When Relapse Happens: Getting Back on Track
Congratulations! You've been working hard on some of the challenges in your life. You've tried new behaviors, made shifts in your interactions with others, added some new coping skills, and you're noticing the results! You're feeling less anxious, less depressed, better about who you are as a person, your relationships feel healthier and then...BAM! You slip back into old behavior. Or you find yourself in the same funk you fought for years. Or you get in a bad fight with your partner. It feels like a relapse and in addition to the old familiar misery, perhaps you feel shame or incompetence or failure that you "regressed."
I write about this because it just happened to me this week. I was headed to work and boarded a packed train. I wedged myself in, the doors closed and we moved on. We took on more passengers at the next two stops but nobody seemed to get off. Then we entered a tunnel and stopped. Crowded trains delayed in tunnels are not unusual for my commute but today was different. It was exceptionally crowded and we stopped for much longer than usual. I noticed anxious thoughts enter my thinking, I felt my blood pressure increase and my face flush. Then I noticed the old familiar anxiety (hello anxiety my old friend) show up. But this time it went even further - I could feel myself shifting into a panic attack.
I hadn't experienced that in years. Through therapy, meditation practice and other skills, I had found significant relief from my own anxiety. In fact, it is my belief in therapy and the application of mindfulness that motivates my work as a therapist with others who live with anxiety.
But here I am on the train and it might as well be 20 years ago. I notice thoughts around this. How can I be experiencing this? Didn't I take care of this? Shouldn't I be better at this by now? I was able to cope (sort of) and get through the train ride. But after it was over, I felt completely overwhelmed, slightly embarrassed, ashamed, and, oh yeah, anxious!
The point of the above is not to tell you about my experience on the train, but rather, to focus on the concept of relapse. How do you cope when this happens? When you find yourself in the old, dreaded, and very familiar place?
Find Some Compassion for Yourself
First, see if you can cultivate a little compassion for yourself. This is a very ripe time for the self-critical thoughts to start and feelings of shame and failure to rise up. Can you notice these thoughts and feelings, in addition to the anxiety, anger, sadness, or whatever else you are feeling? Can you create a space for some gentleness with yourself? Sometimes this is hard to do for ourselves, especially if self-critical thoughts are something you often deal with. Try switching roles. Imagine that instead of your experience, that this was your friend, partner, or other loved one's experience. Someone you really deeply care about. Imaging that they were telling you about this experience. How would you feel toward them? Can you notice feelings of warmth, tenderness, caring? See if you can shift the focus of these to yourself. (I wrote a script to help with this.)
Accept That Life Will Happen
Begin to hold space for the idea that you cannot control life or predict all the possible triggers and stressors that may happen to you. All of your good coping tools and hard work may be no match for what life will occasionally dish out (like a crowded train stuck in a tunnel!). Identify how you can possibly deal with these potential events next time. Are there additional coping skills you'd like to try? Something you might do differently?
Also, can you find some compassion for yourself around this? Can you sit with this concept as something that may be a reality but doesn't necessarily need to be dreaded or held closely? Perhaps picturing your life as an upward spiral will help.
Your Life and Experience is an Upward Spiral
When relapse happens and you find yourself in an old, familiar, unwanted place, the fact is that you are not in the same place. You have new insights and wisdom about yourself. You have new and stronger coping skills. While you may have relapsed into old behavior, your recovery may be quicker and you may even notice feelings of resiliency and a sense that you can survive this. A way to imagine this is an upward spiral. Rather than looking at your life as a linear path, consider that it is often a spiral: with you finding yourself in situations and experiencing feelings and stressors and thoughts that you've been through before. The difference however, is that you have grown and gained insight and become more flexible in your ability to respond - you are on the spiral but you are in a higher place - a new place with new insights, flexibility and resiliency. Holding this image can be helpful as you anticipate future challenges or recover from recent ones.