What if I never get better? This is a common and distressing fear that many people worry about. It can feel very depressing, it can be incredibly anxiety-provoking, and most of all, it can make you feel so alone. Today, I’m going to address the fear, “What if I never get better?” and share tools and strategies to stay hopeful and focused on your recovery.
If you have the fear, “What if I never get better?” I want you to settle in. This is exactly where you need to be. I want to break this episode down into two specific sections. So, when we are talking about “What if I never get better?” we’re going to talk about first the things I don’t have control over, and then the things we do have control over. That will determine the different strategies and tools we’re going to use.
Before we do that, though, let’s talk about first validating how hard it is to recover. Recovery is an incredibly scary process. It can feel defeating; it can feel, as I said, so incredibly lonely. When we’re thinking about recovery, we often compare it to other people’s recovery, and that’s probably what makes us think the most. Like, will I ever recover? Will I get to be like those people who have? Or if you see people who aren’t recovering, you might fear, “What if I don’t recover either?” even if you’re making amazing steps forward.
It can be an exhausting process that requires a lot of care, compassion, and thoughtful consideration. Most of all, recovery requires a great deal of hard work. Most people, by the time they come to me, are exhausted. They’ve given up. They don’t really feel like there’s any way forward. And I’m here to share with you that there absolutely is, and we’re going to talk about some strategies here today.
Now, that being said, while all of those things are true—that it is hard and distressing and can be defeating—I wholeheartedly believe that recovery is possible for everyone. But what’s important is that we define recovery depending on the person. I do not believe that there is a strict definition of recovery, mainly because everybody is different, everybody’s values are different, and everybody’s capacity is different. So we want to be realistic and compassionate, and we want to make sure our expectations are safe and caring as we move towards recovery.
Let’s talk about what that might look like. Again, it’s going to be different for every person.
If we’re talking about recovery for OCD, let’s say we’re going to be talking about what’s realistic. Again, what’s compassionate? So, if someone comes to me and says, “I want my goal of recovery to be never to have anxiety and never have intrusive thoughts ever again,” I’m going to say to them, “That sounds really painful and out of your control. Let’s actually work at controlling your reaction to them instead of trying to tell your brain not to have thoughts and not to have feelings, because we all know how that works. You’re going to have more of them, right?” But again, the degree in which you recover is entirely up to you.
Recovery for anxiety or generalized anxiety is going to be the same. I am probably going to use me as an example. I have generalized anxiety disorder—it doesn’t stop me from living my life as fully as I can. It’s still there, but I’m there to gently, compassionately respond to it and think about how I can respond to this effectively. I think I’m genetically set up to have anxiety, so my goal of recovery being like never having anxiety again is probably not kind; it’s probably not compassionate or realistic.
Recovery for depression—again, it’s going to look different for different people. Some people are going to have a complete reduction of depressive symptoms. Other people are going to have a waxing and waning, and I consider that to still be a part of recovery. It might be that your definition of recovery is, “As long as I’m functioning, I can take care of my kids, and I can go to work and do my hobbies.” If that’s your definition of recovery, great. Other people might say, “My definition of recovery is to make sure I get my teeth cleaned, go to the doctor once a year, and have an exercise schedule,” and whatever’s right to them.
Really, again, I want to be clear that you get to decide what recovery looks like for you. I’ve had people in the past say, “I’ve considered my recovery to be great. I’m not ready to take those next extra hard steps. I’m happy with where I am, and I’m actually going to work at really accepting where I’m at and living my life as fully as I can, whether these emotions or these feelings are here or not,” and I love that.
Recovery for hair pulling and skin picking—another disorder that we treat at our center in Calabasas, California—might be some reduction of those behaviors. For others, it might be complete elimination, but you get to decide.
I know that for me, the recovery of a chronic illness was not the absence of the chronic illness. It was getting in control of the things I knew I could control and then working at compassion, acceptance, care, support, and resources for what I could not control.
So I really want to emphasize here first that we want to be respectful. I want to be respectful of your definition of recovery before we talk about this fear specifically related to “what if I don’t recover.” Some people have the fear that they won’t recover, and that might be valid because they’ve put their expectations so high that the expectation in and of itself causes some anxiety.
So let’s talk about it first. We’re going to first talk about what I don’t have control over, and this is what we’re talking about here in regards to how I manage this fear.
Now, the first thing to do when we’re talking about what we don’t have control over is, we don’t have control over the fact that we have this fear. Of course, this fear is coming up for you because you want to recover, you want to live your best life, and you deserve that. You deserve to have a life where you go on to succeed in whatever definition that means to you. But we can’t control the fact that your brain offers you the thought, “What if I don’t recover?” We don’t have control over that, so let’s try not to stop or suppress those thoughts. We know that with research, the more you try and suppress a thought, the more often you’re going to have it.
