13 Minutes

By THE BALANCE
Fact checked

When you make it through the difficult recovery process and emerge clean and sober, you have a lot to be proud of. You may, however, be afraid of relapsing, as many others who have walked in your shoes have been. It can be devastating to consider that your sobriety may not last indefinitely after you have won that hard-fought battle. However, it is quite common to relapse after you have been clean for a while. Relapse is so common that it’s often considered a part of long-term recovery. This article delves into the topic of relapse after kicking the habit and what to do about it.

A relapse occurs when a person abandons his or her goal of reducing or eliminating alcohol or other drug use and reverts to previous levels of consumption. Relapse rates in recovery range from 40 to 60%, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse

As you try to stay clean, your brain may begin to justify why a small amount of substance use is acceptable. Consider the following reasons:

  • It’s not a bad idea to try one more time.
  • It’s too stressful at work or home for you.
  • You are suffering from physical or emotional discomfort.
  • People in your immediate vicinity continue to use.

A relapse rarely occurs unexpectedly. If you’re paying attention, you might catch early signs. The following are some possible hints:

  • A shift in your mindset or beliefs, such as a loss of motivation to recover.
  • Reverting to bad habits, such as being irritable all of the time.
  • Bypassing your recovery support meetings, you’ll be putting yourself at a disadvantage

Addiction is marked by relapse. It is common, even expected, for people attempting to overcome addiction to experience one or more relapses before finally quitting.

The stages-of-change model predicts that people will go through a cycle of avoiding, considering quitting, taking active steps to quit, and then relapsing. Before quitting, a few people cycle through the stages several times.

The following are a few of the most common relapse risk factors.

  • exposure to potential triggers
  • insufficient social support
  • stress
  • Injuries, accidents, and medical issues 
  • inter-personal issues
  • low self-confidence
  • positive feelings
  • the influence of others

Relapses can be divided into two categories.

Traditional Relapse: When someone makes the conscious decision to drink or use drugs, this is known as a traditional relapse. For example, after a year of abstinence, they may choose to smoke pot to release stress or have a glass of wine with friends because they believe they can handle it without getting carried away.

Freelapse: A freelapse is an unintentional relapse that occurs when someone uses drugs or alcohol without intending to do so. This could happen if they drink alcohol while expecting to be served a non-alcoholic beverage at a party. Unknowingly, you may start taking steps toward relapse weeks or months before you drink or use drugs. Certain thoughts, feelings, and events can trigger drug and alcohol cravings and urges, which, if not addressed properly, can increase your chances of relapsing.

The sooner you recognize the warning signs of relapse, the better your chances of staying on track and avoiding relapse. The stages of relapse are as follows.

Emotional Relapse: The first stage is emotional relapse. You’re not even considering using it again at this point. You still want to avoid active addiction because you remember how bad it was. You, on the other hand, aren’t optimistic about your chances of recovery. You could be suppressing emotions, isolating yourself, skipping meetings (or attending but not participating), worrying about other people’s problems, or developing poor eating or sleeping habits. You’re probably neglecting your self-care not only by eating and sleeping poorly, but also by failing to relax, enjoy yourself, and connect with others. The good news is that getting back on track is relatively simple at this point. Refocus on self-care, particularly food and sleep. Discuss your feelings with a therapist or someone you can trust.

Mental Relapse: You may begin to feel confused and upset during the mental stage. You still want to stay clean, but the longer you’re in a mental relapse, the less you want to. Cravings for drugs or alcohol, thoughts about people, places, and things associated with drugs or alcohol, glorifying past use, bargaining, lying, looking for excuses to relapse, or even planning a relapse are all signs of mental relapse. The mental relapse stage can start with the belief that idle fantasies are harmless, but end with a concrete plan to relapse. Complete physical relapse is only a matter of finding an opportunity at a certain point in mental relapse.

Physical Relapse: The term “physical relapse” refers to the act of resuming drug or alcohol use. Relapses aren’t all the same. People make mistakes, such as getting drunk and then regretting it the next day. Other relapses are more serious, and regaining sobriety may necessitate returning to medical detox or inpatient treatment.

“Did my loved one relapse, or did he/she just slip up?” you might be wondering. Depending on who you ask, there are subtle differences between a slip and a relapse, or a lapse and a relapse. According to many treatment experts, a slip is a one-time blunder, a lapse is a brief lapse or returns to substance abuse, and a relapse is a longer-lasting and more sustained lapse or returns to substance abuse. If not dealt with properly, a slip or lapse can turn into a relapse.

What are the Triggers of Relapse?

Some addiction professionals use the client’s intention at the time to distinguish between a slip and a relapse. A slip is a one-time, unintentional use of drugs or alcohol. Relapse, on the other hand, is thought to occur when a treatment plan is abandoned completely.

A lapse, a slip, and a relapse can all be used interchangeably in the 12-step model. A relapse is defined as a slip or lapse that indicates that a person needs to re-work their 12 steps. This is intended to assist the individual in regaining strength, accountability, and control while reconnecting with themselves and their goals. The 12-steps are backed by scientific evidence and scientific support.

It may not be a case of a slip, lapse, or relapse if your loved one has started using drugs again – whether once or multiple times. Justifying drinking or drug use as a “slip” can be a euphemism for a larger problem at hand, and should be treated as a relapse would be – by contacting a clinician, a counselor, or a sponsor. No one should ever feel obligated to deal with a relapse alone. There is an entire recovery community willing to assist you.

