Recovering from addiction is a remarkable achievement that requires discipline, focus, support, and willpower. But addiction is a chronic condition that doesn’t go away easily. In fact, many people slip up at some point in their journey to overcome substance use challenges. Behavioral health experts call that misstep “relapse” and it’s more common than you might think. But relapse doesn’t mean addiction treatment didn’t or can’t work. It’s a sobering reminder of the chronic nature of addiction and a sign that you may need further treatment or aftercare support. Recovering from addiction is typically a life-long journey filled with a number of bumps in the road, which can include withdrawal symptoms, cravings, and negative thought patterns. You can help prevent relapse by knowing the warning signs, the common triggers, and how and why these challenges happen. You can also lessen your risk of relapse by taking up lifestyle habits that help you manage triggers and reduce stress.
What is Relapse?
Relapse is a deterioration in your health after a temporary improvement. If you have had a substance use disorder, relapse means a return to drugs or alcohol after you have stopped using them. It’s a setback that is often defined by the physical act of drug or alcohol use, but relapse starts long before the actual slip up.
The 3 Stages of Drug Relapse
Relapse toys with your emotions, twists your thoughts, and manifests itself physically, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Relapse might seem like a quick, sudden slip that happened because of overarching circumstances or difficult situations, but relapse typically happens in distinct stages. If you use drugs after a period of abstinence, you might think that your relapse happened the moment you returned to drug use. But the truth is, that relapse started earlier when you began to lose control of your emotions and struggled with negative thoughts. Once you’re struggling with those kinds of thoughts, it becomes easier to turn back to old habits like drug use.
In most cases, relapse happens in three distinct stages: first, emotional, then mental, and finally physical, the most obvious and recognizable stage.
Let’s review each stage below.
#1. Emotional Relapse & Common Triggers
At this point, you’re probably not even thinking about drugs or alcohol. You may even be in active recovery, but your emotions and behaviors are paving the way for relapse. Emotional relapse may start with simple everyday stress that isn’t controlled. When this stress takes over, your emotions and impulses may become difficult to manage. Some common triggers that might lead to emotional relapse include:
- Inability to ask for help
When you feel stress building up, accept and acknowledge these feelings, then contact a sponsor or visit a peer support group. Not addressing an emotional relapse can also allow emotional triggers to lead to a mental relapse.
#2. Mental Relapse & Common Symptoms
In this stage, you may feel like there’s a war going on in your mind. There’s a part of you that wants to use drugs or alcohol again, and there’s a part of you that wants to stay sober. During this time, you may be thinking about using substances more than you had earlier in your recovery. Some general signs of mental relapse can include:
- Thinking about people, places, and feelings associated with substance use
- Fantasizing about using substances or drinking alcohol
- Glamorizing your past
- Lying about how you are feeling to yourself or others
These signs don’t mean you’ll relapse, but they are a sure indicator that you need to check in with your network of supportive people and ask for help.
#3. Physical Relapse & Active Drug Use
This is the most obvious stage of relapse. At this point, you’re actively using substances again. You may be frustrated that you moved from treatment and sobriety back to your old habit of substance use. But this isn’t the time to get down on yourself or throw your hands up in total surrender to the temptation. You must recognize that relapse is a common, normal part of addiction recovery, get the help you need sooner rather than later, and recommit yourself to long-term sobriety.
Relapse can be embarrassing and frightening, but it doesn’t mean you’ve failed or that addiction treatment didn’t work. Relapse is a common part of addiction recovery that happens for a variety of reasons.
The Most Common Causes of Relapse
There are many things that can trigger a relapse. Fatigue, physical pain, unemployment, financial problems, and lack of support can all trigger relapse, but the five most common causes of relapse include:
- Stress. Whether you’re dealing with personal, financial, professional, or day-to-day stress, this is the number one cause of relapse. Research reveals that when you’re stressed, your cravings for drugs and alcohol increase, especially if using substances was your primary way of coping with stress. Evaluate the stress in your life. You can’t remove every form of stress in your life, but you can avoid situations that cause you extreme stress.
- Not changing the people, places, or things associated with past use. If you’re serious about addiction recovery, you need to change your habits. You can’t hang around the same people and go to the same places you did when you were using drugs and misusing alcohol. Not changing the ‘who, what, and where’ associated with your addictive habits can be a main cause of relapse. Develop new friendships, find new places you can go, and learn to enjoy new, healthier activities.
