RELAPSE: when a safe experiment goes awry

slippery things

What is a relapse?

It’s a special case of ‘small defeat’. Just when I think something might have been ‘knocked on the head’, there is a deterioration in my performance or my state of health. There seems to have been only a temporary improvement.

Often the idea of ‘relapse’ in therapy work is applied to people recovering from addictions – when slipping back into old ways.

However, it is something we all do.

It is easier to do, today, what we did yesterday

…. we do this not because it is helpful, but because it is familiar. This can produce a well-known human behaviour called ‘looping’. I have done this myself – for over five years, plus, during the time I have been developing this web site.

There are ways round this – and other actions – when we falter on the scenic route.

I rely on people I work with to tempt me away from the familiar – into new possibilities. Thank you to those who have helped me here!

RELAPSING on the scenic route

If you are anything like me, then safe experiments will not take you in a straight line from discomfort to more comfort. You will travel on the scenic route – via small victories and small defeats.

Elsewhere, I have referred to the Window of Tolerance (WOT) My older, if simpler illustration, shows me moving in and out of my Window of Tolerance, into a working area. When I venture out – into that working area – I will experience small victories and small defeats. I can learn from both of them.

Equally, I might stop learning and experience a more extreme reaction. Four of these reactions are described in the four corners of my illustration.

Those experiences close down any move to expand my Window of Tolerance. I can scuttle back behind that Window.Window of Tolerance

For this reason, safe experiments need to take account of the things that will go wrong – not might go wrong, but will go wrong. If planning does not take small defeats into account, then it is very easy:

  • to catastrophise.
  • to loose self-confidence.
  • to say: “why did I bother in the first place“, or “I knew this was a silly idea
  • and this builds up an imbalance in which we experience even more defeats than victories.

What is the alternative?

On this website, I have often said that a more effective response to the small defeat is: “what can I do differently“. The temptation is to wash our hands of the whole thing – to catastrophise – to slide into black-and-white thinking, that is, everything is either all good or all bad. Often this is accompanied by the thought that none of the bad things are my fault – or, alternatively, all my fault!

Our plans needs to consider how best to inoculate ourselves again that catastrophic response that appears to be hard-wired into us.

HOW MIGHT WE PLAN to improve the chances of small victories, over small defeats?


The starting point is to ‘just notice’ your experiences – as said elsewhere in this web site. This is easier said than done; us humans seem not so good at ‘just noticing’ what is happening now. A lot of our time is spent in yesterday and tomorrow. We are less confident at noticing what is happening now inside our bodies.

Other times, we can be too attentive to our body responses, but that attention is specific and very focused, e.g. on the part of us presently panicking.

The Body Scan (BS), practised often, for a short while and randomly, is intended to help here by changing our habits through doing things differently. We do it when there is no current over-reaction. We do it to notice subtle experiences, not just the upfront ones.

Return back to basics

Regular use of controlled breathing, body scanning and ‘measuring’ your experiences – using the Subjective Unit of Discomfort (SUD) from 1 to 10 – is intended to help you develop the new habit of ‘just noticing’ small details in our own reactions to events.

If you like, you can join me in a podcast where I demonstrate how this safe experiment works to help us learn to be just that little bit different: see

Some principles that might help

At the risk of being prescriptive – telling you what to do – here are some planning principles:

  1. When devising safe experiments seek to move deliberately from WORRY to a PLAN and then to an ACTION. Notice how it is possible to WORRY about PARTS of a PLAN and even to worry about an ACTION before you do it. This can simply send you in a circle dominated by worry. This can become rumination. Seek to move forward, and use any support around you to help sustain that focus and move your prom worry into action. Notice how anger can actually help here!
  2. Remember how easy it is to “bite off more than you can chew”. Your planning has to decide: what is enough for you. What are the various ‘enoughs’ for you? For instance, when dealing with travel anxiety after a road traffic incident, consider the amount of time to stay behind the wheel, the time of day you will go out, the weather and road conditions and where will you go. How often should you go out – several times a day, or just a few times during a week? Only you can know that, although taking advice from a partner or friend might be wise.
  3. In my view, you cannot have too small a step in this ‘graded exposure’, as it is called in psychological treatments. It is easy to over-demand of yourself and other people may understand why some small thing cannot be achieved.
  4. It rarely matters how long you take to complete your journey to better well-being. There will be disappointments however carefully you manage the trip. Therefore, it is helpful to reduce the disappointments, as you cannot abolish them! Call them small defeats instead. Does that make it easier to ask: what can I do differently next time?

Keep the change models in mind

… and remain alert to the fact that models are often slow to adapt and change themselves.

For further information, you could visit a web site with some useful cognitive behavioural exercises:

….. where you can find – among other things – some important material on Prochaska and DiClemente’s process of change. There is more on this on several other pages. Notice, in particular, the effort involved in preparing to change and suffering the consequences when the effort goes unrewarded.

Some other leads to consider

What is a nudge: :

Sex: what meaning do you make?

Designing safe experiments: How to do safe experiments for yourself

Actions that might make up a safe experiment

… but actions are not everything

Things are not what they seem

More confusions

Other ways to falter

An index of pages on Your Nudge