief for emotional pain, but in the long run these methods are harmful and backfire.
4. Behaviour Support: Engage in activities which support you
Supportive behaviour is another aspect which helps you get out of rock bottom. This can mean going to the countryside, going for a swim, meditating or engaging in a hobby – anything from taking care of a pet, your home, your car, your garden, collecting stamps, etc. These behaviours can help you by distracting your usual thoughts. Focusing on something else will help you in not entertaining unhelpful thoughts.
Contact with nature tends to have a therapeutic effect. I have a multitude of experiences where I heard persons speak of the relaxing feeling of being in touch with nature. It is as if it helps us to ground ourselves. I recall a person in drug rehabilitation expressing how going for a swim after years of being totally withdrawn into his drug using world, worked marvels of his feeling of wellbeing. He spoke about the joys of life’s simplicities.
5. Spirituality: Sustain the connections outside yourself
There are two aspects which I see crucial in the area of spirituality:
Firstly is the connection that a person experiences with that, which is beyond him/her. This can be the relationship with God, a higher power or creation. I am not only talking about the realm of Christianity but also extending to other people of different religions or other forms of faith. Those who experience such a connection, experience an extra resource in their life. It is a well-known fact those who hold some form of faith cope better in life. Those who live knowing that there is a benevolent God who loves them never feel completely alone, even in their worst moments of life, even if everyone left or rejected them. This connection gives a sense of security and care which can be helpful to get out of rock bottom situations.
Secondly is knowing what gives meaning to your life. Making sense of what happens. Having a purpose is important. The most important and burdensome questions which we all face are – What am I doing here on earth? and How do I make sense of death? In the end we will lose everything. So, if you have a reply to these questions, you can turn to the answer in difficult moments. These questions sometimes do come in the wrong moment, in rock bottom situations, when your securities are shaken. Questions like Why did this happen to me? Why did the tsunami come here and not on the other side? If you don’t find an answer you can keep going down or get stuck. On the other hand making friends with life’s toughest reality – death, may help one to live his/her life fully, making the best of what one has while one has it, and on the other hand being prepared for when adversity strikes.
6. Give yourself time
Getting out of rock bottom won’t happen overnight.When drug addicts complete their programme, some expect that now everything will fall back in place, but the challenges will continue. Resilience is important as is hope. In fact in counselling hope may equate to up to 25% of positive outcomes of counselling interventions. Giving time and being patient are necessary in these moments, to be able to get out of rock bottom.
Photos of Anthony Gatt by Christina Gatt