man sitting on a bench by a lake thinking after a relapse in addiction recovery

Alcohol and drug addiction is a growing problem in the US and every day it affects millions of lives, both those that require addiction treatment as well as those who care about them. Struggling with an addiction is something that creates a considerable feeling of isolation and loneliness in the addicted individual. Even though they may try to fix their substance use disorder on their own, this can be challenging, even dangerous, and can lead to a relapse, which can only increase their feelings of hopelessness. 

If someone is struggling with addiction, it’s important for them to know that even though relapse is a major concern, there are ways to minimize the chance of relapsing. One of the major ways to prevent relapse is to work with recovery professionals in an addiction treatment program. They can help them work through the challenges of detox and withdrawal with more support than making the attempt solo.

Understanding Addiction Recovery

Too many people believe that addiction is simply the result of making a choice to use drugs and that someone who is addicted is in that situation because of decisions they made to be there. This is commonly acknowledged to be a grossly inaccurate picture of the addiction process, and similarly, it leads to an inaccurate picture of what recovery is and isn’t. Individuals with addiction issues have a critically low self-image and are often ashamed and isolated in their addictions. 

The first step towards recovery is understanding that addiction treatment is a journey and that sometimes relapses will happen. They may not happen for everyone, but they are also not rare. This is why addiction recovery in a safe and supportive professional treatment center can mean the difference between relapse and recovery success.

What Does it Mean to Relapse?

The definition of relapse is when you begin to use or abuse a substance after being in recovery for a period. Relapse is possible at any stage of recovery, not just while actively in addiction treatment. It can occur after months or even years of sobriety and successful recovery, though it is most frequently seen during the first few months of recovery. The risk factors and potential triggers for relapse are relatively diverse and can be different for many people. 

Risk Factors for Relapse 

Each individual facing the journey to recovery will likely face varied and diverse risks for relapsing. Common risks for relapse in any addiction treatment journey include:

  • Exposure to stress without appropriate coping measures in place
  • Environmental and psychological triggers which cause cravings to resurface
  • Continuing to associate with friends who use substances or alcohol
  • Emotional stress the individual is unable to cope with in a healthy way
  • Personal or relationship problems
  • Challenges in the individual’s professional, personal, or financial life

Signs and Symptoms of an Impending Relapse

Some of the signs and symptoms that may indicate an impending relapse include:

  • Stopping recovery-related activities
  • Reminiscing about or glamorizing using
  • Beginning old behavior patterns again, like selfishness and moodiness
  • Rationalizing “just one more use” thoughts
  • Reconnecting with friends that still use
  • Wanting to give yourself a “reward”
  • Being defensive when changes in behavior are brought up by others

Types & Stages of Relapse

To best understand how relapses happen and that they aren’t simply a singular event but a process, it’s important to understand the process itself. The stages of relapse include:

  • Emotional relapse is when the individual isn’t directly thinking of using, but their emotional state may place them at risk for use in the near future. This can be a spike in anxiety, depression, sudden loss of support, or isolation.
  • Mental relapse is when the individual is thinking about using. They may “miss” the activities and people that were sometimes associated with substance use. 
  • Physical relapse occurs when the individual begins using the substance again.

Relapse Doesn’t Mean Failure

Relapse doesn’t mean an individual completely failed at their recovery. It should simply be seen as another stage of their journey. That isn’t to say that it’s a good thing, but it is an opportunity to learn from the experience

There should be answers to be found in the relapse, often to questions such as “what caused the relapse”, “what emotions or circumstances preceded the relapse”, and “is there anything that can be done differently in the future to avoid another relapse, if a similar situation presents itself”. 

Relapse is also an opportunity to begin relapse prevention therapy, which consists of three primary components:

  • Behavioral adjustments and lifestyle changes can help establish more healthy habits or facilitate easier recovery and better-coping techniques. Exercise and proper sleep are common examples.
  • Additional training for healthier coping skills, and helping the individual to recognize and proactively avoid or combat urges and cravings to use. This includes strategies for recognizing high-risk environmental cues and emotional states. 
  • Cognitive therapy can help the individual reframe their views of what relapse means to their specific addiction recovery journey. This can help them to see it as an opportunity to learn rather than a manifestation of an individual or personal flaw.

What Happens After a Relapse

If you or a loved one has relapsed during addiction treatment, the first thing to do is to determine if returning to a treatment facility will be necessary to continue the journey to recovery. In some cases, an isolated incident can be seen as a short-term lapse in recovery, and the individual is still committed to recovery. Situations like this may simply need adjustments to increase their support network with more frequent therapy or counseling. 

In situations where the individual feels like they may have lost more ground than can be fixed with additional support, returning to an inpatient treatment program may be the best thing to do. This may be necessary if the usage progressed beyond a single slip-up, and has occurred multiple times. 

How to Get Back on the Path to Recovery

If you or someone you care about has relapsed or may be in danger of relapsing, getting professional help can be vital to keeping on the path to recovery. Even if the relapse has already happened, addiction treatment obtained immediately can help the individual regain confidence in their own recovery journey, and give them the support needed to continue. Addiction and relapse can be disheartening and isolating, but it doesn’t mean failure. It can be an opportunity to continue with greater insight into the cause behind the use.