- Depression and negative or challenging emotions. Difficult emotions like anger, anxiety, frustration, and loneliness can trigger drug and alcohol cravings. These negative emotions, as well as depression, can lead to self-pity, resentment, guilt, and a lack of self-worth, all of which can increase your chances of relapse. As you continue to recover and rehabilitate your life, you have to learn how to get comfortable with uncomfortable feelings and emotions. Mind your H.A.L.T. by paying close attention to your actions when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.
- Times of celebration. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and other celebratory moments can trigger a relapse, as well. You might feel like you’re in control of the situation and that you can handle one drink or a quick smoke. But one drink can turn into a binge and one smoke can lead to an entire night of drug use. Bring a trusted friend to help hold you accountable during situations and events that might put you at risk of relapse.
- Complacency. Being confident in your new life is great, but becoming complacent is dangerous. You do need to finish the entire treatment program, attend meetings, and stay in close contact with a sober community. When you start to question your need for treatment and support, you might be headed toward relapse. Check-in with a sponsor or accountability partner weekly and be honest about your struggles when you talk with them.
Knowing the causes of relapse is useful, but knowing how to reduce your risk of relapse is the best way to prevent relapse.
Practical Ways to Prevent Drug Relapse
Even though relapse is a common part of recovery, it can be dangerous and may lead to overdose. Because of this, you should make every effort to prevent relapse. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that will help you avoid relapse, but there are several ways you can decrease your chance of relapse. Some of the most practical ways to help you avoid or lower your risk of relapse include:
- Changing your environment. Surround yourself with positive, healthy people who do not engage in substance use and who support and encourage a sober lifestyle. You need to have a supportive community in your times of need. Sever all unhealthy relationships and ties to unhealthy people. If you need to, consider moving into a sober living home, which will help change your environment and help you build a supportive sober community.
- Avoiding tempting situations. Steer clear of any type of tempting situations, whether they might tempt you physically or emotionally. This might seem obvious but avoid places where there will be substance use or things that remind you of times you used. It might be a good idea to avoid people that might trigger you emotionally, as well.
- Creating a schedule, which helps you continue a structured way of living. As you schedule your free time, be sure to fill it with constructive activities like hiking, exercise, swimming, yoga, journaling, or reading. The key is to limit boredom. Schedule the life you’ve always wanted.
- Exercising. Moving just a little bit each day can greatly improve your mental and emotional health. In fact, regular exercise can decrease anxiety and depression by up to 25 percent. With less anxiety and depression affecting your life, your chances of relapse might also decrease. Biking, running, walking, hiking, horseback riding, swimming, and gardening are all good ways to get your body moving.
- Practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness can help you focus on the self and the present so you can have greater clarity. With that clarity, you can learn how to think more rationally when it comes to cravings, lowering your risk of relapse.
A few other helpful practices that might help reduce your risk of relapsing include:
- Know your triggers and how to manage them
- Develop a support network
- Participate in meaningful activities
- Don’t get complacent in your recovery
- Take advantage of relapse education and prevention programs while in rehab
- Pay attention to H.A.L.T., moments when you are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired
Drug Relapse Statistics After Rehab & Treatment
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40 to 60% of people with substance use disorders relapse after treatment. In other words, between 4 and 6 people out of every 10 people who receive treatment for addiction challenges will relapse at some point in their recovery journey. You should also keep in mind the following statistics:
- 90% of individuals who recover from alcoholism are likely to experience at least one relapse within four years.
- 60% of people relapse during inpatient and outpatient rehab.
- Less than 20% of patients who complete a drug and alcohol treatment program remain clean for an entire year.
- 60% of people who stay clean for two years are likely to remain clean.
Relapse is common, but it doesn’t have to be a part of your recovery journey. Our goal is to help you stay clean after addiction treatment. That’s why we emphasize relapse prevention in all of our treatment programs.
Let Us Help You Avoid or Recover From Relapse
Here at Genesis Recovery, we believing in beginning again. Addiction doesn’t have to control your life. Our treatment approach combines faith-based activities, clinical treatment, participation in a 12-step program, and the support of a strong recovery community.
At the same time, we know that changing your life is hard. Relapse happens and we don’t judge you when it does, but we also strive to help you avoid those risks and recover. When it does, we’ll support you, provide you with additional treatment as needed, and walk alongside you as you continue to recover.
Relapse doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It means that addiction is a chronic disease and that you need more help, support, and treatment. Let us help you get there. Call us today at 619-797-7319 if you or a loved one have relapsed.