Addiction Recovery - Relapse Prevention

Relapse: How to Avoid (and Survive) the Biggest Recovery Pitfall

What is a Relapse?

Relapse often hangs over the heads of people in recovery...but it's not the end of the world. Learn all about addiction relapse in our blog.

Written by

brian-mooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

jeremy-arztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

Addiction Recovery

Relapse Prevention

September 30, 2023

Fall down seven times, get up eight. Nana korobi, ya oki.

There are fewer places in the world where this Japanese proverb is more appropriate than recovery. For many people, recovery is less a straight line away from addiction and more a series of circles. A person makes progress, undergoes an addiction relapse, and (hopefully) circles around to moving forward again.

For many people, relapse hangs over their heads like a weight. They remember what their lives were like before recovery, and are frightened of returning back to isolation, DUIs, legal trouble, overdoses, and worse.

But relapse is a part of recovery, and it doesn’t have to be a sign that the entire process has been for nothing. In many ways, learning how to prevent relapse and cope with it when it does happen can be as important as the initial steps toward recovery.

What Is Relapse?

Let's first start with the meaning of relapse. A relapse is when someone trying to overcome a problem or addiction returns to their old habits or behaviors. It's the equivalent of taking a step back after making progress.

Assume you have a friend who wants to quit smoking. They begin by quitting smoking for a few weeks or even months. They are proud of themselves and feel better. But then they have another cigarette one day.

This is a relapse.

How Does Relapse Happen?

Relapse can occur with a variety of factors other than smoking. It can happen while attempting to quit drugs, stop self-harm, or break free from certain harmful behaviors. It's when you return to old habits, despite your best efforts to break them.

Even when things appear to be going well, people might relapse. It might not be very clear, but there are reasons behind it. Your friend, for example, may have been worried or confronted with a circumstance that reminded them of smoking. These factors can make individuals desire to restart smoking.

Recognizing relapse symptoms is important. There are warning signals when someone is on the verge of relapse. They may begin to act differently, isolate themselves, or have intense desires for previous habits. Knowing these warning signals will help you or your friends get treatment sooner.

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Why Do People Relapse When Things Are Going So Well?

Addicts can relapse even when things are going well since addiction is complex and challenging. Relapse can occur for several reasons, even though it may seem illogical when things are going well.

Here are a few factors:

Relapse Cause: Overconfidence and Complacency

When addicts achieve success or stability in their recovery, they may overestimate their ability to resist temptation. They may feel they have complete control over their addiction and can indulge in small quantities without consequences.

This sense of complacency can lead people to let down their guard and make risky decisions, eventually leading to a relapse.

Relapse Cause: Triggers and Associations

Positive experiences or situations can serve as relapse triggers. Certain events, places, people, or emotions can be deeply linked with past substance use or addictive behaviors. When addicts encounter these triggers at a good moment, it can trigger strong desires and memories from the past. It can weaken their resolve and raise their chances of relapse.

Relapse Cause: Seeking an Escape

Addicts can feel uneasiness or anxiety even when things are going smoothly. They might struggle with feelings of happiness, contentment, or even boredom. These unusual feelings can trigger a subconscious urge to get away or self-medicate. As a result, people may resort to addictive habits to cope or reestablish a sense of familiarity.

Relapse Cause: Underlying Emotional Issues

Addicts may suffer from unresolved emotional challenges or underlying mental health concerns. These concerns may return and become more visible during good times. Individuals who lack appropriate methods for coping or support can turn to addictive behaviors to cope with these emotional issues.

Relapse Cause: Lack of Support and Structure

When things are going well, addicts may unknowingly detach themselves from support systems or rehabilitation programs. They may assume they no longer require help or expert advice. However, a lack of support and structure can make individuals prone to relapse since they may lack the tools and resources to overcome challenges.

What Is the Pink Cloud?

One of the biggest pitfalls in recovery is known as the pink cloud. This is a period where everything goes right, and a person feels like they are invincible. They make massive strides in their therapy, become friends with people who share similar stories, feel healthier than ever, and – perhaps most importantly – begin to forget what life was like before recovery.

This can be incredibly dangerous. A person who is on the pink cloud may feel like they can do anything and have come out unscathed, but in reality, this period of recovery is highly fragile. They are still vulnerable to old temptations and behaviors if not careful, and if caught off-guard can find themselves slipping back into the same habits that brought them to recovery in the first place.

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Stages Of Relapse

Understanding the phases of relapse can help individuals notice warning signals and proactively avoid a full-blown relapse. Let us look at the stages of relapse.

Emotional Relapse

Individuals may not be actively thinking about or engaging in their addictive behavior at this stage. Still, their feelings and behaviors might lay the groundwork for future relapse. They may feel more stressed and anxious or have mood changes. Neglecting self-care, isolating oneself, or turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms are common signs of emotional relapse.

Mental Relapse

A person's thoughts and cravings become more focused on their addictive behavior throughout this stage. Conflicting thoughts struggle within their minds; part of them wants to use or engage in the addictive activity, while another understands the adverse effects. The individual may glorify past use, glamorize the benefits, or fantasize about moderation. They may begin to spend time with previous drug-using companions or visit sites linked with their addiction.

Physical Relapse

The ultimate step of relapse involves going back to the addicted behavior. The individual has lost the internal struggle and succumbs to the impulse to use at this point. They participate in addictive behavior, whether drug usage, self-harm, or another addictive activity. Physical relapse often results from not addressing the warning signs and triggers during the earlier stages.

Relapse Signs and Symptoms

Recognizing relapse signs and symptoms is essential for timely intervention and support. Individuals in recovery and their support networks can take proactive steps to avoid a full relapse by being aware of these symptoms. Following are some common warning signs and symptoms of relapse to look out for.

