Updated: May 5, 2019
It felt like you were finally getting somewhere; you were finally starting to understand and manage your anxiety and panic attacks, you maybe even felt like you were overcoming them altogether; then, everything came flooding back, perhaps more intensely than before. Are you thinking "For F*** sake, whats the point?" "Should I give up?" "Will I always be like this?" Do you feel like you're a failure and back at square one? Have you lost motivation and hope? From experience, I know how upsetting and frustrating this can be. It feels like all your hard work and lifestyle sacrifices (giving up caffeine, alcohol etc) have gone to waste; your CBT techniques seemed to have stopped working. No matter what you try do, your anxiety and panic keeps coming back.
Read below for why this set-back may have happened, how to move past it and concentrate on recovery again, and why it might not have been a set-back at all...
Why Did You Have a Set-Back?
Have you done something recently to spike your anxiety?
Had caffeine or drunk alcohol? Smoked weed?
“Those physical symptoms just won’t go away”
Think about how long you have interpreted your physical symptoms as dangerous, it is going to take a lot of time and effort to re-wire your thoughts and make you believe that they aren’t so. E.g. Think about how long you may have interpreted chest pains as dangerous, a heart-attack and imminent death; these are very strong emotions that you have might have felt for a long time, it will take time to be able to train yourself to not fear this symptom and truly believe that you are safe when it happens.
Maybe you have overcome your fear of the physical symptom but it's still manifesting itself? This can be truly very confusing and debilitating. Maybe you have experienced a lingering symptom even when you don’t feel anxious, maybe you were scared it was something else again? Maybe it stressed you out so much it caused your anxiety to soar? It’s okay, this is expected. Sometimes physical symptoms can linger long after your fear has gone, keep telling yourself it’s not dangerous and try take your mind off it. Eventually it will pass.
Fallen back into old habits?
It is easy to forget to use your go-to CBT technique, breathing technique or grounding technique or to find excuses for not exercising enough or eating poorly, it is easy to lose focus and get sucked back in by the anxiety. Again, easily rectified!
Fighting back against your anxiety is scary!
It goes against everything you have even been taught, to escape danger. This time you are staying in the danger, your DIY-CBT method may even be inducing the anxiety to happen more often. This takes balls. It isn’t easy but it is definitely achievable if you want it enough, this also gives your more chances to practice!
Felt like it was too good to be true?
Maybe you have gotten a lot better and your anxiety has reduced so much so that the fear you are having is that it will come back, and maybe this fear of it coming back has caused enough anxiety to make it actually come back. Maybe you believe it shouldn’t be this easy, or you feel guilty for overcoming it or maybe your doubting how you did so well to overcome something so horrible that inevitably it will come back, even stronger?
If none of these sound like you, don't be disheartened, there are thousands of reasons, I couldn't possibly list them all plus everyone's anxiety is different. Try your best to think about why your anxiety may have returned; Once you know why, it becomes much easier to create ways of overcoming your anxiety or panic attacks again.
3 Ways to Overcome Set-Backs:
1. Try Change Your Perspective.
Have you had a bad day? Was your latest panic attack really bad? Was it the worst one you’ve ever had? So what? That doesn’t mean your anxiety is deteriorating in general. Rather than focusing on how bad your anxiety is right this second, zoom-out.
Had a bad panic attack? Compare today to yesterday, is it better overall? You may have had a better day generally, this attack was bad but did you have less attacks than yesterday? Overall, have you felt less stressed today despite this panic attack?
Had a bad day? Compare this week to last week, is it better overall? You may have just had one s*** day in an otherwise much better week then last week.
Had a bad week? You may have just had a bad week within an otherwise much more positive month!
Had a bad month? You get the picture.
Try to look at it differently, can you put a positive spin on things? This links to my next point...
2. Don't Assess the Severity of Your Anxiety Based on Your Last Panic Attack or Current Level of Anxiousness.
This won’t give you an accurate reflection of what is going on. Try to analyse your anxiety over a longer time period, look at the bigger picture. Look at averages, not isolated incidents or one-offs. If Messi or Ronaldo didn't score in their last game, does that make them hopeless footballers? And if Theo Walcott did, does that make him better than them two? Absolutely not!
3. Blame Everything on External Things
If you felt like you were getting better and you've had a bad day or week, there is a good chance there is something to blame besides yourself! If I genuinely felt I was getting significantly better and then out of nowhere my anxiety peaked again, I was normally able to find an external factor to blame it on, rather than it being due to my anxiety worsening. This may sound like you're being bias and shifting the blame and now you know that's what I was doing, it won't work... however, if you have been improving then there is a really good chance that some external factor has caused your anxiety to come back!
Examples: Did I drink caffeine recently? Alcohol? Did I mistake hunger (dizziness, light-headed, difficulty concentrating) for anxiety? Has the weather changed? (Got significantly hotter or colder) Did something scary happen? Did I run into a phobia? (crowds, the dark, thunder and lightening, heights etc.) Did I eat something with lots of carbs or added sugar in? Has work been stressful lately? Have I been ill recently?
I used these 3 techniques a lot during my recovery, and they helped make sure that a set-back never meant a relapse.
2 Things to Ask Yourself:
1. Can I Explain Why My Anxiety Has Deteriorated Again?
Thinking about the first time your anxiety and panic attacks developed and this time, are there any similarities? Any things that correlate? If so, try work on overcoming this specific phobia/trigger or avoiding it if it isn't healthy. E.g. Smoking weed.
If the reason or cause is different to last time, is there some particular event in your life that may have caused it? If so, can this problem be addressed to help you feel calmer again? E.g. A family or relationship dispute, financial issues, a scary incident etc.
2. Is This Anxiety?
This might seem like a stupid question but bare with me. Are you 100% sure it is anxiety? Any chance it could be something else that you have accidentally mistaken for anxiety?
Things that may feel like anxiety: being hungry, being dehydrated, low blood pressure, flu or mild illness. These all produce similar symptoms to anxiety (light-headedness, dizziness, difficulty focusing etc.)
2 Important Things to Remember Before You Leave:
1. Recovery Isn’t Linear
Cliché but it’s true. You may have had a bad day. So what? Put it behind you. It's done now. You survived.
Having a bad day doesn’t mean you're back at square one. It’s just a bad day. Wipe the slate clean. Put it behind you and go again tomorrow. It might have been an anomaly. This time tomorrow or next week it may be better, it could even be much better.
2. Set-backs have to happen
Here it is, from arguably the best sportsman there has ever been:
“I have missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted with taking the game winning shot and missed. I have failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan.
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