A common training strategy for elite endurance athletes is to train at altitude. Since there is less oxygen in the air up there the body has to get used to becoming efficient with less, and when you return to sea level the body is more efficient at utilizing the rich oxygen. One summer in college I joined my boyfriend, who was a member of the Swiss national rowing team, at one such high altitude training camp in St. Moritz, Switzerland. I remember my first run that trip, and feeling like I was wearing lead boots. I wondered what the heck was wrong with me – until I was reminded of the impact of altitude.
The body’s ability to acclimate to new surrounding and new situations from a physiological perspective has always impressed me. I am very aware that I often have to do the same thing psychologically and emotionally when life changes. I haven’t heard this talked about much as people heal from eating disorders but I know for myself it took a while to adjust once recovery had taken hold and my life just got a whole lot better. When recovery had helped me build a life and I found that I wasn’t hating my body, worrying or manipulating food, or trying so hard at everything, I experienced a bit of a backlash. I had a loving community, a nourishing and loving relationship, and all sorts of great new opportunities. But, I also had this feeling like the other shoe was going to drop, I was anxious much of the time as I worried about what it would be like to fall from such a great height. Before I was so busy trying to climb out of wherever I was I never felt like there was far to fall.
So after years and years of disordered living, and several under my belt of learning to live life well, I struggled with something unexpected. I struggled with altitude sickness related to these new heights. It was a process to acclimate to all the beautiful gifts in my life. I struggled to take it in and found myself consumed with fearful thoughts and negative thinking. It turns out I’d been pursuing victory for so long I had very little experience living with it.
It makes sense that this is a natural phase of recovery; learning to adjust to being in the world vs. battling it is no small shift. I don’t know if everyone struggles with it but seeing it as a phase being passed through helped me to be in it with greater acceptance and skill.
I went through several months that felt like a fear fest, a rocky beginning to the altitude adjustment. But I responded by figuring I needed to train myself to deal with the new situation. Daily I addressed fears with new and tested strategies, I reached out to new supports, and I tried never to sit in isolation with any of it – as that usually made everything worse. I got better at living with the fear and anxiety too – trying to take in the old adage that sometimes fear is False Evidence Appearing Real. It was also helpful to have compassion for myself in the process of adjusting and to resist the old habit of berating myself as it would be so easy to say, “what the heck is wrong with you? Things are so great why can’t you just fully enjoy it!?” A trusted friend even gave me the suggestion of putting a hand over my own heart and saying “I’m sorry this is so hard for you.” I found that approach of compassion to be so radically different from my punitive tendencies that it delivered quite an impact.
Everybody’s body reacts to altitude differently. Some people adjust with ease, others feel ill, and some people just need time to get used to it. Adjusting to the hard earned, improved life of recovery is most likely much the same. Some will adjust with ease and rarely look back, and others may need some time. But like everything else in recovery, it is a phase, not a sentence. Judging it or shaming it are old behaviors and will only slow the process of acclimation. Trust in yourself, your tools, your supports, and time to get you through this phase and remember that sometimes this is a natural response to so many hard earned victories.