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Finding the Courage to Change

Life is hard right now for just about everybody. Families are facing routine challenges such as financial hardship and access to childcare while fearing for their health and safety during the ongoing pandemic. The political discourse and election have not exactly lightened the mood either. For individuals already struggling with mental health, or those in addiction treatment programs, the phrase “life is hard” feels like a gross understatement.

What Holds Us Back from Change?

The stigma around mental illness in America paints a picture of someone who’s lazy, unmotivated, and weak. Our image comprises someone who constantly portrays themselves as a victim and refuses to take responsibility. “Why don’t they just snap out of it? Why don’t they just get out of bed and do what needs to be done? They’re just being selfish.” We file them away with the label “overwhelming personal weakness”, like so many have in addiction treatment programs of the past, and give up on their ability to change.

Because of this stigma, courage isn’t usually something we associate with mental illness. Instead, the concept is reserved for tales of mentally strong individuals making tough decisions to benefit the greater good. We focus on stories of great bravery and triumph, deserving of praise and reward. 

What many don’t see is the vast amount of courage it takes in recovering from addiction and mental illness. Even the seemingly small decision to seek and accept help is actually a huge one that takes self-reflection, vulnerability and strength. 

Approach and Avoidance

In mental health research, we typically discuss courage in terms of the approach-avoidance conflict. Simply put, this theory states that motivation is a function of whether individuals move toward something (i.e., approach) or whether they move away from it (i.e., avoidance). Every aspect of our life has a positive or negative charge, something that makes us feel good or bad. More often than not, we want to approach things that make us feel good and avoid things that don’t; this is human nature. 

Yet, life is never that simple. The complexity of our lives means that there are some things that make us feel simultaneously good and bad. It is possible for both positives and negatives to coexist within one concept. 

This is where the conflict comes in. The positive and negative forces influence us in opposition to one another, creating an uncomfortable psychological conflict that demands a solution.

What is Courage?

Courage is defined as approaching despite the experience of fear.

Regarding the approach-avoidance conflict, courage describes when we decide, in spite of wanting to avoid a feared negative outcome, to pursue our goal. When using this definition, we see that embracing courage doesn’t mean that there is an absence of fear. Instead, we recognize the presence and influence of fear, but we still choose to act and move toward what we want. 

When we act on our courage, we decide to take a step in the right direction even though the fear of failure or other negative outcomes still scares us. Courage is making a decision for the better even though it is uncomfortable or scares you.

Similarly, courage allows us to evaluate our ability to cope with pain and challenges. Courage demonstrates confidence in ourselves and in our ability to recognize, acknowledge, and cope with the fear involved in making these tough decisions. 

Can I Learn to be Courageous?

There is some evidence that courage can be thought of as a personality trait. You might describe some of your friends and loved ones as particularly courageous or brave and can easily see how this influences their personality. 

Research suggests that people who are high in anxiety often report feeling less courageous. This dichotomy is not difficult to understand. This suggests that some people are naturally more courageous than others, but it does not mean that those who experience a high amount of anxiety cannot act in courageous ways. In fact, those with anxiety or other mental health struggles behave courageously when they make even small changes meant to alleviate their anxiety and change their life.

Courage and Change

Do you ever feel like your life is controlled by outside forces, not you? Do you ever feel like a tumbleweed rolling in the wind, going whichever way it blows? We’ve all been there. We think of future goals and desires, things we’d love to do, or get done. 

We tell ourselves we’ll do them tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year because then we’ll have the motivation or the tools necessary. We convince ourselves that tomorrow we’ll feel differently , that we’ll be ready to make the changes required. But despite what feels like our best efforts, the changes never happen. They remain as thoughts and hopes in our heads.

Some mental health professionals call this inertia or an “indisposition to change.” From science class, we remember that inertia can describe how something keeps moving despite efforts to stop, or how something won’t move despite efforts to get it going. The mental health community has borrowed this term to explain why we can feel so stuck despite a deep desire to accomplish our goals.

What might be at the root of this inertia? If you’ve picked up on any themes in this article, then you’ve probably guessed it: fear. Whether it’s fear of rejection, fear of discomfort, or fear of the unknown, these are the negative elements that are at the center of our approach-avoidance conflict. Fear halts us in our tracks when we come to a crossroads, wanting to go in one direction but finding it so incredibly difficult to pick up our feet. 

What if you don’t accomplish what you want to? What does that mean for your self-concept? Are you a failure? Are you broken? 

For those who have fallen prey to the trap of addiction or relapsed after completing an addiction treatment program, these voices are particularly strong.

The answer to these questions is no, but it takes courage to both to remind us of this fact and to help us create forward movement in our lives.

“The dark does not destroy the light; it defines it. It’s our fear of the dark that casts our joy into the shadows.” – Dr. Brené Brown

Experiential Therapy

Getting Adventurous

Fear often affects our ability to trust ourselves. Acting on courage isn’t a one-time event that resolves every nuance of fear that occurs in your life. Rather, it’s an opportunity to choose how you’ll move forward that happens from moment to moment. It takes a lot of courage to say no to cravings—to the familiar thing, even if you know it’s not good for you. 

These moment-to-moment bursts of courage to keep going can cause what neuroscientist Dr. Marc Lewis calls “ego-depletion.” Dr. Lewis explains, “Ego-depletion refers to our fundamental inability to maintain impulse control for a long period of time.” In other words, if you are maintaining your impulse to use drugs or alcohol every minute of every hour for weeks, your capacity to keep it up may run out, and you may give in. And that is how addiction may cause you to lose trust in yourself. 

Adventure therapy is an experiential way to help you learn to be present and give you the courage to trust yourself again. A few goals of adventure therapy include:

  1. An increase in self-awareness which helps individuals recognize available choices and behavioral consequences
  2. Learning responsibility not just for oneself but for others in environments that may not be ideal
  3. Improving or increasing coping strategies
  4. An increase in self-esteem provided by the tangible evidence of success demonstrated in activities

All of these adventure therapy goals are accomplished through activities designed to help you engage with the moment and be present in your body. They offer metaphors for life’s challenges as you gain new perspectives. Some of these activities include:

  • Ropes course
  • Hiking
  • Swinging log
  • Rope swing
  • Recovery-themed geocaching

The Magic of Horses

Relationships often move in an unhealthy direction when addiction is present, making mutual trust a challenge. Equine therapy is a way to help individuals rebuild their capacity to trust.

It may seem strange that a horse can help you build a trusting relationship with other people, but according to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), horses are actually perfect for this therapeutic role. 

Because of their sensitive nature, horses provide instant feedback in reaction to body language and other nonverbal cues humans use to communicate. Their sheer size brings gravity to how they are approached, which serves to help you reflect on your approach to relationships. And much like humans, horses also come in a variety of personalities, moods and attitudes. All of these qualities help you to practice trust within relationships in an emotionally safe environment.

If you or a loved one have decided to seek help for substance use or other mental health problems and are looking for addiction treatment programs that work, The Ranch Tennessee is here to support you every step of the way. Using our evidence-based therapy programs, such as adventure and equine therapy and other holistic treatment modalities, we’ll help you discover the courage to change.  

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