Dealing With Setbacks in Healing

I remember this well: I was in my mid-30’s, nursing a neck injury that ultimately took years to heal. That summer I was staying with friends while I found a new apartment, enjoying their swimming pool, their cooking, and the company of their children.  I was having a pretty good week, neck-wise, which was a huge relief — and then their 4-year-old dove across the room into my lap, clocking me squarely in the jaw with the top of his head.  And just like that, I was back to square one.

It’s one of the toughest things about healing: those times when you think you’re getting better, and then suddenly you backslide into a place you hoped and prayed you would never experience again.

Anyone who has ever healed from anything knows what I’m talking about: the IBS that seems under control but then gets worse again under stress; the broken heart you’re finally over, until something hits you the wrong way and you’re up all night crying, again; migraines or insomnia that come back for no good reason whatsoever that you can see.

Maybe you’re one of the people who has asked me this lately: I feel worse again, and I don’t know why.  What the @#$%&? Does this mean the acupuncture isn’t working?  Did I do something wrong? What if I go back to that awful place I was in before, and never get out?

It’s Actually a Normal Part of Healing

Getting worse when you thought you were getting better is a total drag. It’s unpleasant, it interferes with your life, and it’s scary. It’s especially discouraging when you’ve worked really hard and been really patient.  I get it.

And the truth is, healing — change of any kind — isn’t linear. Whether it’s quitting smoking, starting an exercise routine, or leaving a toxic job or bad relationship, positive transitions are full of relapses. Physical healing is no different.

Sometimes — like in the case of my young friend re-injuring my neck — it’s because of something external. But it’s also an inherent and important part of the healing process itself.  I get to watch a lot of people heal, and I’ve come to believe the body actually needs this — needs to go back and forth between illness and wellness — in order to fully integrate the changes and reach a place of stable health.

The “down” bits of this up-and-down path can be really, really difficult.  It’s also really important how you handle them. There are ways to take care of yourself, keep from freaking out, use it to learn more about what your body needs, and shorten the amount of time it takes to get back to normal.

How to Care for Yourself During a Relapse

So how do you deal with it when symptoms return and it feels like you’re not getting better any more?

1. Don’t assume it’s the same old thing.

Keep your curiosity open. Notice the details of what’s happening this time, and make room for the possibility that it might be different. Often, for example, the symptoms look similar but the recovery from them is faster and easier.

Remember that occasional visits back to the old pattern are actually a normal and important part of healing that helps solidify the new, healthier pattern.

2. Take really, really, super-good care of yourself.

Take this as a time to step back and focus on you. Sometimes when we get better we forget about self care, and you know what? We still need it. If you’re being forced into it, try to embrace it. Take a break and do some of the things that helped you get better in the first place.

If it’s hard to make space for this, ask for help. Especially if you have kids (3-year-olds are not known for their ability to observe “be gentle with mommy day”). And while you’re at it: have the audacity to enjoy taking care of yourself. It’s really okay.

3. Take note of what might have started the setback.

Knowing that buffalo wings, or drinking, or seeing your uncle Fred, or working 60 hours in a week under deadline, made you sick again, helps you understand what aggravates the problem and how you can work to avoid triggers — or give yourself extra support when you can’t avoid them.

We all have body parts that are vulnerable, and things that push us over the edge, no matter how healthy we are. Knowing yours can help you manage them better and stay healthier.

4. Also take note of what helps.

Sometimes when symptoms are milder and more intermittent, it’s easier to notice what provides some relief. Put that in your set of tools for the future, so you can continue learning how to recover more quickly and completely when you do have setbacks.

5. Take a moment for perspective and self-compassion.

Sometimes when I still have a bad neck week, I remind myself that 5 years ago this would have been a really good day. It helps me remember that things actually were that hard. We tend to forget pain once it’s over (and thank the stars for that!!); the down side is, we can start judging our past selves, thinking we should have healed faster or “wasted” less time when things were bad. Re-experiencing it can keep us honest, and help us understand that it really was that hard, and we really did do our best. If you feel some gratitude for your overall-improved health, enjoy that too!

6. Use your professional support wisely.

Let your acupuncturist and other health care practitioners know what is happening. You might decide together to change your treatments or increase frequency for a while, to support your healing.

If you’re not currently in treatment, this would be a good time for a tune-up. Often a session at the beginning of a flare-up can help stop you from going all the way down that path again.

7. Get support from your loved ones.

You’re going to feel a little scared, discouraged, pissed off, and/or stressed out when symptoms come back. Talk about it. Let the people around you love you and care for you.  If you’re feeling worried or guilty about not meeting all your responsibilities, talk about that too.  Just don’t let it keep you from getting support.

If you’re experiencing this kind of setback right now, I’m really sorry. I know how painful and scary and damned inconvenient it is. It can really help to stay focused on what you can do for yourself, right now, in order to keep healing, calm your fears, and even find some joy and fun in the midst of it all!

What Works for You?

How do you take care of yourself when your health backslides for a little while? What’s your experience with the ups and downs of healing? Please leave a comment and let me know!