Relapse: What is it and How to Prevent it


Relapse is a highly misunderstood concept in the world of addiction recovery. Despite common misconceptions, relapse is not a sign of failure but a common part of the journey that can actually be used to learn valuable lessons. Recovery from addiction is a personal journey, filled with challenges and triumphs but understanding relapse – its causes, prevalence and, crucially, how to prevent it – can equip you and your loved ones with the tools needed to maintain long-term sobriety.

Here we look into what relapsing really means and the best way to go about relapse prevention.

Relapse prevention - syringe

What is addiction relapse?

Addiction relapse is a regression into substance use following a period of abstinence. The relapse of addiction can strike anyone, regardless of what addiction you are in recovery for. This includes alcoholic relapse, drug addiction relapse and behavioural addiction relapse with gambling, gaming or eating disorders.

How common are drug and alcohol relapses?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, relapse rates for those recovering from any type of substance abuse range from 40% to 60%. This means that 40-60% of people in recovery who give up drinking or taking drugs will take them again at some point in their lives. Some studies suggest alcohol relapse rates may be slightly higher, with this attributed to alcohol’s pervasive presence in our society, its legal status and its frequent association with social activities, making avoidance particularly challenging.

Despite these high rates, it is crucial to remember two things:

Relapse does not signify failure or the end of recovery…

It is an opportunity to recalibrate and strengthen treatment strategies.

Relapse is not inevitable…

With the right strategies in place, relapse prevention is possible.

Why does addiction relapse occur?

Relapsing during addiction recovery often involves the interplay of various factors, including:


Stress is one of the most common triggers for relapse. This could be due to personal issues, work-related problems, financial difficulties or any event that causes significant emotional distress. During stressful times, you may find yourself grappling with cravings as a way to escape the discomfort.

Exposure to addiction triggers…

Being exposed to people, places or things associated with previous substance use or addictive behaviour can trigger intense cravings. For instance, visiting a bar where you used to drink or hanging out with friends who still use substances can reignite memories of substance use and the associated pleasurable feelings, leading to a potential relapse.

Direct exposure to the substance…

This could happen intentionally or accidentally (for instance, being offered a drink at a party without realising it contains alcohol). This is not always avoidable, as not everyone you come into contact with will know you are in recovery.

Emotional and mental issues…

Emotional issues such as feelings of restlessness, anxiety or mood swings can also be precursors to alcohol or drug relapse. These emotional disturbances affect us all at different points in our lives and may lead you to consider substance use as a way to self-medicate or alleviate the symptoms.

Mental relapse, on the other hand, involves contemplating or fantasising about substance use or addictive behaviour. This could be reminiscing about the ‘good times’ or justifying reasons to use again. Recognising and addressing these thoughts early can prevent them from translating into action.

Relapse prevention - man with anxiety

How can rehab help with relapse prevention?

Rehab is the most effective way to overcome addiction and prevent relapse.

In the immediate term, inpatient rehab centres like Recovery Lighthouse offer a controlled environment away from potential triggers, reducing the immediate risk of relapse in addiction. During your stay in rehab, you will undergo a comprehensive treatment plan incorporating different types of therapy that can help to address the roots of your addiction and equip you with coping mechanisms to deal with cravings and potential triggers.

You will also have the opportunity to connect with the staff and other clients at rehab and repair damaged relationships with loved ones. At Recovery Lighthouse, we believe that the opposite of addiction is connection and building a support network including these people is crucial for support during difficult moments when you are at risk of drug or alcohol addiction relapse. You will also complete a relapse prevention plan before you leave rehab, identifying all your triggers, reaffirming your reasons for recovery and setting out your coping strategies.

On completing a residential rehab programme, ongoing support is vital. The transition from the safe environment of rehab to the ‘real world’ can be challenging, so Recovery Lighthouse offers all our clients one year’s free weekly group therapy as part of our aftercare programme and free lifetime membership of our Alumni network. All of this ensures that you are not left alone again to struggle with cravings, triggers and difficult moments in life, giving you what you need to avoid relapsing.

What other strategies can help prevent relapse?

Here are some pro tips for preventing addiction relapse and giving yourself the best possible chance of lifelong recovery:

Follow your relapse prevention plan…

The relapse prevention plan that you complete before leaving rehab is your personalised blueprint for transitioning back to everyday life. Diligently following this plan can significantly reduce the risk of relapse.

Practise the skills learned in rehab…

Rehab isn’t just about getting sober; it’s also about acquiring the skills to stay clean. These include cognitive-behavioural techniques to challenge negative thinking, interpersonal skills to improve relationships or relaxation techniques to manage stress. Regularly practising these skills can strengthen their effectiveness and build resilience against relapse.

Attend your aftercare programme…

Aftercare is crucial for reaping the ongoing benefits of therapy, connecting with others in recovery and navigating the challenges of the “real world” with professional guidance. Regular participation in aftercare can bolster long-term sobriety and reduce the risk of relapse.

Follow a healthy lifestyle…

Lifestyle modifications also form a vital part of addiction relapse prevention. Regular physical exercise releases endorphins (natural mood enhancers), helps reduce stress and promotes better sleep. Maintaining a balanced diet ensures the body gets essential nutrients, keeping it physically ready to combat cravings. Prioritising quality sleep is also key, as lack of sleep can exacerbate stress and cravings.

Lean on your support network…

Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous offer a space where you can share experiences, struggles and victories with those who understand. They offer a sense of community and help reduce feelings of isolation often associated with recovery. Family and friends, peers in your aftercare therapy groups and members of Recovery Lighthouse’s alumni network can also provide emotional support and motivation, remind you of your reasons for recovery and keep you accountable, lessening your chance of relapsing.

Practise mindfulness…

Engaging in mindfulness practices can be incredibly beneficial for preventing relapse. At Recovery Lighthouse, you will take part in various mindfulness practice sessions, including yoga and meditation, which promote a heightened state of awareness and enable you to be more attuned to your thoughts, emotions and body signals.

This increased self-awareness can help you notice that you are feeling stressed, physically anxious or experiencing cravings. Rather than acting on these cravings, you can use mindful stress management strategies to curb the urge to relapse.

Adherence to these strategies can create a solid foundation for recovery and relapse prevention. However, it is crucial to remember that recovery is a personal journey filled with individual successes and setbacks. If a relapse occurs, it doesn’t signal failure but signifies a need to adjust the current strategies or seek further assistance.


We are here to guide you through your journey

Starting your journey to recovery can be challenging, but it’s a brave and important step towards a better life. Remember that relapse can happen, but there are ways to prevent it, such as surrounding yourself with supportive people, caring for your physical and mental health, and seeking help when needed.

At Recovery Lighthouse, we will do everything possible to help you overcome your addiction during and after your stay with us and guide you through your relapse prevention steps. Get in touch with us today to learn more about our relapse prevention strategies and answer any other questions you may have.

Remember: every day is a new opportunity for recovery. Embrace the journey with hope, resilience and determination, knowing you are not alone in this battle, even if you relapse.