I had my first major panic attack in several years.
YEARS. I had deep-breathed my way through those years. I had maintained medication, moved to the city, and started grad school. Then it hit me.
It hit me hard. It felt like a sign of complete and utter failure. A relapse. Square one. I felt stuck. It’s hard to get back to normal when the normalcy you enjoyed for so long is pulled from under your feet.
For years I built a wall of comfort to stave off anxiety. I gathered friends, animals, and photographs. I had my medication. I had my books. I lowered my stress level. Still, my insides feel no less vulnerable than years ago. At times, I still feel like a child afraid of the boogeyman.
I learned quickly comfort is not everything. This can be a disconcerting realization. It can make you feel hopeless.
When the calm no longer calms
What do you do when the tricks that worked for years don’t work anymore? When comfort no longer comforts?
I became used to the equation: Anxiety + Comfort= Anxiety goes away. Voila! No panic attack. It’s never that simple, though. Something subjective like comfort doesn’t work all the time. Heck, medication doesn’t always prevent relapse.
It can be especially difficult to swallow when there is no concrete reason for the relapse. Before this panic attack, nothing particularly stressful had happened. I hadn’t stopped medication or traveled to a new place.
With a mental health relapse, it is easy to feel like everything you worked for disappeared instantly, to feel like you are no better at overcoming this than you were before. Succumbing to this thought is dangerous. It can lead to giving up on what is working–medication, therapy, exercise.
Recovering from a relapse is all about re-framing it. It’s about changing the narrative in your head.
Here’s how I dug myself out of a mental health relapse:
It’s important to go back to what you learned, to celebrate the progress you made. Think about the times you could have fallen back into your illness, but didn’t. Those are huge accomplishments, even if they seem moot now.
What did you learn that helped in the past? Write these things down and read them over and over. Even if this list didn’t work this time, it worked at one point. This means it could work again. Focus on the positive. Celebrate.
Strengthen your mental health strategy. Try a new therapy or form of exercise. Start hiking. Join a support group. Meet people who understand what it is like to live with a mental illness.
Consider talking to your doctor about altering your medication. This isn’t essential, but may be helpful if the relapse was severe.
Doing something will not only help prevent a relapse in the future, it will help take your mind off your current slump.
This one is the hardest for me.
Embrace the uncertainty. Realize you will likely have another relapse. This panic attack was not my last. I don’t exactly love this thought, but I accept it. As hard as it is, I realize panic is a part of me. It is something I fear, yes, but I don’t need to.
Don’t give up because the relapse happened. Take what you can from it and move forward. Don’t think about when it will happen next, just focus where you want to be.
Mental health is a journey. It’s not this one event. It’s a series of moments. It’s not where you are at this exact moment, it’s where you want to go.
Repeat this to remind yourself of what is important when you need it the most.
What do you do when a healthy mind suddenly becomes ill again? How do you bounce back?