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Edited & medically reviewed by THE BALANCE Team
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People with serious mental illnesses, like schizoaffective disorder, depression, or schizophrenia, can have a good time and feel strong as long as their symptoms are managed. However, it is not uncommon for such people to experience occasional setbacks where their symptoms return, sometimes with more severity. These setbacks are called mental health relapses and often require inpatient management.

A relapse can be extremely frustrating, and multiple triggers can stimulate it, making it challenging to handle. However, by developing skills and healthy coping mechanisms, it is possible to avoid these setbacks and continue on the path of recovery.

Experts believe that many people who suffer from frequent relapses do so as a response to specific triggers. These triggers can be any location, experience, event, or individual that induces a heightened medical issue or brings back traumatic memories. With a little hard work and support, it is possible to identify triggers and work on preventing them in the future to minimise the risk of a relapse.

Some common mental health relapse triggers affecting most people include the following:

Stress

While everyone goes through stress daily, those with mental illness may find it more challenging to manage it. This added difficulty often triggers a relapse, especially if the stress is significant, sudden, or long-lasting. Stress can tax the body and the brain by constantly activating the fight-or-flight response, making it hard for an individual to maintain control. Moreover, stress alters the function of medication and how the body responds to it, further increasing the risk of relapse.

Relationship Issues

Experiencing a divorce, breakup, or death of a loved one are some typical relationship triggers leading to a mental health relapse. A person with a mental health illness may find it challenging to navigate these stressful situations independently.  While it is impossible to avoid such situations, consulting with a therapist to go through them healthily is advisable to prevent relapses.

Unrealistic Expectations

Setting unrealistic examples can quickly generate problems for anyone with a mental health illness. If you are hoping for a positive outcome and things do not go as planned, your mood may drop. These unmet expectations can relate to relationships, school, jobs, or simple tasks of everyday life. Irrespective of what’s causing them, unrealistic expectations can make coping with reality extremely challenging.

Substance Use

Those who use alcohol or drugs while taking medications for a mental issue may find it challenging to control relapses. Substance abuse can alter brain chemistry, so controlling outcomes becomes extremely difficult. Many people start using substances because their current treatment plans make them more vulnerable to additional mental difficulty. Nevertheless, consuming a mood-altering substance while getting treatment for a mental issue is a warning sign of relapse, and you must seek help immediately.

Not Taking Medications

Stopping medication on your own without consulting with a doctor is one of the most common yet most preventable reasons for relapse. Remember that consistency with medication is essential to keep your mental health in check. Any changes in doses or frequency must be done after consulting with a doctor first.

Managing stress is an essential part of relapse prevention. While it is impossible to eliminate all stress from life, you can certainly control some factors triggering it, such as sleep deprivation and substance abuse. Once the triggering factors have been identified, take swift action by proactively solving stress-inducing problems before they affect your wellbeing.

The first step is recognising the signs of stress that may belong to one or more of the following four general areas:

  • Physical signs, such as an upset stomach or tense muscles
  • Behavioural signs, such as neglecting responsibilities or getting into arguments
  • Cognitive signs, such as feeling hopeless or thinking that nobody appreciates you
  • Emotional signs, such as feeling upset or overwhelmed

If you are aware of a particularly stressful situation or an event, try to plan it to maintain wellness without feeling overwhelmed. Carefully think about all circumstances that you may find stressful. Issues with relationships, money, or job are some examples that come to mind whenever we talk about stress. However, remember that a situation does not always shave to be bad, for it to cause stress. Sometimes, they may be as simple as:

  • A major holiday
  • An upcoming anniversary
  • Pregnancy
  • Starting a new job or a new course at school
  • Taking on a new responsibility
  • Moving homes
  • A newly diagnosed healthcare issue
  • A new relationship

Forming healthy coping skills is the best way to minimise relapses, and a healthy lifestyle forms a big part of these coping skills. Performing healthy activities, such as exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep, can all positively impact your mood and enhance your ability to tackle challenges.

Eat Healthily

Research has found a significant association between healthy eating habits and mood. However, a lot of people find it difficult to practice these habits every day due to low energy, poor appetite, or very little motivation. Talk to a dietician to find solutions to the barriers you are experiencing and minimise the risk of relapse in the near future.

Exercise Daily

Exercise exerts multiple positive benefits on mental health. Find an activity or workout plan that you genuinely enjoy and commit to it regularly, even for a short period. Make sure to start with realistic and manageable goals and gradually increase the threshold as you start gaining confidence.

Physical activity does not always have to be complicated to work. Talking a walk around the neighbourhood or cycling for a good thirty minutes can also make a huge difference. You may consider joining your local community centre or looking for financial assistance if costs are a barrier to joining a gym.

Get Enough Sleep

Sleep plays an essential role in regulating mental health. A lot of mental health issues induce sleep problems, and a lack of sleep, in turn, may cause or worsen a mental health issue. At the same time, certain medications you are using may also interrupt healthy sleeping patterns. If you have not slept well for some time, consider adopting healthy sleep hygiene by making your bedroom environment more comfortable. Consider talking to your doctor regarding the possibility of a sleep supplement if the situation does not improve.

Practice Relaxation Skills

Relaxation skills can instantly calm you down, reducing the risk of a relapse. While some people report not feeling completely relaxed following these practices, these skills are usually enough to get you through complicated feelings or thoughts that may otherwise make you feel upset for a long time. Invest time into learning skills like mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing exercises, meditation, and yoga.

Contrary to popular belief, relaxation does not have to be limited to formal practices only. Sometimes, listening to your favourite piece of music, journaling, or making art can also help you enjoy the same benefits as yoga.

Adopt Healthy Thinking Skills

Almost all mental illnesses affect how you think about yourself and the world surrounding you. Adopting healthy thinking skills supports you by challenging any unhelpful or distorted thinking traps and helps you analyse situations more realistically.

A mental health relapse is usually an indication to reinstate a previous treatment or adjust an ongoing one. Sticking with treatment during the entire program length is also essential, and research confirms a relationship between longer durations of treatment programs and improved treatment outcomes. Adequate treatment lengths also ensure that all unique problems and needs of a patient are adequately addressed so that there is no risk of relapse in the future.

However, if a relapse has already hit you, professional treatment can help manage both physical and psychological factors to promote recovery. To these ends, a comprehensive relapse prevention program uses pharmacological and therapeutic methods to encourage sustained recovery while minimising these episodes in the future. One of the mainstays of these programs is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), an effective tool for the promotion of relapse prevention. CBT works by exploring how an individual’s thoughts relate to their actions and help modify any negative thought patterns while replacing them with positive ones.

Most relapse prevention programs are specifically curated to fit every person’s individual needs. Some factors considered to make a customised program include the individual’s mental illness severity, motivation level, environment, and co-occurring medical illnesses.

A person’s support system also plays a vital role in recovering from a relapse. Group therapy sessions and family counselling are routinely available for a victim’s loved ones to better understand their disease. These sessions also allow the family members to recognise the potential relapse triggers of their loved ones and learn how to support them through difficult times. Another benefit of family therapy is the improvement in the family dynamic and communication skills which also contributes to relapse prevention in the future. 

If you or a family member are displaying signs of mental health relapse, get in touch with a rehab immediately to control the situation and mitigate the risk.

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