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Why reaching rock bottom is so often needed before recovery

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Rock bottom is a phrase often heard in recovery meaning there is no further way down. Many people might think this means it’s the end of the road.

But in fact ask anyone who is in successful recovery and they will tell you that hitting rock bottom was actually the beginning of the road to recovery. They needed to get to that point in order to find the resolve to really get well.

“Until people realize what harms them and limits them from within, they are unlikely to call out for someone to help stop the pain,” writes author Michael Meade in Fate And Destiny – The Two Agreements of the Soul.

Another way of describing rock bottom is nervous, mental or emotional breakdown. It might not seem that way at the time, but it is often exactly what’s needed.

What is rock bottom?

Although most frequently used in terms of alcoholism and other addictions, hitting rock bottom happens with every mental health problem. So people who are struggling with anxiety or depression can also reach rock bottom if they leave their conditions untreated.

It means someone is sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. It is that they can see no hope for the present or any sort of future.

They are desperate. The word “desperate” is from  Latin desperatus meaning “deprived of hope”.

This is why it’s often said by mental health experts that the first thing anyone suffering who reaches out for help needs to be given is hope. It’s why such as in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) a phrase often used is “There is a solution”.

It’s also the title of a chapter in the AA “Big Book”. It’s among the world’s bestselling books and one of the most read of the thousands of recovery and self-help books

Signs of rock bottom or emotional breakdown

A rock bottom is when a person feels emotionally overwhelmed and broken. They will frequently feel flattened with hardly any energy.

They will most likely feel terrified too, even if they do their best to deny that. Frequently almost all of this is going on inside them as many people who are suffering like this do not want it to be known.

So they suffer alone. Yet they are terrified because they have tried everything they can think of – and yet inside they are utterly beaten.

Rock bottom can last from days to years. There can be many contributions leading to one, including having an injury or illness, break-ups, suffering a trauma, bereavement, economic insecurity, excessive stress, job loss or business failure.

Even basic things such as going to work, a social gathering or shopping can seem overwhelming. People who are struggling in this way often then start to isolate, which increases their suffering.

Presently the COVID-19 situation is causing many people lots of mental health problems. Or sometimes there seems to be no apparent cause.

A person who has hit rock bottom won’t seem to be capable of relaxing, they will never be in the present moment and they may be constantly going over people or things they are resentful towards.

They may become increasingly selfish as they desperately search for a solution. Or to avoid or mask how they are feeling.

Other indications that someone has hit rock bottom can include:

  • Anxiety.
  • Depression. 
  • Stress.
  • Increase or starting drinking, drug-taking or other addictions including behavioral addictions.
  • Eating unhealthily such as binge eating.
  • Trauma flashbacks.
  • Breathing difficulties & chest pain or tightness.
  • Having no sense of self.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Emotional outbursts, sometimes for no obvious reason.
  • Isolation.
  • Sweating.
  • Paranoia.
  • Dizziness. 
  • Panic attacks.
  • Shaking.
  • Stomach upsets.
  • Insomnia.
  • Frequent nightmares.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Apathy towards life.
  • Trembling.


Why a rock bottom is so often needed

Italian poet who wrote the Divine Comedy in the 14th Century understood this all those centuries ago. He wrote: “The path to paradise begins in hell.”

In his long classic narrative poem he told of being guided through hell in order to reach paradise. Going through hell was the only way to get to paradise.

Put another way, breaking down can be a waking up.

Sometimes people have to be left with no other alternative. They need to have tried every other way before they ask for help.

Many people won’t listen to advice until they hit rock bottom. Generally this is because people like to think they can work out their own life.

This is understandable as they are frequently extremely smart people. They may be very successful in areas of their life such as business. 

Yet if they do seek help from such as a therapist they will frequently discover aspects of their way of living that they never would have realized alone.

What’s needed for recovery from rock bottom?

Someone needs to have the resolve to carry out what’s suggested. That resolve often comes from the fact that the person is frightened to go back to the desperate place where they found themselves. 

When people start 12 Steps recovery – as we can introduce people to here at Tikvah Lake –  it is suggested that they listen to those around who have been where they are and who now have their life going well.

They are often reminded that: “It was your very best thinking that got you into the situation you’re in.”

This is not to make them feel worse. It is to help them realize they need to listen to the help on offer.

It is similar if seeking the help of a therapist. Therapists are trained to identify what’s wrong and how to guide a person to their solution.

Does someone have to hit rock bottom to seek help?

The simple answer is no. While it may well cause a great number of people to seek help it is not a point anyone has to reach.

Many people know something is amiss for many months and even years before reaching a place where they know they cannot go on. It is at this stage that it would be greatly advantageous to ask for help from a professional expert.

Yet far too many people hit rock bottom and even then don’t ask for help. This is something that often ends in tragedy.

So if someone has sufficient self-awareness, a rock bottom is best avoided. Or perhaps they’ve seen similar warning signs in a family member or someone they know or who they’ve heard about.

Our expert team here has decades of professional experience in treating all emotional issues and types of mental health problems. We have proven successful treatments that can help everyone who needs emotional rehabilitation.

Located right by our beautiful tranquil lake in the perfect natural setting, we have created our luxurious mansion with total relaxation as a priority.

Contact us now to speak about how we can help you or someone you care about to move forward into recovery.

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David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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