Most people want to improve their overall health and wellbeing, and most will try a number of times to do so.
After a number of unsuccessful attempts however, most individuals decide that achieving change is hard, and just not possible for them.
Relapse however, is a normal part of the behaviour change process and doesn’t mean that an individual has failed. Whilst many people feel that returning to former behaviour is not what they had hoped for, it is important to learn from the experience and start again.
Why do people relapse?
There are many reasons why people return to former behaviour. This can include:
- a low desire to change, or personal reason for change is not strong enough
- may have felt pressure to change by a loved one or a health professional
- may have used a temporary setback as the reason to return to former behaviour
- may have experienced a strong sense of loss/pleasure/withdrawal
- experienced stress/crisis/high risk situation
- poor planning or weren’t aware of all their triggers
- poor timing
- fear of change; rejection; criticism; loneliness; commitment; success
- lack of effective and realistic coping strategies
- negative coping thoughts
- not being able to manage emotions in an effective way
- low self-confidence
- social situations/others’ influence/opinion
- too busy or too tired
- give up too early
Is this you? If you have returned to former behaviour, it’s important to identify the reason/s that you relapsed, and to think about what you could do next time.
How do you handle relapse?
Do you believe that you have failed or that it’s too hard to change? Or do you see relapse as an opportunity to learn from the experience and start again?
How you handle relapse is more important than whether it happens. People who believe that they have totally failed will often proceed to ‘uncontrolled use’, or complete abandonment of desired change.
Others will make a choice to not give up and to start again. They decide to regain control by reflecting on different ways to handle the pressures that led them back to their former behaviour – they resolve to put those into practice next time they experience the same situation.
Adapting a more flexible mindset allows you to recognise a slip up or setback as a brief change in the course of direction. It allows you to acknowledge that this course of direction can be corrected, by taking a positive step in the right way to help you get back on track.
So what can you do?
These five tips can help:
1. Acknowledge your personal reasons to change
The most important part of making a behaviour change is making the decision to do so.
If you have returned to former behaviour, remind yourself of why you made the change in the first place. Was it to improve your health and wellbeing? Was it to save some money? Was it to be a good role model for your children?
Reflect on your reasons for change and what the good things are about being able to achieve what you set out to. This will help motivate you and will also help you stay on track with your health and wellbeing goals.
To help you stay on track, think about the benefits you will gain in the long term, in comparison to the short term discomfort you initially may experience when changing your behaviour.
2. Understand your triggers and put effective coping strategies in place
Think about what led you to relapse in the first place. Was it a stressful situation or were you socialising with friends at a party?
Also reflect on what the early warning signs are before you relapsed. For example, are your feeling emotional? Are you bored and looking for something to fill in the void? Are you sleeping less than usual? Are you eating more than usual? Are you getting easily tired? Are you feeling sorry for yourself? Are you covering up feelings of unhappiness?
There are often a number of early warning signs before we slip up and then relapse – either we don’t recognise these signs or we choose to ignore them.
To help prevent relapse in the future, start to identify your early warning signs and once you’re familiar with them, put an action plan in place with possible solutions, including who can support you in time of need.
Think about what you can learn from the setback/relapse and reflect on what you would do differently next time. By thinking ahead and working out coping strategies that are realistic for you, you can move forward with a greater sense of confidence.
3. Plan for high risk situations
It is often the unexpected high risk situation that can lead even the most committed and determined individual back to their former behaviour. Planning ahead for such events is therefore crucial.
What is a high risk situation? It can include any of the following examples:
- death in the family/friendship group (suicide of a loved one)
- major accident (including workplace accident)
- financial crisis (unemployment; bankruptcy)
- major illness
- violence (to name some examples)
Of course, there are many more high risk situations that an individual can experience. The aim is to identify any potential ones that could possibly lead you back to your former behaviour.
As with identifying triggers, the key is to preparing in advance and having a back-up plan/a solution, in case the anticipated situation/event occurs…
4. Reward yourself for the progress you’ve made
With any successful behaviour change, putting both short term and long term rewards in place is an important step to help reinforce the new behaviour. Rewards also help to remind us of the progress we’ve made, and how far we’ve come.
Not sure how to reward yourself? Make a list of small luxuries that you could look forward to as a treat. Some examples include:
- going to the movies Gold class style
- indulging in a shoulder massage or facial
- spending a weekend away with your partner
- buying some new shoes or clothing
- going out for dinner at a fancy restaurant
- purchasing a gym membership
- buying some new fishing gear or a new digital camera
How will you reward yourself for the progress you’ve made?
5. Seek support
Relapse is a normal part of the behaviour change process with each attempt bringing you closer to achieving your health and wellbeing goal/s. Keep taking small steps forward and despite the setback, acknowledge that all is not lost, and that your efforts have not gone to waste.
If you’re struggling and are returning to relapse more often than you would like to, seek support from your loved ones who cannot only help you with the early warning signs of relapse, but can also help you manage high risk situations.
If you are still struggling, speak to your local health professional or a counsellor who can also help you get back on track.
That even though behaviour change is difficult, it is achievable with the right information, planning and support.
So put some effective coping strategies in place, give yourself a pep talk that you CAN and WILL be successful, and get the information and support you need to help you get back on track. The goal is to be able to effectively maintain the new behaviour change in the long term…
Every step you take along your health and wellbeing journey, is a step in the right direction. Even if you have returned to former behaviour, take the opportunity to learn more about yourself and your triggers, and think about what you could do differently next time.
Improving your health and wellbeing is one of the best gifts that you can give yourself – a life that is productive, happy and healthy!
We hope you enjoyed this post and until next time, wishing you all great health and wellbeing.
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Marlatt, G. A., & Gordon, J. R. (1985). Relapse prevention: Maintenance strategies in addictive behavior change. New York: Guilford.
Staroversky, 2013. How To Deal With a Relapse and Get Back on Track After a Setback. https://staroversky.com/blog/how-to-deal-with-a-relapse-and-get-back-on-track-after-a-setback.
The Australian Government Department of Health, 2017. Defining relapse. http://health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/mental-pubs-p-mono-toc~mental-pubs-p-mono-rel~mental-pubs-p-mono-rel-def.