Why do we have setbacks with anxiety?

Man having a setback with anxiety

In this article, I talk about setbacks with anxiety and why we have them. When someone is in the middle of a setback, they may feel like they are back to square one, when in reality, they are all part and parcel of recovery.

Setbacks are not a bad thing

When you finally find some answers to the anxiety condition and build up a better understanding of it, then you may start to feel better. You begin to realise that you are not going crazy and that how you feel is totally normal in the circumstances.

This understanding in itself can bring sudden feelings of joy and genuine hope that you will overcome this condition and you may have a period of real freedom and think this whole thing is behind you. Unfortunately, this hope and joy only last until you experience a setback with your anxiety.

When you hit a setback, you can feel like you have lost all your progress and even all the wisdom that you have gained. When you feel like you have gone backwards, it can really flatten and dishearten you and make you believe that you will never be free.

What are setbacks with anxiety and why do we have them?

One vital part of understanding is recognising that we will have setbacks when recovering from anxiety; they are part of the process involved in becoming the person you once were.

Recovery does not always work in straight lines and can be an up-and-down affair. Once we realise that fact, it can help us tremendously, as too many people let these times throw them back into total despair.

A setback is not to be confused with feeling a little up and down throughout recovery; this is normal. I went from having no good days to having good and bad days. I was very happy with this as it proved to me that I was moving in the right direction.

I would describe a real setback as a period during which you feel you are back to square one and that everything you have gained has gone. You feel as anxious, empty and lost as you have ever done, scrambling around again for answers, battling and questioning everything once more.

Setbacks with anxiety are all part of the process

Anxiety setbacks

Through your recovery, you may start to have real glimpses of the fact that the old you is still there and that the true you just got buried underneath all of your symptoms.

You may build up your knowledge and finally understand why you feel this way and what kept you in the cycle. Because of this, you may feel a freedom that you have not felt for some time and everything seems to be getting so much better.

The above was me after finally understanding my condition and starting to reverse this process. I began to make small steps to becoming the person I was before I suffered. I had some days of real clarity, clear thinking, and freedom, almost like I could touch the person I once was. I started to live more, smile more and feel more like the old me.

Then, wham one day, I felt like I was back to square one and so foolishly tried desperately to recreate how I had felt previously through thinking, effort and struggle, but nothing was working.

I started to question everything once again “Why did I feel so well last week and now back to this? What have I done wrong? Finally concluding that this is me forever and that I will never be free”.

These were just some of the statements that had me worrying again and trying to think, fight and scramble my way back to how I felt the week before.

I was back to ‘googling’ symptoms, worrying, struggling and ruminating about my sudden return of symptoms. I had returned to the full anxiety cycle – but why? Because for some stupid reason, I thought I could crack it in a few weeks and that all these years of suffering would just disappear.

I was not allowing anything at all; I was only willing to allow what felt good and so I had missed the point of recovery entirely!

How I learned to deal with my setbacks with anxiety

Dealing with setbacks

I finally understood that my mind and body needed to go through many cycles before it was free, and that I may have to feel flat and anxious many times before true balance was restored. Yes, the feeling of freedom last week felt great, but now I need to make way for another period of healing to happen. I understood now that when I felt anxious again, my body still needed to purge some more anxious energy.

That when my mind started to feel noisy and busy again, it still needed to release some more of its momentum and it also needed to heal from everything I had put it through previously.

And when I felt detached, and thinking was difficult, I understood that my brain was still recovering from the exhaustion I had caused through my past excessive thinking and worrying.

This process of healing was not going to be a blissful process; in fact, it would be like a detox process and not very pleasant at times. All I could do was stay open to whatever came up and no longer try to manipulate how I was feeling.

If I felt anxious, then fine, if I felt down and flat, then fine, if I felt detached, then fine. If my mind was spewing out random/fearful thoughts then that was fine too.

It did not matter what the first words in the sentence were; the last part was always the same – it’s fine. It had to be fine, as the truth was I had no control over it anyway and struggling against it always made it worse. It was a process I had to go through if I wanted to come out the other side.

Setbacks are when real healing is taking place

So, setbacks were actually a good thing. They were the result of my mind and body freeing up old energies and going through a process of healing. They were just doing what they needed to do to heal. All I could do was step back and allow them to do so, however unpleasant it felt at times.

Previously I had spent years trying to interfere and manipulate my experience, trying to feel better, different, and fix myself and it just made things worse and exhausted me. My real problem is that I wanted an instant way out, one that didn’t entail any kind of suffering, one that was impossible.

My attitude was that it felt good, I would relax and get on with my day, and if it felt bad, then I would fight. But how could I ever hope to recover in this way? All I was doing was shutting off the healing process and not allowing it to take place.

This is what true surrender is. It is accepting that you have no control and just leaving it to your mind and body to heal themselves. For a drug addict to truly heal and recover, he has to go through a period of withdrawal – a detox. This is the mind and body’s way of getting the toxins out of the system and in doing so it feels unpleasant. But without this process, there is no recovery.

