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What 'Relapse' Means in Mental Health

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Defining Mental Health Relapse

A mental health relapse is when symptoms of a mental health condition worsen or return after a period of improvement. It can happen to any person with a mental health condition, and what triggers or causes a relapse is unique to the person experiencing it. In this article, we’ll talk about how mental health relapse differs from addiction relapse, common triggers, developing a treatment plan, early warning signs of relapse, and tips for how to manage them better.

First, you may be wondering how mental health relapse differs from addiction relapse. When many people hear the term “relapse,” they think of people living with substance use disorders, like drug or alcohol addiction. For individuals diagnosed with a substance use disorder, a relapse can be a part of recovery. An addiction relapse occurs when an individual returns to their previous levels of alcohol or drug usage after they have gone a period of time reducing or refraining from drugs or alcohol.

Mental health relapse is similar in that it occurs when a person living with a mental health disorder experiences symptoms after a period without symptoms or experiences worse symptoms after a period of improvement.

Each mental health relapse may have its own set of triggers, warning signs, and symptoms — depending upon both the mental health condition and the individual experiencing the relapse. The severity of mental health relapses can also vary, with the most severe leading to hospitalization or other serious outcomes.

The Psychology Behind Mental Health Relapses

So, you may be wondering: what causes mental health relapses? Life events and behavior changes can play a role. If you are living with a mental health condition and have experienced a significant life event — such as the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or the loss of a job — you may have noticed that your symptoms returned or became worse. This is because significant or chronic stress and trauma can cause mental health relapses.

Changes to your daily routines can also cause a relapse. Common behavior changes that may trigger a relapse include changes in your sleep habits or patterns (i.e., poor sleep quality, sleeping more or less than usual), personal hygiene routine, eating habits or physical activity, or personal relationships (i.e., social isolation or withdrawal).

The Intersection of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Relapse

People living with both a substance use disorder and mental health condition may also be more likely to experience a mental health relapse because substance use and abuse can cause mental health relapses, just as severe mental health symptoms can cause addiction relapses.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse approximates that 7.7 million adults in the United States are living with both mental health conditions and substance use disorders. If you are living with both, it’s essential to be aware of how your conditions may interact to trigger or cause a relapse.

It may take several attempts to determine what management strategies are right for you and your experiences, but talking to your doctor or health care team about all of your diagnoses and symptoms can help you find the best treatment and management plan in the long term.

Financial and Interpersonal Triggers

Financial stress and hardships can also be a trigger. Financial wellness can feel out of reach for many people, but individuals living with a mental health condition can be more vulnerable to financial stress or insecurity — whether from medical bills, discrimination and stigma in the workplace preventing you from finding a job, or your condition impacting your ability to work or do your job well.

Personal relationships can provide a constant source of support when living with a mental health condition. But, for many, challenges with loved ones — whether a parent or guardian, friend, or partner — can also trigger a mental health relapse. Common triggers include withdrawal and isolation, chronic stress, and impacts on self-esteem and self-image.

Role of Medication and Treatment Plans

Changing or stopping your treatment plan can also trigger a relapse. If you are currently taking medication to manage or treat your mental health condition, it’s important to keep taking that medication, even when you are feeling well. If you are thinking about stopping medication early or making changes to your treatment plan, talk to your doctor first.

Adhering to your treatment plan can help prevent relapse, but be sure to talk to your doctor if a medication doesn’t feel like it’s the right fit for you. They can work with you and make a recommendation based on your experiences.

Warning Signs of an Impending Relapse

So, we’ve talked about many different triggers and causes of a mental health relapse. But how do you recognize when you might be experiencing one? Early warning signs of a relapse may be subtle, but can include:

  • Changes in sleep patterns or habits
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Changes in personal hygiene
  • Unable to pay attention, focus, or concentrate
  • Irritability, agitation, or distress
  • Unable to relax
  • Forgetfulness or brain fog
  • Feeling lonely or isolated
  • Stopping treatment (or not taking it regularly)
  • Increase in risk-taking behaviors
  • Other signs or symptoms that have preceded previous relapses

Coping Mechanisms and Resilience Building

If you see signs of a mental health relapse or notice your mental health relapse triggers occurring, it’s vital to be proactive. It’s possible to identify your triggers and early warning signs. If you experience a trigger or notice early warning signs, talk to your support system — whether your loved ones or a mental health professional like a therapist or psychologist. Social support, as well as finding supportive treatments and therapies, can play a role in reducing the likelihood of a relapse.

But there are other things you can do for yourself to cope and build resilience. If you are looking for coping strategies, here are a few to consider:

  • Connect with a local support network or support group
  • Establish a daily routine
  • Drink enough water
  • Engage in regular physical activity
  • Participate in yoga, meditation, or mindfulness exercises
  • Prioritize self-care
  • Take time off work or school (when possible)
  • Spend time outside or in nature
  • Find a hobby or activity that you enjoy
  • Set realistic expectations and goals
  • Be gentle with yourself

What to Do When Relapse Occurs

If you or a loved one experience a mental health relapse, remember that it can happen to anyone. It does not mean that you’ve “failed” at mental health recovery. The most important thing you can do for yourself or your loved one when a relapse occurs is to tell someone about your experiences. Call your primary care provider, mental health professional, or a loved one who can help you get back on track. You’re not alone on this journey, and it’s important to remember mental health recovery is possible.

Originally published: November 13, 2023
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