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Understanding Relapse

Relapse from addiction recovery may seem like it’s the end of the recovery journey, when in fact, 40-60% of people in recovery will relapse at some point. Because alcohol and drug addiction are chronic diseases, relapse is always a risk. 

Stages of a Relapse

Relapsing doesn’t mean the addiction treatment didn’t work, or sobriety isn’t for them. It just means they had a minor setback, and it’s time to get back on track. Relapse prevention can be achieved, too. Learning the stages of a relapse can help someone be prepared. 


The emotional stage of relapse comes before someone suffering from a Substance Use Disorder physically uses again. It’s the stage where they may be reminiscing about using previously. Maybe even feeling negative emotions, or guilty about a relapse they had before. For most people with an SUD, denial is a big part of the emotional relapse because they could be unconsciously thinking about using during this time. 

Warning Signs of the Emotional Relapse Stage Can Include:

  • Eating or sleeping issues
  • Turning the focus to other people’s problems instead of their own
  • Attending meetings but not participating in them
  • Speaking with a sponsor or support person but not digging deep
  • Suppressing emotions
  • Isolation

For people with a SUD, maintaining self-care and emotional health is vital. When these two components are lacking, the emotional stage of a relapse can last for long periods of time. The longer the emotional relapse, the more chances of it moving into the next stage, mental.


The mental stage of relapse has been described as a war within one’s mind. Even though someone consciously doesn’t want to relapse, they still may want to numb the unpleasant feelings caused in the long-term emotional relapse stage by using drugs or alcohol. 

This stage usually has someone trying to convince themselves they can be okay without using again. It becomes much harder to resist relapsing. Their thinking can even become obsessive.

Signs of the Mental Relapse Stage Can Include:

  • Romanticizing past drug/alcohol use
  • Ignoring the consequences related to using
  • Glamorizing past lifestyles/people
  • Lying or bargaining, even with oneself
  • Craving drugs/alcohol
  • Convincing oneself they can control their use
  • Seeking out relapse opportunities
  • Planning a relapse

When a person with a SUD starts to have more and more thoughts of relapse or shows any of the signs listed above, the mental stage of relapse is clear. Without a support system, coping skills, or even exit strategies, it is more likely that the mental relapse will last for a long time. When this happens, it also increases the likelihood that the person will enter the next stage of relapse, physical. 


The physical stage of relapse is when the person suffering from a SUD starts using drugs/alcohol again. While there is a difference between a “lapse” and a “relapse”, they are both something to be concerned about. 

When someone has a “lapse”, it could be a drink or two at a wedding. Maybe even a hit of weed at a party. They can rationalize it as “It was a celebratory event”, or “I deserve it because I work so hard!”. When the “lapse” becomes more frequent, or uncontrollable, it is a full blown relapse. 

Signs of the Physical Stage of a Relapse Can Include:

  • Difference in appearance
  • Speech changes
  • Smells of alcohol or drugs on them
  • Disappearing with no explanation as to where they were
  • Being around their old people, places, or things

Once someone has a physical relapse, it is important for them to admit there was a relapse. The recovery journey can’t begin without that first step of admittance. Once they can admit they had a setback, the next step is getting the right kind of help. 

What’s Next?

It is important for the person who suffered a relapse to be surrounded by loved ones, and a healthy support system. After a relapse, recovery can seem daunting, and overwhelming. Starting a new path to recovery doesn’t have to be, though. 

Getting help to get back on track is really just a phone call or click away. Talking about the types of treatments available with an admissions counselor is a great step. Miracles Recovery Center offers many different addiction treatment options that can fit anyone’s needs and lifestyle. Between partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, and outpatient, there will be a path to recovery that will meet their situation.