The other thing we don’t have control over, and I actually mentioned this before, is, we have to acknowledge our genetics and acknowledge that genetics does have a play in this. I’m never going to probably be someone who is anxiety-free. My brain comes up with some ridiculous things. My brain loves to catastrophize. My brain loves to find problems where there aren’t problems. That is my brain. As much as I can work at eliminating how I react to that, I’m probably not going to stop that entirely. So I’m going to accept that I don’t have control over my genetics, and that’s okay.
A quick note here too is, if you do have anxiety and it is a part of your genetic—DNA, your family team tends to have it—also catch your anger around that. You’re allowed to be angry; you’re allowed to be dissatisfied or have grief about that. But we also want to catch that as well. Again, we do have to just acknowledge that no one has control over their genetic makeup.
The third thing to remember here is that recovery is a series of valleys and peaks. That we do not have control over. Some people have extreme fear that they will never recover because they believe or were led to believe that recovery should be this very straightforward recovery process where you go from A to B, there’s no peaks and valleys, and it’s all straightforward from there. We do have to accept that it is normal. Recovery will always have peaks and valleys. It will always have highs and lows. And that actually doesn’t mean you are relapsing or anything bad is happening.
I actually say to my clients a lot of the time, and I often will demonstrate to them as I’ll say, “You’re in the messy middle. You’ve started recovery, so you’ve made that huge step. You’ve gone through that chapter where you’re learning and you’re ready for it, and you’ve educated yourself and you’re prepared. And now you’re starting to make some strides. You’re seeing where you’re doing well. We’re also seeing where there’s challenges. You’re in the messy middle, and this is where valleys and peaks, ups and downs are going to happen. Our job isn’t to beat you up when you’re in a valley or a low; our job is to stop and just inquire, nonjudgmentally, what’s going on? What can we learn from this? What could help me with this if I were to navigate this in the future?”
This has been a huge piece of my work managing a chronic illness because I could wake up tomorrow and not be able to get out of bed, but today I feel like I’m full of energy and all good. It’s completely out of my control sometimes. On the days where I don’t feel like I can get out of bed, my job is to recognize that this is normal. This doesn’t mean it’s going to be forever. Can I be gentle with myself around this hard day and not catastrophize what that means?
So, there are the three things we can’t control.
Now we’re going to move over to the things we can control. There are actually seven of these things, and we’re going to go through them, and they will inform the tools and strategies you are going to use when you’re handling the fear, “What if I don’t ever recover?”
Number one, something that we do have control over, is: how do I respond to this thought? Now, you must remember, the fear, “What if I don’t recover?” or “What if I never get better?” is actually just a thought. It’s not a fact. It’s not the truth. It’s a thought your brain is offering to you, and we want to thank it for that thought because your brain’s trying to help you along. It’s saying, “Just so you know, Kimberley, there is a small possibility that you won’t recover. What can we do about that?” But if you have that thought and you take it as a fact, like you won’t recover, or recovery is not in your future, and you respond to it that way, you’re going to probably respond in a way that increases anxiety, increases depression, increases hopelessness, and isn’t kind or effective.
So we want to first acknowledge, okay, in this present moment, maybe it’s Tuesday at 9:30 in the morning and I’m having the thought “what if I don’t recover,” knowing that on Tuesday at 9:40, I might be having different thoughts, which is again evidence that thoughts are not facts. They’re fleeting. They’re things that show up in our minds. We can decide whether to respond to them or not.
Now, what we want to do when we do have this thought is respond to it in a kind, compassionate way. For those of you who know me and have followed me for some time, I’m always talking about this idea of a kind coach. The kind coach would say, “Okay, I acknowledge that’s a thought. Okay. What do we need to do? Kimberley, you’ve got this. Keep going. Keep trying. You know you’ve done this valley and this peak before. What did you do in the past that was helpful? What did you do in the past that wasn’t helpful? Great, let’s do more of that.” The kind coach cheers you on. It’s there to encourage you. It’s there to remind you of your strengths.
It’s not there to bring your challenges and use them against you, which brings us right to tip number two, which is, you have 100% control over how kind you are to yourself throughout the process.Actually, let me renege that maybe not a hundred percent because I know a lot of you are new to the practice of self-compassion, and sometimes we do it without even knowing. So let’s also be realistic about that as well. Forgive me. We can really work at changing how kind we are to ourselves when we have that thought.
