For many of us, anxiety disorders are something we'll manage for most of our lives. Sometimes, we might go a long time without any anxiety at all, only for our anxiety or panic attacks to come back when we least expect them. When this happens, it’s important to know how to handle an anxiety relapse.
When anxiety relapses, try and identify the root cause of the issue. If possible, minimize any obvious or preventable stressors in your life. Consider which anxiousness-reducing strategies worked best for you in the past, and implement them. Anxiety relapses are rarely, if ever, as bad as first-time anxiety, and can often be dealt with quickly.
While an anxiety relapse can be scary, knowing what to do if anxiety comes back can help us manage the situation.
If you’re suffering from anxiety or panic attacks yourself, you should also check out these awesome steps for beating anxiousness.
What is an Anxiety Relapse?
Sometimes we feel we’re on top of the world. We’re beating our anxiety, stepping out of our comfort zone, and having fewer panic attacks than ever. But then, out of the blue… all those negative feelings come rushing back and we feel anxious again.
An anxiety relapse is exactly what it sounds like: Anxiety coming back when we least expect it.
Depending on which anxiety disorder, if any, you suffer from, an anxiety relapse may look different for you than for other people. Here are just a few forms an anxiety relapse might take:
- Feeling anxious or jittery regularly, after a long break from these feelings
- Becoming nervous in social settings where you previously felt comfortable
- Starting to have panic attacks again after a long period of time without them
While our anxiety coming back in full force can be scary or discouraging, we are able to combat these emotions by understanding them a bit better.
Let’s start by seeing if we can figure out why our anxiousness is coming back in the first place.
Why is My Anxiety Coming Back?
My Panic Attack Relapse
There are many reasons one might experience an anxiety relapse; not all of them obvious.
For an example, I’ll offer up a story of my own:
My personal struggle with panic attacks and panic disorder began when I was a teenager. These panic attacks were frequent, intense, and interfered with my academic and social life in a major way. Diving into psychology and self-help books, I was fortunate enough to get my panic attacks under control fairly quickly. Over the next few years, they became rarer and rarer for me. Eventually, I forgot all about them and what they felt like to begin with.
That is, I forgot all about them… until they came back!
In 2018, my best friend passed away. I found this out while at work, scrolling through Facebook and seeing a memorial post. This occurred at a time when I was already under a fair bit of stress (moving to a new city where I knew no one). Combined, these events culminated in my own anxiety relapse. After years without panic attacks, my panic attacks came back!
Fortunately, this time around, I had a decade of experience on my side. I was able to beat my panic attacks swiftly and mercilessly.
Other Reasons Why Anxiety is Returning
In my case, a series of high-stress factors piled on at once to cause a panic attack relapse. For others, the reasons for an anxiety relapse may be less obvious.
Here are a few sneaky reasons we might start to feel more anxious than usual:
- Lack of adequate exercise, sunlight, or social interaction
- Shifts in our diet, or deficiencies of key vitamins and minerals
- Inflammation due to eating foods we are allergic or sensitive to
- Increasing stress or pressure at work, or in our personal lives
- Relationship troubles, or issues involving friends or family
- Health, medical, or financial worries
- Feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities and obligations
- An upcoming event that may be eliciting anticipation anxiety
- Any combination of small, daily stressors combined
Regardless of why your anxiety is coming back, have no fear! There are plenty of ways to get an anxiety relapse under control.
What to do if Anxiety Comes Back?
When anxiety relapses, it can leave us feeling hopeless. Just when we think we’ve conquered our anxiety, it pops back into our lives to say “hello.”
And just like that, we’re back at square one… or are we?
Anxiety Relapses aren’t as Bad as First-Time Anxiety
The first time a person experiences anxiety or a panic attack, it can be terrifying. It can feel as though our own brain has betrayed us as we lose control of our most basic bodily functions.
During my first panic attack, I begged my parents to call an ambulance. I feared my anxiety was something far more serious and lacked the knowledge or experience to understand what was happening. It’s safe to say that my first year with anxiety and panic attacks was by far my worst.
Years later, when I finally had my own anxiety relapse, I felt that same sense of immediate dread: Uh-oh… My brain is broken again. I forgot how bad these things can be.
I even heard that old familiar fear of: Am I going to feel this way forever?
However, something interesting happened...
Yes, the initial relapse anxiety and panic attacks were awful and scary; I won’t lie to you there. However, this time around, I knew what I was dealing with. I already knew:
- That my anxiety attacks weren’t dangerous or permanent mental states
- Various tricks and tactics to quickly stop anxiety attacks or panic attacks
- Which foods/drinks would worsen or improve my baseline anxiety levels
- Which natural supplements could help me through the worst days
- The power of confronting my fears head-on through gradual exposure
- That I could overcome an anxiety relapse just like I overcame anxiety in the past
These were mostly the key points that helped me to overcome my anxiety the first time around. Although my anxiety had come back, this time I had the advantage of experience.
After an uncomfortable month or two, I managed to remember and refine my system for eliminating anxiousness. By tracing my steps back to what had worked for me as a kid, I could now repeat the process in a fraction of the time.
How to Stop an Anxiety Relapse
As mentioned earlier, an anxiety relapse is rarely as bad as first-time anxiety; even if it may seem that way. With wisdom and experience as an ally, anxiety is never as scary the second time around. Nonetheless, returning anxiety is still a problem that needs solving.
To stop an anxiety relapse in its tracks, you’ll first want to identify the cause of your anxiety.
Is there an obvious or temporary factor, such as a pending divorce or an important deadline? Or are there more insidious forces at play here – have you been slipping up on your diet, drinking too much coffee, or just feeling more stressed than usual?
You know yourself better than anyone, so the burden will fall on you to do some investigating here. If you can address the root issue, it’ll save you a ton of time and grief. If you’ve conquered anxiety in the past, an anxiety relapse will likely be little more than a slight and short-lasting inconvenience.
Why an Anxiety Relapse Can Be a Good Thing
When anxiety is new and scary to us, we often make the mistake of trying to avoid anxiety. We’ll avoid stressful situations, run from our fears, and try to distract ourselves from anxious thoughts. While this may work in the short-term, it’s not an effective long-term solution.
To truly beat anxiety, we will need to become comfortable standing face-to-face with it and looking it in the eye. We must learn to confront the part of our psyche that scares us the most.
And, while doing this even just once is admirable, we still need to aim bigger. Anyone can stand up to a bully once, but if you run away the next time, you’re right back at square one. Just like with a bully on the playground, our end goal should be to march right up to anxiety any day of the week and let it know that we’re not afraid and won’t let it boss us around.
Anxiety relapses actually provide us with exactly this opportunity.
Think back to how terrible things were in the past when you let the bully, anxiety, run your life. How you sat at your desk with a knot in your stomach, anticipating how bad it would be when they caught you off-guard in the hallway.
Now, think about how good it felt to confront that bully. How quickly they backed down, and how cathartic it was to realize you once again had control of your own life. Think about the all the time that went by, during which anxiety wasn’t even a thought in the back of your mind.
Now your anxiety is back. The bully has gone years without showing their face. At first, you feel those old familiar feelings of panic and dread… But then, you realize something. Your bully is the exact same size as they were when you first met; yet you have grown!
An anxiety relapse can be a good thing, because it’s an opportunity for you to confront an old bully from a position of greater power. This concept might make you nervous, but it’s far less intimidating when you consider that this threat has remained exactly the same, while you yourself have grown.
The more often anxiety comes back to rear its ugly head, the less you will fear it, and the easier it will be to beat each time.
If you don’t have a system of your own for beating anxiety, you may feel free to use my own anxiety-reducing strategies.