As with other chronic conditions, relapses following a period of sobriety from alcohol may occur over the course of recovery from a substance use disorder.1 Though they may be common, and even expected occurrences, they do present setbacks—albeit temporary—to an individual’s recovery. Therefore, it can be helpful to understand what may lead to a relapse and how to possibly prevent it.
If someone who previously quit drinking starts using alcohol again, this means they have relapsed.1 However, should a relapse occur, there are ways to handle it and get back on track with your recovery. Relapse should not signal the end of recovery and doesn’t mean treatment failed; rather, it represents a new opportunity to learn from the past and adjust your treatment plan accordingly.
Stages of Relapse
It is important to be aware of any red flags that may suggest a relapse is forthcoming in order to take counteractive measures to avoid it. Such preventive techniques may include applying better stress management tools or not putting yourself in situations that may trigger cravings.
One study explains that relapses may develop gradually, and that it could be helpful to think of them as progressing through 3 broad stages: emotional, mental, and physical.3 Being vigilant for these emotional, mental, and physical signs and symptoms may help in keeping a relapse at bay.
Yet, preventing a relapse isn’t always possible, regardless of the treatment you received and techniques you applied. But know that you’re not alone; relapse may occur once or several times following treatment. When they do occur, additional treatment measures should be considered.
When someone is in the stage of emotional relapse, they may not intend to return to using.3 At this point, the thought of using again frightens them, and they often cannot imagine ever going back to using substances again.3 However, the emotion and behaviors surrounding using can go ignored (i.e., poor self-care), setting an individual up for using again as a coping mechanism. Some signs of emotional relapse include:3
- Not expressing emotions.
- Isolating from people.
- Not attending 12-step or other support groups.
- Attending support groups, but not getting involved or sharing.
- Not taking care of physical needs, such as eating and sleeping properly.
- Focusing on other people’s needs and issues, rather than your own.
With a mental relapse, the person is actively thinking about using again.3 They’re torn between using and staying sober at this point.3 The more a person dwells on thoughts of using, the harder it becomes to resist these urges.3 The signs of a mental relapse include:3
- Cravings to use.
- Dwelling on the people, places, and things associated with drinking.
- Idealizing past use.
- Minimizing the consequences they’ve experienced from use.
- Bargaining (e.g., “I’m only going to have one drink since I’m on vacation.”)
- Lying about things, especially related to alcohol use.
- Thinking of ways to control use, such as having only 1 to 2 drinks when out with friends.
- Seeking ways to relapse, such as finding activities surrounding drinking (e.g., happy hours or birthdays).
- Making plans to relapse.
It’s also important to remember that early in recovery, brief thoughts of using again are normal and not the same as a mental relapse.3 It is common to feel like you may be doing something wrong by even thinking about using or that you are letting the people in your life down by doing so.3 However, don’t allow these feelings to keep you from sharing your thoughts about using with your loved ones or your addiction treatment team.
The final stage of relapse is the actual return to using. While the initial drink of alcohol can lead to a relapse, at times, it can end there with that one occurrence.3 Other times, such a so-called “lapse” may lead to a full-blown relapse in which the person engages in uncontrolled and/or dangerous levels of drinking again.3
Relapse Prevention Tips
Physical relapses can occur because of an opportunity presenting itself to the person in recovery. Therefore, it is important to note that “just saying no” when presented with drugs or alcohol is likely not a sufficient plan to prevent relapse. It can be helpful to practice these types of scenarios and then determine what the plan will be to avoid relapse.3 Preparation will help a person learn the skills needed to prevent giving in to any temptations should a situation like this arise.3
Helpful alcoholism relapse prevention strategies include:4
- Positive self-talk, such as a phrase or saying that they can practice and use in risky situations, such as “I can do this. I’ve done it before.”
- Practicing relaxation, which can calm your nerves and help you cope with cravings.
- Changing your lifestyle as much as possible to help you avoid high-risk situations such as going to bars or being around people who use drugs.
