In last week's Southern Star, I warned against the notion that when you slip or encounter a setback, you’re “back to square one”. The column is now online.
“I’m back to square one”.
Few words are as destructive as the idea that when you slip or encounter a setback, you’re “back to square one”. The reality is whatever goal you’re working towards – it may be getting fit, managing your anxiety, curbing your temper, not resorting to comfort eating when stressed, or countless other personal goals – any progress is not going to be in a straight line. There will be setbacks and slip-ups. There will be lapses, but a lapse is not a relapse – it doesn’t mean you’re back to square one, to use that much-abused phrase.
On the Verywell Mind website, psychologist Dr Katharina Star gives the example of a client, Elaine, who has been diagnosed with panic disorder and agoraphobia (fear and avoidance of places or situation that may cause you to panic). In therapy and on antidepressant medication, Elaine’s symptoms have improved significantly and she feels ready to go to a concert with a friend – a situation she would have dreaded and avoided in the past. At the concert, Elaine notices herself experiencing physical symptoms of panic and anxiety. She tries a deep breathing technique, but still has a panic attack. Upset, she leaves the concert early. I will never overcome this condition, Elaine tells herself; my nervousness ruins every situation.
Instead of this fatalistic, “back to square one” thinking, Elaine could have viewed the situation in another light. She could choose to value herself, Dr Star points out, despite her struggle with panic disorder. ‘Instead of thinking in absolute terms, she can recognise that despite this setback, she has actually had many successes in coping with the panic disorder”, she writes. ‘She can let go of the word "never" and begin to consider that she has actually been successfully living with panic disorder.’ Elaine should also re-evaluate the idea that she lets her anxiety ruin every situation, Dr Star adds, and reflect on all the times she has triumphed in the face of overwhelming feelings of anxiety.
Here’s another example from Anxiety Canada, a mental health charity that promotes cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) skills for anxiety management. Let’s say you have a phobia of dogs and have been using CBT techniques to overcome your anxiety. That means when you see a dog, you don’t try to avoid it or run away; rather, you would remind yourself to stay calm and to gradually approach the dog. However, on this particular day, you see someone walking their dog, feelings of panic kick in and you go out of your way to avoid the dog. You do this for the remainder of the day, and say to yourself: “Great! All that hard work trying to manage my anxiety was a waste! I’m right back where I started… I’m such an idiot! Well, I guess there is no cure for my anxiety; why even bother trying?”
Alternatively, imagine at the end of your day, you say to yourself: “I fell back into my old avoidant habits today. I’d better start doing some exposure work tomorrow so I can get back on track”.
Which message is more accurate? Which message will keep you motivated and hopeful? Which message will yield better results?
A lapse is a brief return to old, unhelpful habits. They’re perfectly normal – whatever habit you’re trying to change, you should expect the occasional lapse. In contrast, a relapse is a complete return to all your old, unhelpful ways. When does a lapse turn into a relapse? What you say to yourself after a lapse can determine whether you rebound or relapse, notes Anxiety Canada. If you beat yourself up and turn hopeless after a lapse, you’re more likely to give up and relapse. If you see the lapse for what it is – a temporary slip from which you can recover – you’re much more likely to rebound.
And even if you do relapse, don’t say you’re back to square one. ‘To do that, you would have to forget everything you have learned up to that point’, points out psychologist Dr Fed Penzel, ‘and that really isn’t possible’. Stay calm, stay hopeful and get back in the saddle.