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Setbacks are part of the Recovery Process

By Judy Shaw

Setback. Just the word can make us cringe. However, a setback is a necessary component to a full recovery from being phobic. As a rule of thumb, we say you can’t experience a true setback for at least 6 months after you have recovered and have been functioning level-free. Until that point you are still learning by taking two steps forward and then a step back, while it may feel like a setback, it isn’t, because you are still in the initial stages of the learning process.

A setback can be a devastating experience. After all the hard work, practicing, and finally achieving success and freedom—then to have that old panic overwhelm you once again, well, I don’t have to describe to you how awful it makes you feel. But take heart! Barbara, a recent participant in a phobia workshop, will help illustrate how a setback can be a blessing in disguise.

About 10 years ago, Barbara was suffering from an acute sinus infection. While driving on a parkway, she became dizzy. Terrified she would pass out and her car would careen off the road, she had a panic attack. (Dr. Neuman assures us that panic cannot cause to pass out.) Of course Barbara drove home safely (as always happens). After many medical tests and an MRI, her doctor prescribed medication to prevent dizziness. Barbara felt fine and for the next five years she was anxiety free. She drove everywhere without a problem. Then, as Barbara relates her experience, “One day I was driving on the Taconic Parkway, and I started watching the rear view mirror. I kept thinking that the cars were coming too fast behind me and they would crash into me. I was really scared and got that dizzy, disconnected feeling which blossomed into a full-blown panic attack. It wasn’t long before I was avoiding all the parkways except a short span to and from work. After ending a long term relationship with my boyfriend, who had been doing all the distance and highway driving, I stayed off all parkways-period! I lived this way for two years until realizing I couldn’t live this way anymore. I was referred to the Phobia Center for help. I liked the fact that I would learn how to do something in spite of what I felt. And so, I began my way back.

As I started the workshop I thought ‘I hope this works for me’. But it was soon clear that I would be doing a lot of work. John, a counselor in training, and Judy, my counselor, spent the next eight weeks driving parkways with me exit by exit. I learned to use tools to focus on something other than my my anxious thoughts or how I felt. I counted to 100 by fives. Since I am a hair stylist, and work with chemicals in coloring, I figured formulas mentally to create all kinds of colors. I made Judy and John drool by describing in detail my preparation of a wonderful Italian dinner. Usually by dessert I had gone the full length of the parkway. (They were always sorry we had to stop.) By the sixth week, we separated. John sat in the back seat and we did not talk. Judy followed behind in her car. This allowed me to have the experience of being alone, while gaining confidence that Judy would not crash into me. I had to practice not constantly looking in the rearview mirror. I sang, counted, and recited recipes and I did fine. My “graduation” involved driving two different parkways with Judy and John following a few cars in back of me. Because of all of our work, together with my rigorous practicing schedule, I didn’t even look back to check on then. It was wonderful! I practiced every day incorporating everything I leaned in the group and my work sessions with Judy and John.

“Yes, I had a major setback, but I know it was necessary. I had not learned how not to be afraid of being afraid. I truly thought I would lose control of the car if I panicked. Now I am prepared to expect that anxiety will arise, and I am now ready to deal with those feelings. I know they won’t hurt me. But, I had to go through that to understand it. I haven’t completely conquered my anxiety, but I understand what’s happening when I feel it, and I know what to do. Fear won’t interfere with my life anymore. I am in control.

“My advice to someone going through a setback is:

  1. Remember, it’s only temporary.
  2. It’s necessary to go back to basics. Review the Six Points and take your time to slowly work in manageable steps again.
  3. Put yourself back in the situation, get out your tools and practice, practice, practice. Before long your confidence will return and you will be stronger than before.

Marjorie Mottola, a Counselor at the Phobia Center, describes a setback as “a loose end that needs to be tied.” In Barbara’s case, the loose end was being afraid to have those feelings. She just didn’t want them. (But in reality, who does?) Now, because of her motivation, determination (and Italian recipes), Barbara is prepared to face and deal with the thoughts that produce her anxiety. She is definitely on her way. To quote Dr. Neuman, “A second time around this sort of treatment is very likely to work faster.”

On a personal note, my setback occurred after about two very pleasant years of functioning fairly well. I, too, went back to the basics. I worked even harder, because this time I knew how. As painful as a setback can be, it is an essential part of our learning process. So, when you experience a setback, instead of being discouraged, think of it as the last manageable step you need to take. Dr. Neuman offers come comforting words, “Once someone truly loses the fear of a panic attack, he or she is unlikely to experience a setback of any significance.”


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