- Planning how to cope with a relapse if it should happen. How will your friends and family react? Be prepared to reveal the news to them and think about what steps you need to take to get back on the road to recovery.
In addition, it is important to take care of yourself physically. Getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising can help reduce stress, which can reduce the likelihood of a relapse.2 It is also important for you to engage in hobbies and pursuits that bring meaning to your life, such as volunteering.2 Or join a group that has similar interests to yours, such as an art or yoga class.2
It can also be helpful to develop a strong support network, which can include your family, friends, support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, and a professional therapist if needed.2
Understanding Your Relapse
Remember, experiencing a relapse shouldn’t be seen as a failure. It also doesn’t mean that your treatment didn’t work. You may need a different approach to treatment, or perhaps to return to inpatient treatment. Regardless of what led to a relapse, getting back on track quickly gives you the best chance at long-term recovery, rather than waiting until the problem worsens. It is hard to admit to others that you have experienced a relapse, but it is the best thing to do. It is always better to be honest and work on getting the process of recovery started again as quickly as possible.
What to Do After a Relapse
If you relapse, you should be honest and ask for help as quickly as you can. The faster you discuss your relapse and/or return to treatment, the better. In the immediate aftermath of a relapse, seek medical attention if you experience anything physical or mental that is alarming to you, such as unusual pain or mental distress.2 You should also contact your main treatment provider, such as your counselor or doctor and your sponsor or other members of your support network, even though you may feel it is hard or embarrassing to do so.2
In the short-term, it is important to understand that relapse is common.2 Look at it as an opportunity to get stronger and be better able the next time to cope with your triggers and avoid relapse.2 Furthermore, if you have an underlying mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety, your care provider may need to reevaluate your medications and focus on these issues in therapy or use a different type of therapeutic approach to help improve your coping skills and consequently avoid relapse.2 You may also want to explore other types of self-care, such as yoga or meditation.2
One addiction treatment doctor has written about his five rules of recovery, which he offers as helpful advice to avoid relapse and stay on track in recovery:3
- Change your life. Stay away from the old friends who used with you and look to people who can support you soberly in your recovery. While this may be difficult, it is critical to your recovery. It can be difficult to change your behaviors if you put yourself in situations where people encourage or tempt you to drink.
- Practice complete honesty in your life. Honesty is critical, especially with yourself. Know your limits, ask for help, and find someone you can turn to if you’re considering drinking again (such as those in your recovery circle).
- Ask for help and attend support group meetings. Work with a group and/or a sponsor; avoid trying to stay sober on your own. Many people resist this step, feeling that they have their recovery under control. It is critical to receive ongoing support from the people who understand recovery.
- Practice self-care and live a healthy lifestyle. Being overtired, overworked, or hungry is putting you at higher risk of relapse. Take care of yourself and find healthy alternatives to past habits that revolved around drinking.
- Stick to the rules. It is tempting to think that you can be an exception to the rule. You might think that you can continue recovery and drink/use drugs on occasion. However, this type of thinking can lead to a relapse.
Get Help Now
If you’ve experienced a relapse and are ready to seek treatment, American Addiction Centers’ (AAC) admissions navigators can discuss your treatment options with you. Alcohol.org is a subsidiary of AAC, a nationwide provider of addiction treatment services.
Remember, a relapse doesn’t mean you have failed; it simply means you need to adjust previous treatment plans. Don’t let it keep you from getting the help you need and deserve. Additionally, if you’ve successfully complete 90 consecutive days at an AAC facility and experience a relapse, you are welcome back for a complimentary 30 days of our treatment.*
Call our hotline 24/7 to speak with one of our admissions navigators and start your path toward recovery today. All calls are 100% confidential. Or, fill out the form below to see if your insurance covers treatment within an AAC facility.
. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d). What is a relapse?
. The Alcohol and Drug Foundation. (2018). Relapse.
. Melemis S. M. (2015). Relapse prevention and the Five rules of recovery. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 88(3), 325–332.
. Australian Government Department of Health. (2004). Relapse prevention and management.
*Terms and conditions may apply, and results may vary.