Increased Cravings

Intense and persistent desires for the substance and engaging in addictive behaviors can signal a relapse. These desires can be solid and challenging to overcome.

Romanticizing Past Use

Dwelling on the good aspects of previous substance use or addictive behaviors, selectively remembering joyful moments while ignoring the adverse effects.

Withdrawal and Isolation

Withdrawing from social activities, withdrawing from support systems, and isolating oneself from friends, family, or recovery communities.

Emotional Instability

High levels of emotional instability, mood swings, irritation, anxiety, or sadness. Emotional instability can indicate internal problems and a tendency to relapse.

Neglecting Self-Care

A decrease in self-care activities, such as ignoring personal hygiene, interrupted sleep patterns, poor eating habits, or ignoring responsibilities and commitments.

Loss of Interest in Recovery

Loss of motivation, interest, or participation in recovery-related activities such as treatment, support group meetings, or adherence to a relapse prevention plan.

Return of Denial and Rationalization

Denial or rationalization of substance use or addictive behavior. Minimizing the seriousness of the situation or rationalizing possible relapse triggers.

Reconnecting with Old Contacts

Reestablish contact with friends or acquaintances with a history of substance abuse or who engage in addictive behaviors.

Engaging in Risky Behavior

Behaving rashly, participating in high-risk behaviors, or seeking out settings that enhance the possibility of relapse.

Drastic Changes in Mood or Behavior

Changes in mood, conduct, or personality that are sudden and profound. This might include increasing secrecy, defensive behavior, or unusual behavior.

Difficulty Concentrating

Having difficulty focusing, paying attention, and concentrating, can be due to obsession with cravings or upsetting thoughts about the addiction.

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What Are the Types of Relapse?

Numerous types of relapse might develop depending on the context and nature of the situation. The following are three common types of relapse.

Substance Use Relapse

This type of relapse is defined as the restart of substance use following a time of abstinence or attempted recovery. It can include alcohol, illegal drugs, or other addictive substances. Relapse to substance use frequently follows a cycle of increased tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, and a return to compulsive substance use despite negative consequences.

Behavioral Relapse

Behavioral relapse is the return to harmful or addictive habits, even if they do not entail the use of drugs or alcohol. Relapses in compulsive gambling, self-harm relapse, disordered eating, or other addictive habits are examples. A lack of control, an inability to resist desires, and a return to prior patterns or behaviors can all be symptoms of behavioral relapse.

Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse is not a specific behavior but a condition of emotional and psychological vulnerability that can arise before other types of relapses. It is usually accompanied by negative emotional states such as increased stress, worry, despair, or unresolved trauma. If practical coping approaches are not applied, emotional relapse might make individuals more prone to substance use or behavioral relapse.

Developing a Relapse Prevention Plan

A relapse prevention plan is essential for people in recovery, as it helps them remain on track and avoid relapse. It involves creating a customized strategy that tackles possible triggers, fosters healthy coping strategies, and provides a strong support network. When creating a relapse prevention strategy, keep the following elements in mind.

Identify Triggers

Recognize the people, places, feelings, or events that may trigger cravings or relapse thoughts. Stress, particular social circumstances, negative emotions, or special events are all common causes. One can build ways to control or prevent triggers by identifying them.

Develop Coping Skills

Develop and apply healthy coping mechanisms to manage stress, cravings, and challenging emotions. Some examples include relaxation methods, deep breathing exercises, mindfulness, indulging in hobbies or activities, or getting help from a therapist or support group.

Build a Support Network

Surround yourself with a supporting network of family, friends, or individuals familiar with your situation. Inform them of your relapse prevention plan and seek their help as required. Consider joining a support group or attending therapy for further advice and accountability.

Establish Healthy Habits

Maintain a healthy lifestyle by integrating regular exercise, enough sleep, and an appropriate diet. Taking care of your physical health can help you maintain mental stability and resilience in the face of challenges.

Set Realistic Goals

Set relevant, attainable objectives for both the short and long term that align with the recovery process. Breaking down larger goals into smaller, more doable tasks can help you stay motivated and accomplished.

Create an Emergency Plan

Create a strategy for dealing with high-risk circumstances or extreme urges. This can involve contacting a trusted friend, family member, or sponsor, using helplines, or having a list of alternate activities to engage in when cravings emerge.

Practice Self-Care

Make self-care activities that promote overall health and emotional balance a priority. This can involve indulging in hobbies, practicing self-compassion, setting limits, and making time for rest and self-reflection.

Regularly Evaluate and Adjust

Evaluate the success of your relapse prevention strategy on a regular schedule and make any required revisions depending on your experiences and changing circumstances. A relapse prevention strategy is not static and may need to be tweaked as you advance through your recovery process.

Don’t Let Relapse Stand in the Way of a Happier Life. Reach Out to The Edge Treatment Center

Remember, relapse doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fail. It can be the spark that drives you to take extra steps towards sobriety and getting your life back on track. By being prepared and aware of potential triggers, you can avoid relapse and get one step closer to the life you’ve been working towards.

At The Edge Treatment Center, our team of experienced professionals is here to help you stay on the path to sobriety. We understand that relapse can happen even after long periods of recovery, and we are here to provide support no matter what stage you’re at in your journey.

If you’re feeling the urge to relapse, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Whether this is your first time calling a drug rehab or your seventh, we'll help you reach your goals. Contact The Edge Treatment Center today and learn more about how our programs can help you stay on the road to recovery.

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If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, there is hope. Our team can guide you on your journey to recovery. Call us today.