distraught man going through a relapse sitting inside with his hand on his head

What is a Relapse?

In addiction recovery, a relapse is when the recovering addict uses again. It’s something that happens between 40-60% of the time in all forms of addiction recovery. A relapse does not mean failure, or that the program didn’t work. It just means the person needs to admit there has been a misstep and then do what is needed to get back on track. 

Knowing the 3 stages of relapse can help prevent one


The emotional stage is the first stage in an impending relapse. This is where the person recovering from a Substance Use Disorder may be romanticizing their past use of drugs or alcohol. 

They would show signs of the emotional stage by having sleeping or eating issues, isolating themselves, attending recovery meetings but not participating, talking to a sponsor but not really saying anything of substance, or suppressing their emotions. Denial seems to be a big part of the emotional stage or a relapse, also. The recovering addict might only subconsciously be thinking about using, but feeling guilty about their current emotional state. 


The mental stage is the next stage in a relapse.  If the emotional stage lasts a long time, the mental stage starts to take over. This is when the person suffering from a SUD tries to convince themselves they would be just fine without relapsing or might think they can use occasionally and it wouldn’t risk their sobriety. 

The mental stage of relapse is also when the recovering addict might start planning an actual relapse event. The other signs of mental relapse are lying or bargaining, craving drugs/alcohol, glamorizing past lifestyles and/or people, or maybe just ignoring the consequences related to using when they think back on their old life.


The physical stage of relapse is when the recovering addict starts using drugs/alcohol again. The signs are usually a difference in appearance, smells of drugs or alcohol on them, being around their old people, places, or things, disappearing with no explanation, or even speech changes. Once the person suffering from a SUD reaches the physical stage, it’s time for them to get help. 

What are the Top Ten Warning Signs of Recovery Relapse?

There are 10 warning signs to look out for when being concerned about someone suffering from a SUD. 

Increased stress, depression, and chaos

One of the main reasons people stay in addiction so long is because they use substances to deal with unpleasant emotions, such as stress, depression, and chaos. When their lives become overrun with these emotions, it is difficult not to turn to the “medicine” they used for so long. 

Losing faith in their program

Someone recovering from a SUD is likely following a specific path that is keeping them sober. When they start to feel like their path is not working for them, or they no longer need it, it becomes harder for them to use the tools they have learned to stay sober. 

Abandoning structure

After losing faith in their program, it becomes almost impossible to keep the structure of their set path. Meetings become obsolete, and sponsors fall by the wayside. So their support system becomes nonexistent. 

Neglecting responsibilities

Responsibilities vary from person to person, but someone in a recovery program usually has recovery meetings, therapies, and or/outpatient appointments to attend. Work, and/or school, as well as home life all, need priority. But when someone is in the impending relapse stage, or during a relapse, those responsibilities take a back burner to their desire to use. 

Isolation and social breakdown

Whether it is because of shame, guilt, or embarrassment, addicts who relapse or are in the mental stage of relapse will tend to isolate themselves. The isolation is a protective barrier to either keep them in their using stage or to keep their support system from helping them avoid a relapse. Their social structure breaks down because they remove themselves from it completely. 

Impulsiveness & loss of control

Impulsivity is a dangerous attribute for a recovering addict. Having time to think through decisions is the best way to stay sober. But when that gets taken away, and impulsiveness takes over, their lives can quickly spiral and they can lose all control.

Changes in physical appearance and mood

One of the most obvious signs of an impending relapse, or an occurring relapse is when someone’s physical appearance changes. Drug and alcohol use changes many physical aspects, including their weight, and their facial structure. Dark circles under the eyes, bloodshot eyes, shaking hands, and/or bad hygiene. 

Their mood can be drastically affected as well. From happiness to depression within a short time, or having outbursts of anger are common, too. 

Growing defensive when questioned

A lot of the time, someone who is struggling with a relapse, will show physical signs, or their isolation/impulsiveness will trigger their loved ones to worry.  When anyone approaches them about their concerns, they can become defensive and angry. Being “found out” or “caught” is their worst fear, because it can bring them out of their relapse, and back into the recovery phase, and that can be daunting. 

Financial problems and/or job changes

Losing control of their lives typically leads to loss of financial freedom. It may also cause loss of job changes due to the inability to keep their responsibilities in order. The vicious cycle of doing bad things to get money to use, then feeling bad about doing the things you did to use, then using to get over the feelings becomes them every day. Using can be expensive, as well as the lifestyle that comes with it. 

Returning to old people, places, and things

This is the biggest sign of a relapse. One of the major lessons to learn in recovery is that you need to change your people, places, and things in order to make a healthier life. When someone resists the urge to stay away, they are thrown back into their old lifestyle. The lifestyle that was filled with using, deceit, and guilt. 

What to Do if You or Someone You Love Relapses

Now that you are well equipped with information on how to spot a relapse in a recovering addict’s life, you can help by being there for them. Letting someone you love know they are unconditionally cared for, and that they have you by their side will help them to have the courage, and strength to ask for help. 

Confronting the person in relapse isn’t easy, but if it is done with love and kindness, it can be life-changing for them. To make this process less stressful, you can contact the admissions team at Miracles Recovery Center in Port St. Lucie, Florida. They are knowledgeable and can help formulate a plan for your loved one. 

Hope in a New Recovery Path

Recovery is absolutely possible after a relapse. But, by admitting they have a problem, and having the desire to get help, they are already on the road to recovery. Finding the right addiction treatment plan for each person is the only way to make recovery long-lasting, though.  The next step would be to contact Miracles Recovery Center. Their team of professionals can start paving the way for a new recovery path.