The Problem with the Geographical Cure

Have you ever heard of the geographical cure? It is the idea that moving one’s physical location will have a significant impact on whatever symptoms the person is experiencing, to the point that it will cure them. This term stems out of Addiction recovery lingo (which, as you may or may not know, has its own culture and language, including that of the geographical cure) but I cannot help but think that others with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues  have also tried the geographical cure to help them in their journey.
The geographical cure, in a nutshell, would be someone picking up and relocating from one place to another thinking that this will cure their internal ailments. This might involve a smaller move, like to another house within the same city, but since Addiction is an “all-or-nothing,” “bigger is better” condition, it usually leads to people moving to different cities, states/provinces, or even countries. The more distance you can put between you and the sh*t you want to leave behind, the better. Right?
Seeing any problems with this so far? If not, that might be a red flag that you are being tempted by the fantasy of the geographical cure. Because, rest assured, it is just that: A fantasy. How would moving from Boston to Toledo or Toronto to Vancouver (for my fellow Canadians in the crowd) change everything that is going on inside of you? Starting to see the problem now? The key is that these problems are inside of you, not outside. Sure, our environment has an impact on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, but it is not the sole determiner of what we do or do not do. All of these experiences get filtered through our mind and inform our perspective of them so if the filter is distorted, so is the perspective. If I am struggling to get away from alcohol and think that relocating away from my familiar routes and haunts will get me away from alcohol, what is going to happen in my new environment? Now I am alone in an unfamiliar place, stressed due to the change and whatever other changes needed to happen as a result of that (relationships, work, school, etc.) and looking for relief. Do you think just because I am in a new environment that I am going to walk into a gym instead of a bar or liquor store to help with that stress? Of course not. Our brains go to what’s familiar and, when there is a lack of familiarity, it increases the need for comfort, so I am actually more likely to seek out the comfort of a bar or liquor store if that is where I found comfort before, than in something new and different. If I could not do something new and different in the comfort of my familiar surroundings, it is pretty unlikely that I am going to be doing it while sitting in discomfort.
After some introduction to the geographical cure, I’ll now take some time to answer common questions related to this topic:
“When is it healthy to move then?”
Great question. I love this question because obviously people move and it is certainly not a requirement for recovery and health that you stay in one place forever. Sometimes there is acute abuse happening that is preventing people from taking care of themselves. Perhaps someone is in an abusive relationship or living in a house with others who are actively participating in a behaviour that you want to get away from. In these situations, removal from the environment would be an example of a healthy boundary to assist you in your personal development journey. If your environment is actively harming you, it is time for change.
Another time that a move is appropriate is when you are in a stable place with a healthy self-care routine and supports and you have decided, for premeditated reasons, that a change would be of added benefit. For instance, you land a job that you have been seeking for awhile or decide to pursue further education. Perhaps you realize that your authentic self wants to live closer to family or friends, or to live in a certain environment. These decisions would be thoughtful, planned out for a long time in advance, and be carefully considered in the context of your recovery and health. They would not be spur of the moment, reactive actions designed to provide relief and escape and solve a problem.
“Can the geographical cure ever be beneficial?”
When people move impulsively looking for a cure, they may initially find themselves in a honeymoon period where things feel better. They’re distracted by all of the changes that are required for a move and excited about the future. Sometimes this honeymoon period lasts for a year, or six months, or a few weeks, but it always ends. As a therapist, I would say this is actually harmful rather than of benefit because it further delays people from doing the work they need to for themselves as they get lulled into an artificial sense of “okayness.” If there is a reasoned move for safety or personal growth, then, yes, there can be benefit. When it is a desperate, reactive move for escape, there is not.
Think carefully about your motivations for big changes like a move (this could also to apply to big relationship or work changes too, thinking that “a change is better than a rest”). Talk out your thought process with some trusted people who can look at the situation objectively and provide you feedback. Proceed thoughtfully and carefully on this one my friends.
All the best to you in your health journey,
Paige Abbott
Paige Abbott is a Registered Psychologist who has a private practice specializing in Addiction counselling in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Please check out her YouTube video on this topic for more information and discussion.