CBT Lessons From A 14er

I did my first 14er this summer. I woke up before dawn, climbed into the car and drove 1.5 hours to the trailhead. I had been given a list of supplies to bring but no information on the hike itself. I was told we were going to “knock out” Torrey’s Peak and then do Grey’s Peak as they are close together. I figured it would all be fine as I was with experienced hikers of 14ers. We started up the trail and just after dawn, we veered off the trail onto a set of rock ledges. I was told we would need to “scramble for a bit.” After a few minutes I found myself holding onto the side of a rock and noticed that the group just behind us had donned helmets. My heart started racing and I felt a tightness in my chest. I looked ahead to see the rock face rising higher and steeper and then looked below to see the trail we had veered off. I realized that I was with a group of people who were not interested in taking the “regular trail” and wanted to go a route that was far beyond my comfort level. My fight or flight system had started to kick in and I wanted off that rock face and back onto the regular trail as soon as possible.


I took a moment to check in with myself and make sure that this was a Wise Mind decision. Wise Mind is a term from Dialectical Behavior Therapy, an evidence-based psychotherapy developed my Marsha Linehan, to help people regulate their emotions. Wise Mind is the intersection of Reasonable Mind and Emotion Mind where you bring both logic and your feelings into account in making a decision. Sometimes we make decisions using only Reasonable Mind (hopefully, in doing our taxes) and sometimes we enjoy being in Emotion Mind (while watching that new gripping drama on netflix). For people who are more anxious, it can be difficult to know if your anxiety is your Wise Mind or if you have been hijacked by your anxious Emotion Mind. It can take time and practice to know your own Wise Mind.


I decided I was in Wise Mind when I made the decision to leave the group (dragging my spouse along with me) and carefully descend down the steep rocks back to the “regular” trail. I had some thoughts like, “I should have been tougher,” “Am I not pushing myself enough?” and “The group will be mad at me.” I decided to continue the hike, determined to summit my first fourteener. As we ascended, stopping often to catch our breath as we neared the top, these thoughts became dimmer as I focused on my present moment experience: my breathing, smiling encouragingly at the people around me, making space for others on the trail going at different paces, taking a careful sip of water. I made it to the top and then all the way back down. Later that day one of the group members texted a picture of the trail not taken which validated my feelings that I got out just in time. It was of someone straddling the narrow top of a rock with nowhere to go (see below). I’m so glad I listened to my Wise Mind.




P.S. For more information on how to access your own Wise Mind or learn other DBT and CBT skills to help you make values-based decisions, please visit www.cbtdenver.com or email us at info@cbtdenver.com.


Up ahead on the path not taken...