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When I think about the setbacks that inevitably occur on the road to changing one’s life, I always remember an issue of O Magazine with the provocative headline, “How Did I Let This Happen Again?” It showed side-by-side photos of Oprah Winfrey — one of a slender past self and one of her present heavier self. In the accompanying article, Oprah talked candidly about her struggles with weight loss. Many times, due to her perceived failures, she felt defeated and considered giving up entirely.

More often than not, our breakdowns act as catalysts for our breakthroughs.

In expressing her frustrations, Oprah gave voice for all of us to the unexpected roadblocks and discouraging detours that can occur on the rocky road of behavioral change. It is critically important to remember, however, that the experience of temporarily slipping backwards is normal, expected, and inevitable during the dynamic process of learning how to sustain a healthy lifestyle practice..

Even knowing that about the process, however, doesn’t stop a backslide from eliciting strong feelings of disappointment in yourself. What usually follows is additional shame and self-blame. When these feelings of self-defeat reach a debilitating crescendo, we refer to it as hitting the wall. The salient question one must ask is not “What will I do IF I ever hit the wall?” The more realistic, productive and compassionate question must be, “What will I do when I hit the wall?”

1 – “Over my many years of facilitating groups for the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine (Intensive Cardiac Rehabilitation), I have had the privilege of talking with many participants about what hitting the wall means to them. They express how difficult it is to adopt new lifestyle habits, especially at a time when their health is demanding and requiring them to do so. They speak with frustration about resisting the urge to “throw in the towel” when they fall short of their daily goals. They confess how guilty and ashamed they feel when they willfully step back into a few of their previous, self-destructive habits.

One participant who was struggling with nutritional choices declared, “I’ll tell you what hitting the wall sounds like. It sounds like this: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing—and I don’t mean broccoli!” Others offered additional descriptions of what it feels like when hitting the wall:

“It means I feel completely discouraged.”

“I feel disappointed and disgusted with myself. I want to quit.”

“It feels like I want to turn back, but I know I can’t. I just don’t know how I will keep going.”

“I feel like a loser…again.”

“It feels like I’m out of ideas, on a desert island, and I have no clue what to do next.”

Harnessing Negative Emotions to Get Back on Track

When we backslide and negative emotions begin to escalate, we often fear that these thoughts and feelings will persist indefinitely, debilitating us long term. But as we learn to turn toward these intense feelings and not away from them, we can begin to realize that they are only short term and an important part of the normal process of adjusting to change. If you suppress these kinds of negative emotions instead of identifying, validating, and then releasing them, overtime they can hinder your ability to feel confident and strong enough to stay on track.

University of Pittsburgh psychologist, Saul Shiffman, uncovered a link between negative feelings and backsliding. In a research study published in the Journal of Personality, Shiffman studied the dynamic influences affecting the relapse process for those who had quit smoking. He found that the number one predictor for relapsing is unattended, intense, negative emotions including anger and anxiety. He also found that these lapses resulted in an immediate drop in self-efficacy.

Harnessing runaway feelings of negativity and identifying potential pitfalls will help us in turning toward inevitable challenges with hope instead of turning away in despair. As the Japanese proverb states, by doing this, we will learn how to “Fall Seven Times. Stand up eight.”

To Err Is Human

This bears repeating—the first step in coping with backsliding is to recognize that it is normal to do so. Repeat this often: Lapses are errors, not failures. Mistakes deserve correction, not criticism and condemnation.

Temporary disappointment in ourselves doesn’t have to escalate into a full-blown crisis in which we permanently forfeit the gains we have made thus far. What we need at this time of alleged defeat is a hand-up, not another put-down. The truth of everyday living is that stressors can gang up on us. We feel pushed. We fall off the wagon. This is not irrefutable proof of our guilt and a lack of fortitude. It proves nothing except that we are vulnerably human.

Progress, Not Perfection

The key is to avoid an “all or nothing” attitude. This black and white thinking can turn a minor setback into a major one. The late G. Alan Marlatt, former longtime director of the Behavioral Research Center at the University of Washington, named this the “abstinence-violation” effect.

