4 Keys to Breaking the Cycle of Relapse

Colin Roy

For those who live with any kind of long-lasting mental health concerns or emotional issues, the threat of relapse is always present. But we don’t need to sit passively, “waiting for the next shoe to drop,” as the saying goes. There are things that you and your family or friends can do to reduce the frequency and severity of relapse.

1. Learn the Patterns: When are Symptoms Worse? When do they get better?

Start keeping a daily log or diary where you record what you are experiencing, and anything else that is going on. Patterns will emerge over time – for instance, are you always more depressed the day after you have a few beers? Did you have 3 or 4 sleepless nights the week before the paranoid thoughts returned?

You can make your own symptom tracker by simply drawing a chart on paper, such as this Symptom Diary from HealthLink BC. Add in other things that you want to track such as what you ate, if you have lots of deadlines to meet, etc.

You may also want to use a symptom tracker app. Care must be taken with apps, as not all are based on accurate information. Some that include symptom trackers and reliable health information are:

Mayo Clinic Anxiety Coach

MoodTools

PTSD Coach

By tracking your symptoms, you can identify what your personal triggers are.

2. Reduce or Eliminate Triggers Whenever Possible

Once you’ve identified some of your triggers, find out which ones can be eliminated altogether. If you can’t eliminate them, consider which triggers are within your control, and which are not. For those that are within your control, take steps to change them. This may require some professional help such as addiction counselling or guidance for sleep hygiene.

For those triggers that are out of your control, look for ways to mitigate their effects. If something outside of your control like the weather is a trigger for you, you can still take steps to reduce its impact. SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lights are one example of this.

3. Identify Your Early Warning Signs

Now take another look at your patterns. Trace them back to pinpoint the earliest warning signs leading up to relapse. Your family and friends may be able to help with this. They may have observed that you started spending more time on your computer a week or so before depressive symptoms appeared, for example.

4. Learn (and Use) Tools for Coping with Early Symptoms

Plan ahead for what you will do when you notice the early warning signs. Use the tools that you know work best for you. This may include mindfulness, meditation, cognitive behavioural strategies, or other techniques that you have learned, as well as prescribed medications. You may want to talk with your physician about having a plan for a short-term increase of medications if early warning signs are present (do not adjust your medications without your physician’s knowledge and approval).

Perhaps your tools are simpler things, such as going for a walk, doing yoga, taking a few day’s break from Facebook, or listening to music that makes you feel happy. Physical exercise of any sort is also a proven way to improve mental health. And connecting with others is always a good way to ground yourself.

So – now you have a plan! Write it out, keep it somewhere handy, and give copies to your family and friends. Include your triggers, warning signs, and personal relapse prevention tools. You might make a small wallet card for yourself to remind you to breathe. However you do it, get your plan onto paper and refer to it often. If you or your family spot your early warning signs, take immediate action. Don’t wait for symptoms to become severe.

Relapse does not have to happen out of the blue and knock you over. You can do a lot to recognize the warning signs and take preventative measures to push it away or take away much of its power!

Wilma Schroeder, BN, MMFT
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute Inc.

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