Relapse is distressing for those in recovery as well as their families. The first and most important thing to remember is that all hope is not lost. Failure, shame, and a slew of other negative emotions are triggered by relapse. It’s fine to acknowledge them, but don’t dwell on them because they may prevent you from taking the most important immediate action—seeking help. Relapse can be a part of recovery, not a detour from it if you act quickly.

Seek assistance. Many people who are trying to recover from addiction are eager to show that they have taken control of their lives and are ready to go through it alone. Social support has been shown in studies to increase the likelihood of success. Asking for more support from family and friends, peers, or others who are further along in the recovery process are all examples of how to get help. It could entail enrolling in or returning to a treatment program, beginning or intensifying individual or group therapy, and/or joining a peer support group.

Some people put together a close group of friends who they can call on in an emergency, such as when they’re having cravings. Because cravings don’t last forever, talking about them with someone who understands them can help a person get through them. Others take advantage of the numerous types of peer support groups that offer, in addition to useful information, the wisdom and coping strategies of others who have faced similar challenges; it is the ethos of such groups that members support their peers without passing judgment during crises.

In most mutual support groups, each member has at least one experienced person to call on in an emergency, someone who has also experienced a relapse and knows how to help. Furthermore, immediately following a lapse or relapse, attending or resuming group meetings and discussing the circumstances can provide helpful advice on how to continue recovery without succumbing to the counterproductive feelings of shame and self-pity. It has the potential to be a life-or-death source of hope.

Think about the triggers. Consider what caused the relapse—the emotional, physical, situational, or relational events that occurred just before the lapse. Examine the environment you were in when you decided to use again, not just the feelings you had just before it happened. Nothing seemed to be happening at times—boredom can be a significant relapse trigger. This type of reflection allows you to better understand your vulnerabilities, which are unique to each individual. You can develop a contingency plan based on this information to help you avoid or cope with similar situations in the future.

Increase your overall Selfcare. Self-care may appear to be a luxury, but it is essential for recovery. For one thing, it boosts self-esteem, which is often shattered after a relapse, but it also helps motivate and sustain recovery, as well as the belief that one is deserving of good things. Maintaining healthy habits, particularly getting enough sleep, also strengthens the ability to resist cravings and summon coping skills in times of crisis, when they are most needed.

Continue to make positive changes in your life. Addiction recovery entails more than just abstaining from substances. It is critical to build a rewarding life that is centered on personally meaningful goals and activities rather than substance abuse. Recovery provides an opportunity to build a life that is more fulfilling than the one that preceded it. The focus should be on renewing or developing old interests, changing negative thinking patterns, and developing new routines and friendship groups that are not linked to substance abuse.

Create a relapse prevention strategy. A detailed relapse prevention plan should be kept in a convenient location, such as next to your phone charger, taped to the refrigerator door, or the inside of a medicine cabinet, for quick access when cravings strike. A strategy like this helps to reduce the chances of future lapses. A good relapse prevention plan identifies a person’s drug-use triggers, suggests coping skills and distractions, and names people to contact for immediate help, along with their contact information.

Be forgiving of yourself. It takes time to break any bad habits, and viewing success and failure as all-or-nothing is counterproductive. In any aspect of life, setbacks are an unavoidable part of progress. In the case of addiction, behavior has changed people’s brains, and changing them back is difficult. According to research, those who forgive themselves for reverting to old habits perform better in the future. The true test of success is getting back on track quickly after a setback.

The way people deal with setbacks has a big impact on their recovery—and it can even affect their chances of making a full recovery. Many people who begin their addiction recovery journey see it as a black-and-white, all-or-nothing proposition. They see setbacks as failures because the disappointment that comes with them triggers a chain reaction of negative thoughts and feelings, on top of the guilt and shame that most people already feel for succumbing to addiction. Setbacks can start a vicious cycle in which people interpret setbacks as confirmation of their negative self-image and believe they are incapable and/or unworthy of leading a substance-free life. Such a negative mindset can not only lead to relapse, but it can also exacerbate feelings of failure, making the road to recovery seem even more daunting.

Instead of viewing relapse as a personal defeat, consider it a steppingstone, a marker of progress—an opportunity to learn more about one’s susceptibilities, the types of situations that are problematic, and the most effective means of support in a crisis. Individuals can broaden their range of coping skills, engage in planning for problematic situations, and devise strategies in advance for dealing with predictable difficulties by viewing setbacks as a normal part of progress. Distraction strategies that can be used quickly when cravings occur are among the most important coping skills. For example, mindfulness training can change the neural mechanisms of craving and open up pathways for executive control.

Building a support network that understands the importance of responsiveness is also crucial. Developing adaptive ways to deal with negative feelings and uncertainty is one of the most important things you can do. Those methods are important for everyone, whether or not they are recovering from addiction—just it’s that the stakes are usually higher for those in recovery. Many experts believe that people use substances in an attempt to escape unpleasant feelings, only to become trapped in addiction. Substance abusers are rarely aware of the causes of their addiction. Addiction recovery is primarily a process of self-discovery. Addiction can be overcome with a better understanding of one’s motives, vulnerabilities, and strengths.

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