Let’s say you’ve been through the wringer. It’s a very Australian frame or quote, but you’ve been through the wringer, which means you’ve been through a really tough time, and you’re thinking, “I only have evidence that things go bad or things get worse.” A kind coach, your compassionate voice, or your compassionate self—that compassionate part of you would be there to offer gentle, wise guidance on what you need to do for the long term to move you forward. Again, that compassionate voice will validate how hard it’s been. It will not invalidate you. It will say, “I understand it has been hard. I understand that this is really, really challenging.” It will also offer you kind, effective, wise ideas for what you could do in that moment.
Sometimes the kindest thing we can do is just acknowledge the thought and keep going. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do is to say, “No, brain,” or “No, anxiety,” or “No, I’m not buying into this today. Thank you very much for offering it to me, but you do not get to determine where I’m headed. I get to determine where I am headed.”
So, compassionate reactions aren’t just gentle. Sometimes they’re quite assertive and they’ll say, “No.” Sometimes they might even swear, like, “Bug off, anxiety. I’m not dealing with you today. You’re not going to tell me what to do. You can come along for the day’s ride. I know I can’t get rid of you. I know it’s out of my control to try and get rid of you, but you will not determine what I’m going to do today. You’ll not get to tell me that my life will be bad, or my life will be terrible or unsuccessful, or I won’t have recovery.” You get to stand up to fear in that way and let that then inform the actions you take from there.
The tip or tool number three is, also take a look at how much time you’re dedicating to recovery. I’ve had patients who’ve come to me really struggling with this fear that “what if I never recover?” We actually find that they’re not engaging enough in the recovery skills and tools throughout the day.
It’s sort of like going to the gym. If I went to the gym for an hour, once a week, yes, I would have some improvements, but to really maintain those improvements, I do need to be doing my homework, my stretches, my walks, and my weight training in a way that’s effective and not overdone throughout the week.
So a lot of you, if you’re struggling with this, be gentle around this question, because we don’t want to overdo it either. But we may want to check in and say, “Let’s be strategic here.” I know that in our online course—we have an online course called Time Management for Optimum Mental Health. It’s a course to help people schedule and manage their time so that they can prioritize mental health and other things they have to get done. There are other priorities, chores, and things they have to do. We often talk about, let’s put mental health first. Have you scheduled it in your day to do your homework if you’re doing ERP? Have you done that? Have you scheduled a time or an alarm to go off to remind you to sit and journal, do some self-compassion practice, or meditate?
For me, a big one from my mental health is an alarm to say, “It’s time to leave the house. You need to get outside.” I work from home. I’m often indoors with my patients. “It’s time for you to go outside.” That is important for your long-term mental health or your medical health. And so, it’s important that we are very strategic and effective about scheduling. I call it calendaring. We calendar recovery-focused behaviors. That is something you do have control over.
Again, you do not have control over the fact that the fear is here. You don’t have control over whether it will return tomorrow, but you do have control over your recovery and the steps you take, acknowledging that there will still be peaks and valleys. It will not be perfect. One thing I want to stress to you—and I shouldn’t laugh because it’s actually not funny; it’s actually very serious—is that so many people start recovery and get perfectionistic about it, which is often why they’re having the fear “what if I never recover,” because they’ve told themselves there is this one way that they are going to recover and that it again shouldn’t have peaks and valleys and it should be this way, and I shouldn’t be hijacked by any other things. But the truth is, life happens along the way. You might be cruising along with recovery for your specific struggle, and then all of a sudden, a life stressor happens, like COVID.
Here in LA, my husband works in the film industry. There’s a huge strike happening. It’s a huge stressor for a lot of families. It’s been going on for months. A lot of families. I have all kinds of stresses—financial, relationship, and scheduling struggles. Life does happen, and so we have to be gentle with ourselves on the times when our recovery isn’t going to the speed we would’ve liked because of the life hiccups that happen along the way that slow our progress. When that happens, we can gently encourage ourselves that we are doing the best we can. We’re going to be okay with the fact that it’s a little slower. We’re going to let ourselves have our emotions about the fact that it’s slower than we would’ve liked, and we’re going to gently just keep taking one step at a time in the direction you want to go in.
Now the fourth thing you want to remember here, and something that is in your control when it comes to the fear “What if I don’t recover?” or “What if I never get better?” is how willing am I to ride waves of discomfort? This question is key, you guys, and will determine a huge degree of how speedy your recovery is. Maybe it’s not even speedy. For some people, it’s speedy, but for others, it’s how deep the recovery process goes.
I know for me that I often will try to get things to move along nice and fast and on schedule and so forth, but I’ve really missed the true meaning, which is, have I actually learned how to be with myself when I’m uncomfortable? Have I actually slowed down and really had a degree of willingness to be with whatever discomfort it may be—tightness in my chest, racing thoughts, not in my throat, an upset stomach? Am I actually willing to allow that to be there AND still moving in the direction towards my long-term wellness?
