Addiction is a chronic brain disease that many continue to struggle with even after completing intensive treatment programs. In fact, the vast majority of people in addiction recovery tend to experience a relapse at least once. This is why relapse prevention planning is such a crucial part of your addiction recovery plan— it may mean the difference between long-term sobriety and lifelong active addiction.
What is a Relapse?
Relapse is best described as the return to substance abuse after abstinence. A substance use relapse can happen at any point during the recovery process, but anywhere from 66% to 80% of relapses seem to occur during the first six months of recovery after treatment.
What Does it Mean to Relapse?
There are many different ways a relapse can occur. For some, relapse is a brief, one-time lapse in sobriety. For others, relapse leads to excessive substance use, or “binging.” In any case, relapsing may indicate two potential issues:
- A driving force behind your addiction was not adequately addressed during treatment, or
- Something in your relapse prevention plan needs to be adjusted
Either way, the best course of action after relapsing would be to return to treatment and restructure your relapse prevention plan.
The Three Stages of Relapse During Addiction Recovery
One of the most common misconceptions about relapse is that it’s seen as a singular, physical event. In reality, relapsing is a process— one that can be broken up into three distinct stages: emotional, mental, and physical.
During an emotional relapse, you’re not actually considering returning to substance abuse. Instead, you’re experiencing emotional and behavioral triggers that may mean a potential relapse later on. Emotional relapse is only the first three stages, after all. The most common signs of emotional relapse include:
- Avoiding meetings
- Intense mood swings
- Poor diet or eating habits
- Insomnia or oversleeping
- Social or emotional isolation
During a mental relapse, you’re thinking about returning to substance abuse without actually planning to follow through. Most of the time, a mental relapse is just a fleeting thought or two. However, as cravings get stronger during this stage of relapse, you may find that your desire to use outweighs your desire to stay sober. The signs of mental relapse typically include:
- Thinking about using again
- Fantasizing about substance use
- Reminiscing about or glorifying past substance use
- Thinking about the people you used substances with
- Visiting or thinking about the places you used to use at
- Seeing old friends who still use, maybe even in front of you
- Planning a potential physical relapse around other people’s schedules
Physical relapse is the act of abusing substances after having established sobriety for some time. Once you begin to consider using drugs or alcohol again during the mental stage of relapse, physical relapse tends to happen shortly after— and it can be especially hard to stop yourself from redeveloping old patterns of substance abuse.
Relapse Prevention Before the Third Stage
If you experience any of the warning signs of emotional or mental relapse, you can still prevent physical relapse by using any of the following methods:
Building a Stronger Support System
Having a stable, sober support system is arguably the most vital part of your recovery. Surrounding yourself with friends, family, peers in recovery and addiction treatment professionals who care about your well-being can help you maintain sobriety in the face of a potential relapse.
Find Ways to Cope with Negative Feelings and Stress
Learning how to cope with the emotions you may feel during recovery— both positive and negative— is one of the most critical steps to building a secure relapse prevention plan. Since stress is the most common (and the strongest) trigger for substance addiction relapse, it’s essential to learn how to handle the pressures of daily life and to find the right balance between ‘work’ and ‘play.’ You can manage your stress levels and stay positive by making time for hobbies and activities like exercise, sports, art, or other enjoyable activities.
Recognize and Manage High-Risk Situations
High-risk situations are different for everyone in recovery. Most situations that increase the risk of relapse tend to include going to a specific place, crossing paths with a particular person, or even a recurring event like a birthday, anniversary or holiday. It’s not always possible to avoid situations where there are bound to be triggers, so planning ahead is necessary to stay sober. Ask yourself:
- Are there specific days you liked to use, or did you use daily?
- Which places do you most associate with your substance use?
- What time(s) of the day did you experience cravings the most often?
- Have you ever turned to substance use to cope with feelings? Why?
- Who did you use substances with during active addiction in the past?
Being able to identify and plan in advance for high-risk situations is an essential part of maintaining your relapse prevention plan.
Coping With Your Cravings
Reframing your mindset while you experience cravings is one way to regain control and avoid relapse during addiction recovery. In fact, keeping realistic but positive thoughts is one of the most effective steps in relapse prevention. If you feel cravings, you should:
- Stay positive and think about all of your accomplishments in recovery so far
- Consider that most cravings only last about 15 minutes before they subside
- Remind yourself that cravings are normal a normal part of recovery
- Remember how your substance use affected your loved ones
- Recognize how your substance use has impacted your health
- Think about the consequences of addiction and why you quit
There are specific actions you can take to prevent relapse when you feel cravings, too. Once you’ve identified your high-risk situations and triggers, you can manage cravings by:
- Focusing on your positive experiences and the progress you have made so far
- Taking note of the ways you’ve successfully coped with cravings in the past
- Reaching out to friends, family and your support group for help and insight
- Distracting yourself with something else, like a hobby or other activity
- Making a list of the negative consequences of your past drug use
Coping With a Relapse
Building and following a relapse prevention plan is one of the most critical aspects of recovery and maintaining sobriety. However, having one in place doesn’t guarantee that a relapse won’t happen. In fact, you will most likely experience a relapse at least once.
Relapse rates for people with substance use disorders are similar to the relapse rates for people with other less-stigmatized chronic illnesses. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the likelihood of substance addiction relapse ranges from 40% to 60%, which is roughly the same as those for diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. It’s also important to note that, since treatment for any chronic disease involves adjusting deeply-rooted behaviors and psychological tendencies, experiencing a relapse is not and should not be considered a failure.
Relapse is often cited as a failure for those in recovery when, in reality, it’s actually a very natural part of the overall recovery process. When people with other chronic diseases experience a relapse during recovery, the general public doesn’t blame them for it. The stigmatization of substance addiction is what drives the mindset that relapsing means failure. People in addiction recovery who relapse will often feel guilt, shame, embarrassment, and fear. These harmful feelings could mean a full backslide in regular substance use if they are not addressed during the relapse prevention plan revision.
So, if you do experience a relapse, you should remember that it’s not a sign that you or the treatment has failed. It just means that something about your treatment or your relapse prevention plan needs to be adjusted.
Relapse Prevention Planning at TTC Care
If you have experienced a relapse at any point during your addiction recovery, don’t let it get the best of you. Relapse is normal, and it doesn’t mean the end of your sobriety. The addiction treatment professionals and your peers at The Treatment Center Residential Care facility can help you rebuild a relapse prevention plan so you can stay recommitted to your sobriety. Coping with the aftermath of a substance use relapse is challenging, but we are here to support you. Call us at (844) 310-9546 for more information about our programs and services for relapse prevention and management.