It’s the belief that anything less than perfection is total failure. This narrow focus often leads to a conclusion that one just doesn’t have what it takes to succeed or an attitude of “If I can’t do it perfectly I don’t want to do it at all”. Instead of going that route, each setback could instead be used as a stepping-stone for learning how to do things differently in the future.

Identifying Potential Pitfalls

Although stressors seem to pile up all at once, the opposite is usually the case. Most daily pressures build up gradually overtime. Then it doesn’t take much for something small to push us over the edge. It’s helpful to retrace your steps and look with compassionate awareness at what distressing, situational factors may have contributed to your feelings of hitting the wall.

Two types of factors can be identified: proximal, which are short-term factors, and distal, which include underlying, on-going causes. Proximal situational factors might include not getting enough rest, a quarrel with a loved one, or a reprimand at work. Distal factors could include caring long term for an ill family member, the exhaustion that comes with being a working parent, and ongoing lack of emotional and social support.

Identifying these factors puts us back in touch with a healthy respect for the challenges we have been and are facing. This is not a self-deceiving attempt to justify our mistakes. It is an objective, validating look at the confluence of factors that conspired to create feelings of overwhelm and defeat. Taking an inventory of precipitating stressors can aid us not only in avoiding similar consequences in the future, but also in possibly even heading them off at the pass altogether.

Making a Caring Plan

No plan can be completely fool proof in preventing backsliding from ever occurring. What we can do is continue to look with honesty and empathy at our unhealthy patterns, identify what often leads up to their expression and then support our efforts by putting some helpful safeguards in place.

Participant Tips for Staying on Track

I recently asked a number of past Ornish Program participants for their tips on how to stay on track with their lifestyle practices. Here are a few:

“I never go to a party hungry. I always bring a dish to share that I can eat in case there isn’t anything available that supports my nutritional goals.”

“I do at least half of my exercise and stress management practice in the morning. This way I have already made a hefty deposit in my health early in the day. It lightens my load and gives me confidence that I can get the rest in before the day ends.”

“I always take my “L” (love) vitamin daily. I make it a point to say “I love you” every day to my spouse, kids, and other family members. I don’t just think it; I have to let them know out loud. I feel that this glues us together and I feel less alone in my troubles.”

“I plan out my meals for the week before I go grocery shopping. Sometimes I’ll cook on Sunday and make extras that I can freeze for busy days when I don’t have time to cook. It’s great to be able to reach into my fridge for something healthy, yummy and ready to eat.”

Participant Tips for Back Slides

I also asked them for tips on how to respond constructively if and when they do backslide:

“When I catch myself making lists of my shortcomings I ask myself if I would let anyone talk badly like that about my best friend. Of course I wouldn’t. So I make a different list of what I’ve been able to do right. I feel much better when I stick up for myself. Then I just get back on track without any more fuss.”

“When I hit the wall, I realize that I’m terrible at asking for help. It still makes me uncomfortable, but what’s encouraging for me is how willing others are to help me when I do ask. I thought receiving help would make me feel weak. But I don’t feel weak, I feel supported. It feels good. It makes me want to return support to them also.”


It isn’t easy to hang in there through the ups and downs of adhering to a healthy lifestyle practice. We’ve heard it said before: our alleged failures often turn out to be our best, albeit toughest, teachers. More often than not, our breakdowns act as catalysts for our breakthroughs. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that we must never try to go it alone. We can learn how to reach up and out for support, instead of spiraling in and down in despair.

Ralph Waldo Emerson offers this encouragement and hope, “Every wall is a door.” No matter how impenetrable our troubles seem to be, we are worth every courageous effort it takes on our part to recoup, recover and try, try again.

When you slip back into an unhealthy habit what helps you to get back on track?








Contributed by

Mimi O' Connor
Group Support Specialist

Hearts linked, together we heal…

Better Health Begins With You...

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