Often, when discomfort comes up, we’re like, “I don’t want to feel this. I don’t want to have this experience.” And that’s often when we engage in behaviors that keep us stuck and keep us out of recovery, keep the disorder going. We know that when we engage in behaviors like compulsions, avoidances, and mental rumination, that often just keeps us stuck and keeps us cycling on the same anxiety and the same disorder.
The big question: How willing am I to ride this wave of discomfort? You may want to even put it on a scale of 1 to 10. You might say, “Out of 10, how willing am I to ride this wave? 10 being the most, 1 being not at all.” I always say to my patients, and I’ve said it here before, we want to be up around the 7s, 8s, 9s, and 10s. Even 7 is fine. It’s all fine, but we’re looking for 8s, 9s, and 10s here of how willing you are to really, truly just allow discomfort to be there and observe it as it’s there and not engage in it again, as if it were a fact.
Number five is, how accepting am I of the ups and downs? Now, we’ve talked about this, the peaks and the valleys. When you’re going through peaks and valleys, how accepting are you of that? Or when they happen, are you like, “No, this shouldn’t happen. I don’t like it. I don’t want it. It’s not fair”? I want to validate you. That response is normal and human, but we want to be careful not to stay there too long because when we’re there, we’re actually not moving forward. We’re then often so much more likely to beat ourselves up, put ourselves down, and compare ourselves to other people.
What we want to do is just gently accept. I understand. I validate that this is hard and that we may have taken a step back, and I do accept that. I take responsibility for that in the most compassionate way, and I’m still going to stand up and keep moving forward. It’s like that song. I may be aging myself here, but they say, “I get knocked down, but I get up again.” He talks about how nothing’s going to get him down. This is what recovery is. You get knocked down; you get up again. Maybe it should be your theme song—you get knocked down, you get up again; you get knocked down, you get up again. And that is so brave.
I celebrate any of my clients or any of my students when they say, “I got knocked down, but I got back up again.” That is so powerful. So courageous. So resilient. I just have all the words to say. I celebrate anybody who is willing to get knocked down and still get up again. So I hope that you can practice that for yourself.
Number six is, how patient am I with this process? A lot of these are similar, I know, but patience is actually something I talk with clients about all the time. Often, particularly when they have the fear, “What if I never get better?” it’s often because they’re struggling to really connect with patience. They’re doing the actions. They’re engaging in their homework. They’re moving forward. The only thing that’s getting in the way is they’re losing patience with the process.
This takes time, guys. Changing your brain takes time. It is a long-term process. Just like any muscle that you’re building, whether it be bicep curls, quadriceps, or your brain, it does take time. We do have to practice the mindfulness of being patient, steady, and slow, letting it be a process. I know, I hate it too. No one wants to be patient. It would be so much easier if it just happened fast, and you’re probably seeing other people where their successes happen faster than yours. But again, go back to: how willing am I to be uncomfortable? How accepting am I of my ups and downs? How can I be accepting of my own genetic makeup and the way that my brain responds? How patient can I be with myself in this process?
And then that brings us to tip number seven, which is, are you asking for help? Please, guys, as you navigate recovery and as you navigate the fear that you won’t recover, please do not hesitate to ask for help. Ask for support. Ask for resources. We have over 350 episodes here at Your Anxiety Toolkit. They’re there to support you, to cheer you on, and to celebrate your wins. There are therapists there who are there to help you and guide you. We have a practice in Calabasas, California, where we help people move towards their values as well. There are clinicians in your area. If you don’t live in California, we have a whole range of vaults of online courses, if you’re needing more resources or reminders.
A lot of the people who take out online courses at CBTSchool.com actually have been through treatment, but taking a course helps remind them of the core concepts. “Ah, yes. I needed to remember that. I forgot about that.” It’s okay. The courses are there. You can watch them as many times as you want. They’re on demand. Again, you’ve got unlimited access. They’re there to encourage and support you and push you towards the same concepts of moving towards your definition of recovery.
They’re the seven tips I want you to think about. We are here to encourage and support you as best as we can and give you those strategies and tools. But the big question again is, are you putting them into practice? Please don’t listen to this podcast and go on your way. The only right way that this podcast will truly help is if you put the skills, the tips, and the tools into practice.
I always say it’s a beautiful day to do hard things, and I really believe that. So I hope today has been helpful. We have really gone over what is in your control and what is not in your control. Please focus on the things that are in your control, and I hope you have a wonderful, wonderful day. I’ll see you next week.