Everyone experiences some level of anxiety in various life situations. Anxiety disorders, however, are different – the anxiety presents itself in situations where it isn’t warranted and reaches levels and frequency that are unmanageable, interfering with your ability to carry out basic tasks and responsibilities. This is how many of us end up in a treatment program. With the right treatment plan, it’s possible to reduce and sometimes even eradicate symptoms of severe anxiety.
The Work Doesn’t End With Treatment
We leave treatment feeling the best we have in a long time. We’ve been able to take a break from our typical routine, we’ve focused on ourselves, and we’ve had more support than ever before. In a perfect world, we would feel this good forever, but realistically, we know that life happens, and we are bound to have good days and bad days. Living with an anxiety disorder is a lifelong journey of learning to manage and mitigate the symptoms when they are present.
Experiencing a relapse of anxiety (or any mood symptom) after treatment can be extremely discouraging, but it’s important to remember that it’s a normal part of the recovery process. Symptoms may return slowly over time or they may seem to rush in all at once and unexpectedly. There are many different causes of relapse, including failure to continue following your treatment plan, absence of support system, or exposure to triggering events or situations. (And it may even happen for seemingly no reason at all.)
- Identify the sources. It’s important to consider what might be causing your anxiety symptoms to resurface. Are there specific situations or events that are making you feel more anxious or causing you more stress? There are numerous external factors that can contribute to anxiety relapses, such as stress, life changes, trauma triggers, or even biological fluctuations. Internal factors may be unhealthy thought patterns, cognitive distortions, or negative core beliefs (about yourself or the world). Identifying what that may be triggering your anxiety can help you develop a strategy to prepare for and manage the symptoms.
- Evaluate your lifestyle. When we first leave treatment we are typically pretty diligent and determined to follow the new routines and habits that have led us to success in our anxiety recovery. However, it’s easy to fall back into old ways, especially when we are feeling stable. The danger here is that symptoms can creep back in undetected and slowly begin to negatively impact us. If you notice a greater presence of anxiety, look at your current habits and routine. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you getting sunlight? Are you moving? Are you eating well? Are you hydrating? Are you spending too much time in front of screens? Are you practicing coping skills? All of these can impact how your mind and body respond to stress.
How To Handle Anxiety Relapse
The good news is, you’ve done this before. In fact, you’ve learned to manage your anxiety in a far more dire situation than this. You know what to do, you just have to get back on track. Most importantly, don’t get down on yourself. Relapses are common in many mental health conditions, and understanding that relapses can happen to anyone helps to reduce self-blame and cultivate self-compassion.
- Practice self-care. Take care of yourself by getting enough sleep, eating healthy, taking breaks from screens, getting outside, and engaging in social activities. Be sure to incorporate things you enjoy into your daily routine, along with coping skills to build resilience.
- Review your treatment plan. Review your treatment plan with your mental health professional to determine if any changes need to be made. You may need to adjust your medication, supplements, therapy sessions, or coping strategies to better manage your anxiety.
- Use your support system. Let friends and family know that you’re struggling. Communicating with those you trust and who understand what you’re going through can help you to stay positive and grounded, and they can also encourage you and hold you accountable to get back on track.
Recovery from anxiety is not a linear process. It involves ups and downs, progress and setbacks. Relapses provide an opportunity for learning and growth. That being said, I know, firsthand, that it’s really easy to get discouraged when you suddenly struggle after doing so well for so long. Having a panic attack after many months of not having one feels confusing and upsetting. Remember: anxiety is complex. Anxiety disorders arise from a combination of genetic, environmental, and biological factors. They are not caused by personal weakness or a flaw in your character. And sometimes we have to just accept not knowing why anxiety happens when it does. But you can be confident in knowing that you have the awareness and the tools to successfully manage a relapse of anxiety and continue to move forward in your recovery.