How to Deal with Relapse

How to Deal with Relapse

When people speak about recovery, you will almost always hear someone speak of relapse. Relapse is when a person has returned to drug use after a period of recovery and sobriety.1 Relapse is not the end of recovery, as so many people think, but rather it is a bump in the road and not a personal failure.

It’s also important to understand that a relapse is not a personal failure. A substance use disorder results in processes in the brain and a series of behaviors that are deeply ingrained and hard to stop.1 Your brain functioning has been altered by the use of substances, and old habits are truly hard to break for many people. The regions of your brain responsible for rewards and pleasure have been tremendously affected by the use of substances, and it takes a long time for many people to break these cycles.2

Substance use disorders are chronic and often require ongoing aftercare. While recovery without relapse is possible for many people, relapse remains a common occurrence. Know that if you or your loved one is experiencing relapse you are not alone. An estimated 37% of people have relapsed within 3 months of entering treatment, according to one study. 3 The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes that relapse from drug use is similar to relapse rates for other chronic diseases such as managing high blood pressure. The rate of relapse from substance use ranges from 40% to 60%. 1

Relapse occurs for many reasons, but people are more likely to relapse if they stop following their treatment plan.1 At times, your treatment plan may need to be adjusted to meet your needs. To avoid further relapse and get back on track, your treatment plan should reflect your current situation to be most effective so you can get back on track with recovery.1 Relapse is common and it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Identifying a Potential Relapse

When you are in a treatment program for a substance use disorder, you learn skills to help you prevent a relapse after leaving treatment. Many programs use various cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques and other forms of treatment to help you strengthen your ability to avoid relapse. The goal is for you to learn to address your patterns of thinking and stop the use of substances as a coping mechanism.4

However, even when following the rules of your program, you may experience signs of a relapse. Warning signs for a relapse include:4

  • Not expressing emotions. Holding in your feelings and not processing them can trigger a relapse.
  • Isolating from others and not reaching out for help and support.
  • Not going to aftercare, such as self-help meetings. You may think you’re getting nothing from these groups or that you no longer need support.
  • Not having a healthy diet or sleep schedule. Not taking care of yourself will lead to being overtired and physically unhealthy, risk factors for relapse.
  • Focusing on other’s issues rather than your own. If you find yourself seeking to solve others’ problems or are quick to point out other people’s flaws, you avoid working on your own program of recovery. This can quickly make you lose sight of what you need to do.
  • Cravings for alcohol or drugs. Cravings are a sign that your substance use is still at risk of returning.
  • Glamorizing past use and thinking about the fun times you had while using.
  • Minimizing the impact that substance use has had on your life and the lives of those around you.
  • Spending a lot of time thinking about places and people associated with past use. You may find yourself thinking about old “using buddies” or a particular bar where you often drank and socialized.
  • Thinking of ways to use in a controlled way can also be a relapse trigger. You may think you can have just 1 drink. Or if you were someone who used “hard” drugs, you may start to think that maybe you could use marijuana or drink wine and be in control of these substances.
  • Planning a relapse. This is a serious warning sign as you think about going through with it and start taking steps to do it.

Preventing a Relapse

Recognizing one or more of these warning signs can help you prevent a relapse. Employing healthy coping mechanisms to counter these warning signs can help prevent relapse. Consider the following relapse prevention suggestions:3

  • Change your life. Avoid old places, people, and things associated with using. This is often easier said than done, but true change is necessary if you are going to change the patterns and behaviors associated with your past substance use.
  • Practice complete honesty in your life. Be especially honest with yourself about your own thoughts and behaviors.
  • Ask for help and go to a support group. Get a sponsor and work your program. It is easy to think you don’t need others, but ongoing support is vital to sustaining recovery.
  • Practice self-care and live a healthy lifestyle. Don’t try to rush things. Being overtired, overworked, or hungry is putting yourself at higher risk of relapse.
  • Stick to the rules. Do not try to be an exception and bend the rules. A lot of people think that they are different and don’t need to do things the same way as others in recovery. This becomes dangerous as you start to take risks with your recovery.

I Just Relapsed- What Now?

If you have relapsed, remember that it is not the end of your recovery. You can get back on track and resume your process of long-term recovery. The first step is to think about what may have triggered your relapse. Some common triggers of relapse are:5

  • Old friends. Being with your using buddies again makes it very hard for you to stay sober and resist the temptation to use when alcohol or drugs are around.
  • Stresses of all kinds.
  • Family conflict.

It helps to reach out to your support group and your sponsor. Get professional treatment to work through a relapse. An evaluation of your treatment plan can help determine if different steps need to be taken. Relapse can also be dangerous if you use certain drugs, such as opioids, and you could overdose. Treatment, including detox, may be needed again if you relapse. 6

Going Back to Rehab

Going back to treatment can feel like a hard decision and you may feel a sense of defeat at having to return. However, whether it is your first time in treatment or you have been through it before, you will always learn something and gain more skills to help you maintain your recovery. Remember, when you use and then suddenly stop—even after a relapse—you run the risk of serious complications, particularly with alcohol and benzodiazepines.7 Therefore, it is important to seek help after a relapse and not try to stop on your own. It could be that your prior stay in treatment was not long enough. Studies have shown that longer stays in treatment are associated with longer periods of sobriety. Most people need about 3 months in treatment for it to work effectively.8

Do You Have Questions About Rehab?

At American Addiction Centers (AAC), our mission is to help people access treatment, but that doesn’t stop at our facilities.  If you have questions, call our free, confidential helpline, available 24/7. When you call, you will speak with one of our Admissions Navigators. They are passionate and understanding people who will either help you start treatment at one of our centers or give you the resources you need to find treatment elsewhere. Regardless of where you are on your journey to recovery, AAC provides medical detox at its facilities to help prepare you for treatment in case of a relapse. When you are ready, we will be too. We can be reached at 1-888-935-1318.

  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Treatment and recovery.
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Drugs and the brain.
  3. Andersson, H. W., Wenaas, M., & Nordfjærn, T. (2019). Relapse after inpatient substance use treatment: a prospective cohort study among users of illicit substances.Addictive Behaviors90, 222-228.
  4. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Cognitive-behavioral therapy. (Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, nicotine).
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). What triggers a relapse? Cues give clues.
  6. Government of British Columbia. (2019). What to do after a relapse.
  7. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Detoxification and substance abuse treatment.
  8. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Principles of effective treatment.