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How To Deal With a Backslide:
Have you experienced an unexpected and severe backslide in your mental health journey?
I certainly have. In fact, I just recently felt like I’d stepped five years backwards in my mental health journey. Long story short, trauma reared its ugly head in a very bad and unexpected way. In that moment, all the good coping mechanisms I’d learned went out the window. I spent the next week in a shame spiral, the likes of which I haven’t seen since my early twenties.
I hyperfocused. I stopped communicating with anyone. I was irate at people who were trying to talk sense into me, feeling victimized. I cried til my face hurt and stopped caring for myself. And worst of all, I broke my two years sobriety on self harm.
It’s been a tough week for me because of all that. But I decided to put my pain to a little good use and teach you how to deal with a backslide that’s so bad it could derail your entire recovery.
Table of Contents
First Rule of How To Deal With A Backslide: Remember It’s OKAY To Have Bad Days
Before I go any farther in this article, I have got to say this: It’s okay to have a backslide.
Needless to say, I felt ashamed at how badly I backslid. But, through talking with supportive friends and lots of research, I realized something very important.
No matter how good our coping skills are, the reality is we’re all going to have some really, really bad days. It’s the nature of the beast and we can only do our best in any given moment. It’s not your fault if you’ve backslid and you didn’t do anything wrong.
It just happens.
Backsliding is actually incredibly common. In fact, the phenomenon is even considered one of the most important parts of recovery.
Whaaaat? Yeah, I know it seems backwards but I’ll explain.
In order to understand all this, let’s take a look at the why backsliding happens in the first place.
What Is A Backslide And Why Does It Happen?
A backslide is a point in recovery where a patient regresses either partially or fully back into old behaviors due to being emotionally overwhelmed or triggered.
It can happen all of a sudden or over time. Intensity varies from person to person and situationally. For me, my backslide was triggered by a series of situations that reminded me of some traumatizing public failures. Like the worst kind of deja vu, I was playing out a pattern that had once emotionally ruined me. I couldn’t handle it.
For many of us recovering from trauma, triggers lay in wait around every corner. In recovery, we have lots of tools to help us handle them. Then there are the odd times where we just...can’t. That’s when a backslide happens.
But, as random as backslides may seem, there’s actually some predictable culprits at play here. You may be more likely to backslide if these characters are involved:
- Relationship/Family issues
- Financial problems
- Housing/shelter/food insecurity
- Physical Health challenges
Any or all of those six can contribute heavily to our inability to deal with a trigger. For instance, something like a bad grade or a shitty interaction with a customer is a lot harder to deal with if you’re already stressed and overwhelmed with life. And it all stacks. So the more overwhelmed you are, the less likely you are to respond well to triggers which in turn adds to your overwhelm.
Why Is Backsliding Important To Recovery?
Okay, now that you know how and why a backslide happens, let’s talk about why it’s such an important step in recovery.
As much as it sucks, backsliding gives you the chance to practice radical self compassion. Let’s look at it this way. Just recently when I had my mini breakdown, I could have beaten myself up about it. In the past, I might let that shame sit inside me and mope about feeling guilty about letting everyone down.
But since I’ve been on my mental health journey for some time now I remember that phrase “if you do what you always do, you get what you always get.” At some point during my recovery I finally put two and two together to realize that if I continued shaming myself, I would wind up breaking down even more. So instead, despite the guilt and consequences, I practiced radical self compassion.
- I stopped and listened to what my body needed, which was a break from all the responsibilities I put on myself
- I focused on my basic needs like food, water, sleep and peaceful alone time. (Sounds odd but I would have punished myself in the past by not allowing myself those things)
- Once I got myself calmed down and needs met, I challenged the negative thoughts and guilt I was feeling
- I was vulnerable with friends and family, reaching out to tell them what happened instead of hiding my breakdown
- I worked on forgiving myself even though I fully believed I didn’t deserved it
- I accepted that I had backslid and leaned into the idea that I have more work to do
Practicing radical self compassion is the antidote to a shame spiral. Even though I still feel crappy and guilty, showing myself kindness is helping me move forward in a big way. Because of this, in a few days I’ll be back to normal instead of in the hospital, which is what would have happened before.
And that’s why backsliding can be really crucial to your recovery. Because it’s not about why or how you fell down, it’s about how you picked yourself up. If you can fail hard and still give yourself grace, that’s when you truly know you’re on the path to recovery.
How To Deal With The Consequences Of A Backslide
Even though backsliding isn’t necessarily a bad thing, there are still consequences of going dark.
For me the consequences are far reaching. I run a bunch of groups on social media, participate in a social justice committee, publish this blog, manage an Etsy shop, and a run a graphic design business all by myself. All of that on top of being a wife who manages a busy household.
This past week, as I backslid, all of that went suddenly and shockingly to the wayside. And no matter how much breaking down wasn’t in my control, it is my responsibility to pick up the pieces of the things I’ve dropped.
So, how am I doing that?
- Recognize that my health is my top priority and adjust my week accordingly by cutting out extra responsibilities and focusing on self care
- Apologize to those affected and be vulnerable with them by letting them know what’s been going on once I’m feeling better
- Organize, list, and prioritize what needs to be salvaged emotionally and physically (caring for myself, my marriage and my household take the top spots)
- Ask for help from others
- Deconstruct why I ended up so overwhelmed and make plans to keep it from happening in the future
- Accept that I might have hurt some feelings and work towards building back relationships
And last but not least, if you’re in the same boat as me, the most important thing you can do is be gentle with yourself. No matter how bad you think you’ve messed up, it’s rarely as bad as you think.
Work on approaching your next steps with accountability, vulnerability, and compassion. It may be really difficult to build yourself back up after a backslide but leading with those three things will get you there. I promise <3
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