Stages of PTSD – Coping With a Slip in Recovery

You can bounce back after returning to unhealthy habits

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Recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can be a long journey. A slipup while working through the stages of PTSD sometimes occurs, especially if your symptoms haven't improved as you'd like or if there are additional issues at play, such as using drugs to cope.

No matter where you are in the stages of PTSD or the PTSD recovery process, don't judge yourself too harshly if you've slipped. Instead, learn how to get back on the right track.

PTSD Recovery and Slipups

If you have a diagnosis of PTSD, you are at a greater risk of engaging in unhealthy behaviors in an attempt to ease your emotional pain. These can include:

These behaviors are not easy to stop, because they often serve an important purpose for a person with PTSD. They can create a short-term escape from the frequent, intense, and unpleasant thoughts and emotions that occur with this stress disorder.

You can have the best coping skills, yet slip with your PTSD recovery and engage in these types of behaviors again when under periods of high stress. All is not lost if this is where you are currently at. There are many ways of coping with a slip, allowing you to get back on your road to recovery.

If you or a loved one are struggling with PTSD, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

How to Handle a Slipup During PTSD Recovery

Stopping an unhealthy behavior is an important step in PTSD recovery, yet it is sometimes the hardest. It can be incredibly easy to fall back into old patterns of behavior, and the more you engage in that behavior, the stronger the habit is going to become.

That's why it's helpful to stop unhealthy behaviors as quickly as possible when trying to overcome your PTSD. Here are a few strategies that can help you do just that.

Think of It As a Slipup vs. a Failure

During recovery, it's common to set hard and fast rules for yourself, such as "I will never have another drink again." This may be a great goal if you tend to use alcohol to deal with PTSD's symptoms. However, it may not always be realistic, especially if you are in the early stages of recovery. 

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

One way to make it easier to stop an unhealthy behavior during PTSD recovery is by viewing that action as only a slipup or a temporary misstep. Don't think of it as an indication of failure or a sign that there is no hope.

Changing unhealthy behaviors is not an easy thing to do, especially if you are also experiencing other symptoms of PTSD. Because of this, treat yourself with understanding and self-compassion if you slip.

Avoid Your Triggers

If you're in a situation that is promoting your unhealthy behavior—such as being in a bar while you're trying to not drink—get out of that situation as soon as you can. Better yet, do your best to not get into situations that may cause you to slip in the first place.

Avoiding your triggers or cues for unhealthy behaviors can help you also avoid potential slipups. Sometimes these triggers are environmental; other times, they are emotional. Recognizing your triggers is the first step to finding ways to overcome them.

Create Healthier Coping Strategies

It is often said that the best way to overcome an unhealthy coping strategy is to put a healthy coping strategy in its place. This helps you get some relief without making you feel as if you have to stop a behavior "cold turkey."

For example, you may decide to seek out social support or distract yourself whenever you feel like engaging in the unhealthy behavior. Or maybe you do self-soothing exercises or practice mindfulness. There are many options to consider.

Admittedly, these may be very hard to do during a crisis situation, and you may not feel as though they're working that well. However, the more you use these healthier coping strategies, the more distance you put between yourself and an unhealthy behavior.

Learn From Your Experience

A slip can provide you with incredibly important information that will serve you well in the future. So, if you slip, conduct a chain analysis. Ask yourself: What were the factors that led to that behavior? How did I get into a high-risk situation?

Conducting a chain analysis may help you identify seemingly irrelevant decisions. These are decisions or choices we make that, on the surface, appear unimportant or insignificant. In actuality, these decisions move you closer to a slip.

For example, if you are trying to stop engaging in deliberate self-harm, a seemingly irrelevant decision might be hanging on to items that were once used to harm yourself. We may also ignore, deny, or explain away their importance.

Recognizing seemingly irrelevant decisions, as well as other factors or situations that put you at risk for your unhealthy behavior, can help you prepare for future high-risk situations. This can help you develop a plan to reduce the likelihood that you'll have another slip.

Find Social Support

While it is not easy, the ideal path to recovery involves strengthening relationships. Affected individuals should enlist the support of everyone available whether it is a partner, family members, therapist, or others. It is possible to heal as an individual, you stand a much better shot at having a positive outcome with the help of a healthy social support network.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.