November 13th, 2023
The fear of relapse can be a constant shadow for those in recovery, looming ominously over every achievement, every sober day, and every resisted temptation. However, it is crucial to understand that relapse is not a sign of failure or lack of willpower. In many cases, it is a predictable and natural part of the healing process and can provide valuable lessons going forward. Understanding what causes relapse in the first place and how to adjust your recovery plan accordingly can remove the fear and pave the way for an effective and compassionate response.
This article aims to explore the reality of relapse, from its triggers to its impacts and offers valuable insights on how to navigate the path back to sobriety.
What is relapse?
Addiction relapse is a return to drug or alcohol use after a period of abstinence. Relapse can be incredibly distressing for both the individual and their loved ones, but it is essential to understand that relapse doesn’t mean failure. Addiction is a chronic condition, much like diabetes or hypertension. Just as someone with diabetes may have fluctuations in their blood sugar or someone with hypertension might experience elevated blood pressure despite medication, individuals in recovery from substance use disorders can and do encounter setbacks.
According to some studies, between 40% to 60% of individuals in addiction recovery will experience at least one relapse. Coming to recognise relapse as a possible part of the recovery process allows you to use it as a sign that you need to reestablish your motivation or that your current treatment approach needs adjusting or intensifying.
Identifying triggers and warning signs
One of the most effective ways you can prevent relapse is to identify the telltale warning signs and potential triggers. Triggers are anything that can induce cravings or increase the likelihood of returning to alcohol and drug abuse.
These are environmental cues that may remind you of your past substance use. Common examples include:
- Being in places where you used to drink or use drugs
- Meeting friends or acquaintances with whom you used substances with
- Encountering specific dates or anniversaries that are emotional, traumatic or linked to your addiction
These are emotional or physical states that can make a person more susceptible to relapse, such as:
- Feelings of stress, anxiety or depression
- Experiencing physical pain
- Strong emotions such as anger, loneliness or low self-esteem
Apart from these triggers, there are also warning signs, which are behaviours or patterns that may indicate you are on the verge of a relapse. They can include:
- Romanticising past drug or alcohol use
- Starting to neglect responsibilities or commitments
- Pulling away from supportive friends or family
- Skipping or avoiding therapy or support group sessions
- Facing increasing levels of stress or personal challenges
- Becoming disillusioned with some aspect of your recovery plan
Understanding and being able to identify these triggers and warning signs is a proactive approach. It empowers you to take necessary precautions or seek timely help, thereby reducing the chances of a relapse or mitigating its impact.
Identifying and addressing the sources of relapse
Understanding that a relapse has multiple contributing factors is crucial for both the person in recovery and their support system. Relapse is often not just about the immediate triggers but a combination of deeper issues that have led to this point. Identifying the source can be an introspective process and often requires external guidance. Some common sources include:
Underlying emotional issues
Many people turn to substances as a way to cope with unresolved emotional problems and grief, trauma, and undiagnosed mental health conditions can all be root causes of relapse. It is essential to address these core issues, often through rehab therapy and counselling, to ensure a solid foundation for recovery.
Your surroundings can also play a pivotal role in your chances of relapse. Living in an environment where substance abuse is normalised or encouraged can be a major obstacle. Identifying this source can mean finding somewhere new to live or changing your social circle.
This can be hard, but there may be places and people you need to avoid altogether rather than just limiting your exposure to them.
It can be very easy to become complacent, particularly if you have made solid progress, as you can begin to believe that your addiction is behind you. This is a dangerous place to be because it is at these moments when addiction can be most cunning. Educating yourself on the science behind addiction, thinking back to the harm it caused and reminding yourself of your motivations for change can all prevent complacency from creeping in.
Lack of support
Having a strong support system is paramount for recovery, as those invested in your sobriety can help you through difficult moments. It is important to create a strong support network of family, friends, rehab centre experts and aftercare and support group peers. Make sure you share your recovery goals so they can act as your accountability partners, ensure you remain on track and provide a safety net should you feel like veering off course.
Ineffective coping mechanisms
Relapse can also be a sign that the coping strategies you have in place are not effective enough. It is essential to revisit these mechanisms, refine them or learn new ones to handle challenges better. Engaging in therapeutic activities, mindfulness exercises, and self-care can all strengthen your coping toolbox. Remember, it’s about finding what works best for you and ensuring your strategies are adaptable and resilient to the ever-changing dynamics of recovery.
Recognising and celebrating your milestones is also very important for preventing relapse as it can boost self-esteem, reinforce positive behaviours and choices and help to keep you motivated. Celebrating doesn’t necessarily mean grand gestures; it can be as simple as taking a moment to reflect, treating yourself to a favourite activity or meal or sharing the achievement with loved ones. By focusing on and commemorating these small wins, you can maintain hope and determination for the journey ahead. Remember, every victory, no matter its size, brings you closer to a life free from the clutches of addiction.
A relapse can seem like all your hard work was for nothing, but this is not the reality. Instead, it offers a valuable lesson, shedding light on areas that require more attention and fortification. Relapse, while daunting, doesn’t signify the end of one’s recovery journey. Instead, it offers a valuable lesson, shedding light on areas that require more attention and fortification. Remember that addiction recovery is a process, one that often involves setbacks. What truly defines the journey isn’t the fall but the resilience and determination to rise again. With the right support and a new recovery plan in place, you can come back from relapse stronger and better equipped to build your new life.
If you or a loved one find yourselves grappling with relapse, UKAT can provide the expertise and resources to help you rebuild, rediscover and rejuvenate. Every day is a new opportunity to embrace healing and progress, and with each step forward, a brighter, addiction-free future awaits. Contact UKAT today to find out how we can help.
(Click here to see works cited)
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment and Recovery.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 10 July 2020, https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery. Accessed 28 October 2023.