Overcoming the Fear of Relapse

“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.”

– Arnold Schwarzenegger

There I was, living my life with ease. Almost ten months had gone by without a panic attack. The pesky depression, depersonalization, and agoraphobia that had plagued me relentlessly were nowhere in sight. I was doing things I never thought I could do again, like drive on highways and take vacations.

But amidst all this progress, there was one thing looming over me like a dark cloud: the fear of relapse. For anyone who has ever dealt with depression, anxiety, or addiction, the fear of relapse is a very real and menacing threat.

When you’ve found yourself at the bottom of a black hole, and it took every single piece of energy in you to scrape yourself out, of course you never, ever want to fall back into that hole again.

Whenever any sign of the anxiety and depression started creeping back in, I immediately became frozen with fear that I was headed back into that horrible black hole, and that this time, I wouldn’t be able to get myself out.

I realized quickly that this fear was only inhibiting me from being happy with my progress here and now. I needed a way to overcome this fear if I was ever to move forward. Here are a few tips that helped me see past the fear of relapse.

Trust your own strength.

When I imagined relapsing, it always came with the thought, “I won’t be able to handle going through this again.” I doubted myself and my strength. But then I started looking back on all the times when my own strength has surprised me.

There was a time when I never thought I could go a single day without a panic attack. There was a time when depression allowed me to think I couldn’t possibly put one foot in front of the other, or breathe one more breath. And here I am moving and breathing and flourishing.

Make a list of all the obstacles in your life you have overcome. Recognize that you have a perfect track record so far of dealing with what life throws at you because no matter how hard it was, you’re still here.

Trust that you are strong enough to handle whatever comes your way, because you are.

Realize that you have more tools now.

The very first time I had a panic attack was the scariest moment of my life. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t know why I was feeling so detached from my surroundings.

But through my recovery, I learned so many valuable tools that allowed me to deal with my anxiety more effectively. I learned what works for me and what doesn’t.

Even if you tried, you can never “un-know” the things you’ve learned. If you’ve made it out of a tough situation before, odds are you learned strategies to cope. Those will always be with you. You’ll never have to go back to that initial surprise of  flailing around in confusion.

Have a plan.

Make a list of all the tools that helped you recover. Then, be prepared to implement them again at the first sign of a setback.

When I sensed anxiety creeping back in recently, I got out my list of tools and went through them one by one: I reached out to my loved ones for support. I got out my workbooks from therapy. I continued to do everything I would normally do, even though my fear wanted me to stay “in safety.” Sometimes just reminding myself that I have plenty of options to help me through the setback is enough to calm my fears.

Creating a plan can help to take the surprise out of a setback. You’ll feel more ready and prepared to take it on.

Look at it as a way to practice your skills.

Instead of viewing a difficult moment as a setback, look at it as a way to show off all the skills and tools you now have under your belt.

When panic started knocking at my door again, instead of thinking, oh no, here we go again…, I switched my thoughts to, this is a wonderful chance for me to practice my skills. I could practice deep breathing, positive affirmations, and whatever else I gathered in my treatment to demonstrate to myself just how much I have learned and grown.

Recently, I noticed that it took me about a minute to talk myself down from a panic attack, while in the past, it would have turned into a 20-minute full-blown attack. Instead of being upset that my anxiety was flaring, I was so proud of myself for showing just how far I’ve come and remembering the self-talk tools I’ve collected.

Allow yourself to truly celebrate your successes.

Since I was so focused on relapsing, I couldn’t truly enjoy how far I had come. I was living in fear of something that may never happen, and it stopped me from seeing how beautiful and strong I had become right here and now.

Every day, celebrate your successes, even if it just means getting out of bed that morning. Don’t let the dark, fear-of-relapse cloud block the sunshine that is your progress. You’re here, you’re breathing, you’re strong. Let’s celebrate!

The possibility of a relapse may always be a reality, but my fear of it doesn’t have to inhibit my life any longer. The more I started to focus on the positive aspects of my progress, the less space there was for the fear to enter my mind. By shifting my attention to my unwavering strength, knowledge, and success, I can now embrace my progress with an open heart.

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