One of the biggest challenges that people recovering from substance abuse face during recovery is the high risk of relapse and falling back into the same dangerous cycle they’re trying to get away from. Recovery from drug and alcohol addiction is a gradual process in which there are many stages and several personal milestones to overcome. Relapse occurs when a person going through this recovery process returns to their previous uncontrolled use of a given substance.

With high rates of relapse in substance abuse cases, it can be extremely discouraging and difficult to move forward with one’s recovery. Many in recovery find themselves in a loop they are unable to escape. However, by understanding why these relapses occur, and learning methods for handling urges and cravings, people recovering from drug or alcohol abuse can better equip themselves to overcome these challenges and improve their chances of a successful recovery.

In this article, we will discuss what relapse is in relation to substance abuse and addiction, what are some common causes or triggers for relapse, as well as 7 important tips to help prevent relapse. If you are currently recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction and would like to learn more about treatment options or preventing relapse, please don’t hesitate to give our office a call.

What is Relapse?

In regards to substance abuse, relapse is defined as a person’s return to use of drugs or alcohol following a period of sobriety. Unfortunately, relapses are very common when recovering from addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than 85% of people who quit a specific drug or alcohol were back to using within a year.

For example, imagine a person is in the process of recovering from an alcohol addiction. After several months of avoiding alcohol, they may slip up and have just one drink. This is considered a lapse. However, if this turns into uncontrollable use, it is considered a relapse – a return to his or her previous struggle with their addiction.

Relapse often occur in these three stages:

  1. First is the Emotional Stage. During this stage, a person is aware of the risk of relapse and does not want to repeat the negative effects of their substance abuse. They are not thinking of using during this time, and may be slightly in denial of the challenges associated with addiction recovery.
  2. The second is the Mental Stage. At this point, a person may begin to experience increased internal conflict in which they are struggling with urges to begin using again. Over time, resistance often decreases as their need to escape becomes more unbearable.
  3. The third and final stage of relapse is the Physical Stage. This is when a person has experienced an initial lapse. As their use of the drug or alcohol returns to their previous substance abuse levels, it is considered a relapse. 

What Causes Relapse?

A relapse can occur for any number of reasons. In many cases, lapses occur out of opportunity. There are also several common triggers that can make a person more susceptible to relapse, including:

  • Boredom
  • Stress or anxiety
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Financial problems or insecurity
  • Relationship and social issues
  • Specific sights or smells (For example, the sight or smell of liquor may trigger a person who is in the process of recovering from an alcohol addiction)
  • Specific places or people (For example, a bar/restaurant that serves alcohol or friends that enjoy drinking may be a trigger for someone who has quit alcohol)
  • Old habits associated with a person’s use of drugs or alcohol

7 Tips to Preventing Relapse

These seven important tips for preventing relapse can help a person recover from substance abuse and progress towards a life free of addiction.

Tip #1: Be Aware of Your Triggers

Triggers like those described earlier can make it easy to fall back into old habits of using drugs or alcohol. Knowing your potential triggers can help to recognize when they occur and avoid letting them control your actions. One specific method for this is “HALT,” an acronym intended to help you realize whether your feelings are tied to Hunger, Anger, Loneliness, or being Tired. By performing regular self-checks for these triggers, you can better understand what it is you need at the moment and avoid the risk of relapse.

Tip #2: Practice Self Care

Self care is extremely important when recovering from substance abuse and addiction. By exercising and eating a healthy, balanced diet, you can improve your overall health and quality of sleep. Following a structured sleep, eating, and exercise schedule will help keep you healthy and in a good mental state.

Tip #3: Mindful Meditation & Self Awareness

A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that mindful meditation can help to significantly improve chances at recovery. Increased self awareness can help to better cope with your triggers. Focus on yourself and what you can control without any judgment. Keeping a log or journal of what you’re experiencing, thinking, and feeling can help to provide empowering insight to continue your journey to recovery. 

Tip #4: Learn and Use Grounding Techniques

There are several grounding techniques that can be used to help manage urges or cravings as they arise. Deep breathing techniques can help control feelings of stress or anxiety by increasing the flow of oxygen to the central nervous system. Another popular grounding method is the 5-4-3-2-1 method, which is intended to shift a person’s attention to their active surroundings rather than what may be causing them to feel stressed or anxious. During this, a person focuses on each of their five senses by listing:

  • 5 things you can see
  • 4 things you can touch
  • 3 things you can hear
  • 2 things you can smell
  • 1 thing you can taste

The goal with these grounding techniques is to help re-center a person’s mindset and shift focus away from the need to escape by using drugs or alcohol.

Tip #5: Surround Yourself with People Who Care

Joining a support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) can help provide much needed support, accountability, and education from others who understand your situation. We also recommend creating an emergency contact list of friends or family that you can safely talk to about your struggles without the fear of being judged. Surrounding yourself with people who truly care about you and want you to succeed can help minimize any feelings of loneliness or isolation that might make it easy to fall back into old habits.

Tip #6: Run Through Possible Scenarios

There will be times when it will be extremely difficult to avoid using. It’s important to then consider the different scenarios as well as the short and long term consequences associated with each decision. Play out the possible scenarios of using versus not using – what happens in each case and what are the repercussions? Be truly honest with yourself and understand there is no bending the rules.

Tip #7: Seek Professional Help

In many cases of substance abuse and addiction, professional treatment may be necessary. Personalized rehabilitation therapy can help individuals overcome their battle with addiction and enjoy long-term benefits.

Get Help with Substance Abuse and Relapse Prevention

Relapse can be a scary part of overcoming an addiction to drugs or alcohol, but you are not alone. Individualized treatment can help defeat substance abuse and prevent relapse for life-long benefits. With fully customized treatments, each victim is able to focus on their unique struggles and concerns to help avoid falling back into dangerous cycles of drug or alcohol abuse, and finally live a life free of addiction.