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Coping with a Slip: Getting Back on the Track to Recovery from PTSD


Updated January 27, 2009

Recovery from PTSD can often be a long journey, and it is common for people to slip every now and then.

People who have a diagnosis of PTSD are at greater risk to engage in a number of unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to cope with their emotional pain, including alcohol and drug abuse, eating disorder behavior (for example, binge eating), and deliberate self-harm. These behaviors are not easy to stop as they are often serving a very important purpose for a person with PTSD. Specifically, in the short-term, they may help a person escape the frequent, intense, and unpleasant thoughts and emotions that occur with PTSD.

Given this, even with the best intentions and coping skills, a person may find that under periods of high stress they may slip and start engaging in one of these behaviors again. However, all is not lost! There are ways of coping with a slip so that you can quickly get back on your road to recovery.

Stopping the Behavior

Obviously, this is the most important step and the hardest. It is incredibly important to do whatever you can to stop the unhealthy behavior as soon as you catch yourself doing it. This is because it can be very easy to fall back into old patterns of behavior, and the more that you engage in that behavior, the stronger that habit is going to become.

One way that might make it easier to stop the behavior is by viewing it as only a slip or a temporary misstep and not an indication of failure or a sign that there is no hope for recovery. During recovery, it is common for people to set hard and fast rules for themselves, such as "I will never have another drink again." This may be a great goal. However, it may not always be realistic, especially for the person who is in early stages of recovery from PTSD.

When you set black and white rules for yourself, you are more likely to beat yourself up about a slip, and this is probably only going to motivate the very behavior you are trying to stop. As a result, you may lose control over the behavior and fall farther and farther off track.

If you are in a situation that is promoting your unhealthy behavior (such as in a bar and you are trying to stop drinking), get out of that situation as soon as you can. It will be very important to remove yourself from any triggers or cues for that behavior (or the emotions that contribute to that behavior) that are in your environment.

Put into action a healthy coping strategy. For example, seek out social support or use distraction. Try some self-soothing exercises or mindfulness. These may be very hard to do during a crisis situation, and you may not feel as though they are working that well. However, it is very important to keep using those healthy coping strategies. The more you do, the more distance you will put between you and your unhealthy behavior.

Learn From Your Experience

A slip can provide you with incredibly important information that can serve you well in the future. Conduct a chain analysis. What were the factors that led to that behavior? How did you get put into a high-risk situation? Conducting a chain analysis for the unhealthy behavior may help you identify "seemingly irrelevant decisions."

Seemingly irrelevant decisions are decisions or choices we make that, on the surface, may appear unimportant or insignificant. We may also ignore, deny, or explain away the importance of them. However, in actuality, they move you farther down the road to a slip. For example, for a person who is trying to stop engaging in deliberate self-harm, a seemingly irrelevant decision might be keeping items around that were once used to self-harm.

Recognizing seemingly irrelevant decisions, as well as other factors or situations that put you at risk for your unhealthy behavior, will help you prepare for future high-risk situations. What could you have done differently? How early do you think you could have intervened to reduce your risk for engaging in the behavior?

Practice Self-Compassion

Changing unhealthy behaviors is not an easy thing to do, especially when you may also be struggling with symptoms of PTSD. Because of this, treat yourself with understanding and self-compassion if you slip. Use it as an opportunity to further build and strengthen your coping repertoire. Doing this can help you get back on track and move you down the road to recovery.


Marlatt, G.A., & Gordon, J.R. (1985). Relapse prevention: Maintenance strategies in the treatment of addictive behaviors. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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