Recovering from drug or alcohol addiction is challenging. With the ever-looming threat of relapse, it can feel like a losing battle on some days and an impossible task on others. However, relapse is neither something to fear nor be controlled by. It is a reality of the recovery journey, and while it’s not something you want to happen, it provides you with the ultimately beautiful opportunity to choose—will you choose to let it get the best of you after you’ve come all this way? Or will you continue persevering, finding strength in the journey and the lesson?
What is relapse?
First and foremost, let’s look at what relapse is not before defining what relapse is.
Relapse is not failure. Relapse is not a sign that you should give up. It is not an indicator that you don’t have what it takes to recover. Relapse does not mean that your recovery journey is done.
Addiction is a disease of the brain where the natural chemicals within the brain are manipulated and even suppressed to make way for the chemicals found within the drugs or alcohol. These kinds of substances impact the part of the brain responsible for making decisions and controlling impulses, making it challenging to withstand the cravings and emotions that come alongside addiction recovery.
Because of these difficulties, a person may relapse when they find it too challenging and return to their previous habits of drug or alcohol usage.
Why does relapse happen?
Just because you make the choice to recover from an addiction does not mean everything in your life which led to the addiction in the first place is going to go away. A relapse may happen because work continues to be stressful, grief from a previous traumatic experience is still present or other triggers in the environment prove to be too much.
Additionally, causes of relapse may include:
Guilt from experiencing a lapse (different from a relapse in that it’s a one-time incident, not a complete relapse/return to addictive behaviors)
A previous mental health condition left untreated
A physical health condition that causes physical and mental stress and/or discomfort
Peer pressure or familiar environments where usage used to occur
Just because a relapse happens does not mean you’ve failed in your recovery. The most important step to take following a relapse is to seek additional treatment options and begin taking steps to recover your footing.
Stages of relapse
Relapse doesn’t just happen overnight. A lapse may occur suddenly in a moment of temptation, but a true relapse shows signs and goes through stages as it develops. There are three stages of relapse—emotional, mental and physical.
Emotional relapse is the first stage, where the mind isn’t actively thinking about substance use, but certain behaviors and emotions may be indicative of relapse risk. Such behaviors include:
Not attending support groups or outpatient meetings, or attending but not actively participating
Refusing to handle emotions, particularly difficult ones
Difficulty controlling emotions like anger, frustration or anxiety
Choosing to focus on and help with the struggles of others while ignoring your own
Isolating yourself or refusing to reach out for help
Lack of hygiene or taking care of yourself
Disinterest in certain areas of life, like hobbies or entertaining activities
Emotional relapse is important to recognize and address quickly, even though it can be hard. By addressing it sooner rather than later, you can prevent the relapse process from progressing to the next stage.
Mental relapse is a challenging stage where you feel an active conflict between the temptation to use and the desire to refrain and not jeopardize your recovery. However, this battle going on in your mind causes increased stress and a desire to escape, which may lead to thoughts of using it as a coping mechanism.
Additional signs of mental relapse may include:
Physically craving the substance
Bargaining, where you make certain allowances to use—for example, you might use on special occasions, you might not return to the same substance but use a different one, or you might promise yourself that you’ll have better control this time
Spending more time with people or in places where you used to use
Imagining or fantasizing use
Planning the relapse
The further along mental relapse gets, the more likely is physical relapse.
The final stage of relapse—physical relapse—is when the actions of consuming alcohol or doing drugs take place. More severe than a temporary lapse, physical relapse is a return to the lifestyle of addiction.
Drug and alcohol relapse can be frightening. It might feel discouraging, terrifying or like straight rock bottom. But relapse prevention is just as possible as relapse recovery.
If you find yourself spiraling into a relapse, ask for help and cling to the sources of support you have. Take the necessary steps to practice self-care, like removing yourself from unhealthy environments or returning to regular support group meetings. If you find yourself entering the initial stages of relapse, do what you can to seek support and guidance – the faster you act, the more secure will prevention be.
The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as medical advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, a doctor-patient relationship.