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  • Writer's pictureStacy G. Smith, MS, LPC

Setbacks Can Be... GOOD?

Setbacks in Treatment

Let me set the stage for an experience that may sound familiar.

You're making progress at a good rate, and despite some minor ups and downs along the way, you are finally believing that recovery is possible. Your symptoms start to decrease, you feel more confident, and think, "wow, I'm actually doing well!" Your smile grows wider, and you finally start to enjoy what you describe as a "normal" life.

Until... out of nowhere, you experience a setback that derails you.

For many, this can be one of the most disheartening moments. You may feel that all your efforts were a waste, that you are back at square one, and that a life in recovery is only an illusion. Feelings of disappointment, shame, and even anger may set in, and motivation to get back up on your feet may seem low. However, as awful as you may feel, setbacks can be one of the most powerful learning experiences in the recovery process.

Here are four reasons to embrace a setback when it strikes:

(While these reasons are geared towards those with OCD, they can certainly be applied to any mental health struggle).

1.) Setbacks are a great reminder to continue implementing skills, even when feeling good. When you are going strong in recovery and managing your symptoms well, it is common to unintentionally become a bit lax with implementing the skills you've worked so hard to learn; but remember, these are the skills that allowed you to make your OCD-recovery a reality, not just a dream. So while a setback may get you down, it can serve as a great opportunity to have you pause, review, and appreciate all that you have learned so far in treatment, then motivate you to get back to practicing. In fact, this reflective pause and renewed practice can often propel you ever further in your recovery, further than where you were before. Perhaps consider a setback as an unpleasant detour towards your new and improved recovery route.

2.) Setbacks show you a glimpse of where you came from. There may be times when you reflect on your progress and feel good, but then quickly get down on yourself with thoughts such as "I still wish I could be doing even better." These are moments when setbacks can serve as a great way to remind you to never forget the progress you have already made, and most importantly, to give yourself credit for that progress - always. These setbacks show you how far you have come, what you are capable of with hard work, and why ongoing practice of skills is worth it, even during your toughest moments. By having this glimpse into your past, it can help your successes feel even more special.

3.) A setback does not mean you are back at square one. Unlike when you first began treatment, you are now armed with knowledge, skills, and resources. You have experience with Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), you are familiar with mindfulness, know the importance of facing new fears as they arise, and embracing a life of uncertainty. So when a setback strikes, it is essential not to cling to the idea of starting from scratch; that idea is nothing more than a lie that OCD/anxiety is trying to convince you of, so that it can tighten its grip. Getting right back up on your feet with the support of your family and treatment team, is the best way to build your resiliency. The more times you fall and get back up (as much as it hurts), the more you are building that OCD-resilient muscle; and let's face it, getting back on your feet after an OCD setback is tough, but if you can make it through an OCD-setback (and you will!), think about the resiliency you are building to any struggle life throws your way.

4.) Setbacks are bound to happen. We are all human, and unfortunately, there is no cure (yet!) for OCD. When beginning treatment, planning for setbacks becomes an essential part of the treatment plan. The more realistic you are when embarking on your OCD recovery journey, the more prepared you will be when setbacks do show up. You'll learn more about your triggers during these setbacks, and be able to further plan and develop skills with your therapist for how to cope with them in the future. It is important not to blame yourself for a setback, but to instead ask, "what is this experience trying to teach me?"

The final message: Setbacks are tough, but they are by no means an indication that you are back at square one, and that OCD has won. Rather than seeing a setback as a moment of defeat, it is important to see the learning message behind it, and to use that message to propel you even further in your recovery. With hard work, you are capable of coming a long way, and no matter how many times you get knocked down, always remember that if you never give up, you can never fail.


DISCLAIMER: The blog posts shared on contain the opinions of Stacy Smith, MS, LPC, and do not reflect the opinions of any organizations or affiliates. While Stacy is a licensed mental health professional, all blog posts on her site are for informational purposes only, and are never a substitute for professional advice catered to your individual needs. Stacy Smith is not liable for any diagnosis, treatment plans, or decisions made based on the information presented on this website.

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