What Is The Difference Between A Lapse And A Relapse?

Recognising a slip or a lapse is great. Stopping it before it becomes a relapse is really important.

Living with anxiety I’ve learned, is an everyday task. Managing anxiety and controlling it before it controls me is something I have to work on every single day. I have fallen into the false sense of security where I am feeling great and not experiencing anxiety as much, so I get a little looser with how I manage it.
Some days I don’t do any of my self-help practices that I know work for me. Small things that make a big difference, for example: Eating good food and regularly, Sleeping the hours I know I need each night, preparing the night before for myself and the kids.
It’s when I feel good and falsely assume that I don’t need to do the work. But this is when I need to do it the most so that I don’t slip back to my old habits. Things that feel safe, but I know are not good for my mental health.
Recognising a slip or a lapse is great, it is step one. Stopping it before it becomes a relapse is really important.
What is the difference between a lapse and a relapse? 

A lapse is a brief return to old and unhelpful habits. It is common and totally normal. Sometimes lapses are triggered by stress and low mood or simply fatigue.

A relapse is a complete return to all of your old ways of thinking and behaving when you are anxious. People who have a relapse are usually doing the same things that they did before they learned some new strategies for managing anxiety.

For example, if you have a fear of escalators. If you practice CBT and you may see and escalator and practice some breathing techniques and repeat some coping mechanism phrases. You will approach the escalator and gradually use it.
Avoiding it that day and possibly for the entire day would be considered a lapse but if you avoided it longer than a day and started to slip back into old habits- avoiding a shopping centre with escalators or avoiding going out at all, this would be considered a relapse.

When does a lapse turn into a relapse? 
Often, it is what you say to yourself after you have a lapse that can either help you get back on track or lead you into a relapse. If you see your lapse as a sign of failure, you are likely to just “give up” and have a relapse. If you see your lapse as a slip-up but one that you can recover from, then you probably won’t have a relapse.

Tips for preventing lapses and relapses:

1. Practise, practise, practise! 
The best way to prevent a lapse is to keep practising what you know works for you. This might be mediation, breathing exercises, yoga. Don’t stop- even when you feel great. If you are regularly practising, you will be in good shape to handle whatever situations you are faced with, even the unexpected ones. If you have a busy schedule literally schedule the practise in, at a time that you know will work for you, and prioritise it.

2. Knowing your triggers
You are less likely to have a lapse if you know when you are more vulnerable to having one. For example, most lapses occur during times of stress or change. Make a list of warning signs that tell you your anxiety might be increasing.

This list might include:

  • More feelings of anxiety
  • Increased responsibilities at home or at work
  • More anxious thoughts
  • Arguments with loved ones
  • Major life changes (e.g. wedding, childbirth, death in the family)
  • Learn from your lapses 
  • Remember that it is normal to occasionally have lapses. In our daily lives, everyone has times of greater stress, and if you are coping with anxiety, this can make you even more vulnerable to a lapse. But, remember you can learn a lot from these lapses. Try to figure out what the situation was that led to you having a lapse by asking yourself:
  • Were you having upsetting or anxious thoughts?
  • Was your anxiety very high? 
  • Did you do something different? 
  • Did you know that the situation was going to be difficult or did it take you by surprise? 
Knowing why a situation was more difficult for you can help you to prepare for the next time. You can make a plan to help yourself cope more successfully with difficult situations in the future. 
3. Knowing the facts
We know that what you say to yourself after you have a lapse has a huge impact on your behaviour later. If you think that you are a failure, and have undone all your good work, you are more likely to just give up, stop trying, and end up relapsing.
But here are a few facts:
It is impossible to go back to square one: you cannot unlearn all the skills and techniques you have learned and practised. Being back at square one means having anxiety and not knowing how to handle it. But if you know all of the above and you do the work every single day than you DO KNOW how to handle your anxiety.
If you relapse, you CAN get back on track. It might have taken you months of practice to reduce your anxiety symptoms, but it won’t take you that long to get back to where you were before the relapse.

4. Look after yourself
Remember if you are recognising you have had a lapse or even a relapse that is huge. Recognising it and even reading this means you want to feel better. It means you are doing the best you can for today. Tomorrow is a new day and you have the skills to make each day better and more enjoyable. Go easy on yourself you are doing the best you can.

Laura Doyle, Mum of 4. Kyle 9, Noa Belle 4, Briar 2 and Milla 12 months. Breastfeeder, co-sleeper, coffee drinker. Staying positive and inspired by the chaos of it all. Follow her on Instagram.

Laura Doyle

Mum of four, Gentle parent living on coffee and trying always to stay positive and motivate in the midst of the madness.

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