You have been here before. You can feel it. You’ve felt the same kind of creeping feeling in the past. In some cases, people describe it as an enveloping feeling, like cold molasses turning your arms and legs to lead. What you may be experiencing is a flare-up or a series of mental health setbacks resulting from a mental health disorder.
Mental Health Setbacks Are Part of the Process
Sometimes, it’s the tightening chest or the shallow breath. And other times, it’s intrusive and unwanted thoughts and memories or the feeling of a cold sweat and a nervous reaction at the sight of something you thought you had gotten used to. Or it’s that intense, unbelievable, inescapable craving.
Mental health setbacks, or flare-ups, are an unfortunate and nearly inescapable fact of struggling with a mental health issue. Whether you struggle with psychosis, depression, anxiety, addiction, trauma, or other facets of mental illness, it’s important to understand that treatment sadly isn’t as easy as a one-and-done, and in many cases, the art lies in learning to cope and lead a good life with – or despite – your diagnosis.
You’re not alone, and you’re not weak, nor are you a failure. You certainly are not getting worse, and having a mental health setback isn’t really a “setback.”
Let’s talk about it.
Life is a Rollercoaster, and Perspective Matters
Mental health is a complicated and abstract concept. It’s hard to set a baseline for human emotion, behavior, and thinking. While we constantly seek to improve the accuracy of the consensus on what should be defined as the boundary between pathological and not pathological, everyone has ups and downs.
The human condition, even while “normal,” includes a great breadth of emotions that span from nonsensically and inexplicably tragic to unfathomably furious and incongruent with reality. You don’t have to be “ill” to seek help, and you don’t have to struggle with your mental health to be hurting.
But as it stands, some people suffer differently and more deeply than others. Mental health issues like depression are not like ordinary sadness or grief. Anxiety is more than a moment of irrational fear. And psychosis is more troubling than feelings of grandeur or fantasy.
For people with diagnosed mental health issues, life’s ups and downs can hit harder and be more difficult to cope with. But that does not necessarily mean that you are failing to deal with your mental health or that treating conditions like depression and anxiety is a Sisyphean task, to begin with. It’s important to remember, throughout it all, that you are always working on getting better – and when things aren’t better, it’s still all part of the process.
Why Are You Experiencing a Flare-Up?
Mental health conditions can flare up in symptoms in response to stress. The mind works a lot like the body in this regard. We know that risk factors that correlate with greater life stress also tend to correlate with higher rates of perceived mental health problems – people who lead harsher, tougher lives tend to struggle more with symptoms of depression, anxiety, and trauma, whether it’s through poverty, war, personal anguish, natural disasters, or other factors.
In much the same way, these stressors can also cause people who are managing their mental health to experience stronger, worse symptoms. It’s normal to struggle more deeply with your symptoms of anxiety around the holidays when the financial strain of the holiday season hits. It’s normal to have a harder time coping with depression when school ramps up around the midterms.
Sometimes There Are No Reasons
Mental health setbacks or flare-ups can occur for any reason, but also no discernable reasons at all. This is one of the most frustrating realities of living with a mental health problem, especially in the early years. Your symptoms will often respond negatively to stress. However, they might also get worse out of the blue, or at least with no discernable stressors.
Stressors and random factors are uncontrollable and part of life. You cannot blame yourself for these “setbacks,” no matter how guilty you feel. It’s infuriating to find control after struggling for years, only to experience a slump and feel like you’ve rolled down a hill you spent months climbing.
But it’s also important to note that you haven’t rolled nearly as far as you might think you did.
If you’ve spent time in treatment, and learned more about how your symptoms affect you and how to cope, then you will have a leg up on your condition as you seek therapy again. You’ll have the experience that comes with treatment and a better understanding of your own mental health.
You will become better at reading the signs of an oncoming flare-up and recognizing your specific triggers. Over time, the factors behind your symptoms will seem less and less random as you build up your resilience against stress and learn ways that you can personally affect your mental health positively and protect it against future flare-ups.
Preventing a Mental Health Setback
Preventing mental health setbacks can be difficult, but there are things you can do to minimize your symptoms and stressors and catch the signs of an oncoming flare-up before it gets worse, such as:
- Keep up with treatment (even when you feel good)
- Work on your stress management habits
- Seek healthier coping mechanisms
- Set time aside for your hobbies and interests
- Always get enough sleep
- Evaluate your eating habits
- Have your friends on speed dial
- Improve your physical fitness
- Accept that they can happen – and get help!
Dealing With a Relapse
Relapses are a “flare-up” of addiction symptoms. But in the same way, it’s important to turn every relapse into an opportunity – an opportunity to identify unique triggers, understand the circumstances around your relapse, and realize what changes you need to make.
It can be excruciatingly difficult to get back on the wagon after an addiction setback. But that is where support becomes critical – whether from friends and relatives or from your sober community members and support group. No one who has been there will judge you for your misstep. For many people – most, even – it’s part of the process.
What’s important is that you keep help close at hand, always. Talk to your close friends and family members about recognizing symptoms and staging an intervention whenever necessary. Eliminate and cope with the stressors and triggers around you. Continue to go to therapy even when you feel better. And don’t ignore the signs when you don’t feel better anymore.