It does not mean because the detox is unpleasant that something has gone wrong. Their mind and body are just going through the process they need to get rid of the toxins. The addict has zero control over this process. All they can do is sit back and wait it out. Whatever they do will make no difference.

It is the same thing when recovering from anxiety. You have to go through a process of feeling uncomfortable as all the old anxious energies come up to be released and your body heals.

You won’t always feel at your best mentally either, as your mind needs to heal from the exhaustion it now feels, through everything you have previously put it through. Because of this exhaustion, your mind may feel very grotty, overactive, and noisy and you may feel detached and fearful at times; this is entirely normal in your current state so just allow yourself to fall into any mental state without constantly trying to change it.

How you feel is not important; it is how allowing you are of it that is. It is the allowing that gives your mind the break it needs. Never try and fix the mind through struggle, effort, and more thinking. You will just end up creating even more mental disturbance, keeping it constantly busy and tiring it out further and never giving it the chance to heal.

Trust me never get into a battle with your mind; you will never win, just leave it be to do and be how it wishes while you relax behind it, left alone it will sort itself out.

Recovery from anxiety can be an up and down affair

Recovery from anxiety is an up and down affair

To reach peace you have to go through a period of non-peace. Once you finally allow yourself to feel the way you do, then your mind and body will be able to go through a process of healing.

Your mind and body are intelligent enough to know that doing all this at once would be too much for you to handle and so it takes a break and so does it in stages. This process is what people call setbacks, but they aren’t setbacks at all, it is just all part of the healing process.

This process is precisely what I went through and is the reason that I felt freer than ever after a setback. This is because a big chunk of anxious energy had left me, my nerves had a chance to heal and my mind had gone through a period of real rest and come back even more refreshed. This process would come and go until finally, all the healing was taken care of.

So, truly understand that setbacks are all part of the process and that in fact, they are a good thing, as when you feel this way, you know your mind and body are in the process of healing. Sometimes when you are in the middle of a setback, you may feel you have lost your knowledge and understanding. Trust me; you haven’t.

All the progress and knowledge is never lost. Once this period of release and healing is over, all the knowledge and understanding that you previously had comes back. It is just like the sun temporarily hidden behind the clouds.

Nolan, who I helped recover from anxiety, posted this message below on his own experience with setbacks; it really hits the nail on the head with the attitude required in dealing with them.

Regarding setbacks, I just wanted to say that I always had this interesting experience…. and maybe some others have felt the same thing.

My setbacks felt like they completely levelled and destroyed the modest ‘gains’ I experienced. You’d be kind of coming out of the pit and then you wake up one morning only to be met with that profound sense of dread, despair, and loss. Your good times seemed like a hoax and the only true reality was the nightmare of the anxiety/depression and all of the symptoms that go along with it.

You’d be certain that this is final. At a fundamental level in your being, you’d simply be convinced that you’re broken and that there’s no hope left for you. This is an automatic reaction. Willfully, you have very little power over just changing that view. You argue and argue with it, try to read the same things that gave you hope at one point, only for all of that to fall flat. The sense of despair increases even more (which you may have even thought as being impossible, but here it is).

The miserable recognition that “there’s nothing I can do” starts to settle in on you, but this is actually your point of redemption. At this moment we can either wallow in our despair or get back on with our lives, living them independent of how we’re feeling (‘feeling’ seems like such an understatement). And, I believe it’s in recognising the futility of fighting with the thoughts, fears, and symptoms that we can really start to live regardless of our state (assuming you’ve decided to not wallow in it).

But, then the crazy thing starts to happen: the clouds of it break up on their own. You might be a little dumbstruck (“How is this happening? What did I do??). Your body, once you allow it the time, starts to get back on a stable footing. Now the theme doesn’t feel like Despair, Hopelessness, Fear…. Now it just starts to click how you’re not actually broken. How this storm, in time, will pass. You didn’t do it by a force of will: meaning, you didn’t need to grab a broom and chase it out of your mind and body. It’s almost like peace simply found its way back to your body.

And, almost every time I had a setback, once I came out of it, it was like a little piece of me was restored back. Something that reminded me of how I used to be. So, I just wanted to give a little hope to those who are struggling at the moment.

I’d also like to say this: at one point, my anxiety and depression led me to wish I was no more. I had a son who had just been born and I wished that I was gone from the play of life. Many months leading to years I felt like I was wasting away being in this condition – but looking back on it, and if I had to do it over, I wouldn’t want to change a thing. I never thought I’d ever say this, but I look back on those days fondly.

It was because of those dark days that I was able to grow into a better me. More patient, understanding, and peaceful than I had been even in the years leading up to those dark days of anxiety and depression.

How long a setback lasts is not important; what is important is your attitude and willingness to allow it, no matter how long it takes. When you truly understand what is happening, then you are far more able to allow this process to occur. You can learn more about setbacks and read my personal story of recovery in my best selling book on overcoming anxiety, At last a life

Read more from a question asked by a sufferer through my private email support on the subject of setbacks