Relapse Prevention & Management Tips
It may be fair to say that preventing relapse is one of the primary reasons that people seek out addiction treatment and sober living programs. Because they have tried to quit using drugs or alcohol without the support of a strong recovery community, they lacked the tools needed to resist the emotional triggers, physical cravings, and behavior patterns of addiction.
In fact, studies show that people who did manage to quit on their own were less likely to remain sober for three years than those who chose support groups or a sober living facility for professional help.1 These findings suggest that even if you have achieved “natural remission” and stopped drinking or using drugs, your likelihood of staying sober will be higher if you join an organized program and complete it successfully.
Relapse begins long before an individual starts using substances again. Let’s look deeper into the stages of relapse and how to take preventative steps along the way, with practical tips you can incorporate into your own journey toward long-term sobriety.
Understanding the Stages of Relapse
Relapse is a gradual process that usually happens in a predictable way. Mental health professionals agree that there are stages of relapse, and that the goal of treatment should be to help people recognize the early warning signs and manage their risk of relapse with therapy and strong coping skills.2
We will discuss all three stages, which have different risks for relapse:
- Emotional relapse
- Mental relapse
- Physical relapse
Stage 1: Emotional Relapse
Emotional relapse begins while you are still actively determined not to use drugs or alcohol. While you may strongly desire to stay sober, feelings of denial and emotional habits of behavior begin to set you up for relapse. Some of the early signs of this stage include:2
- Withdrawing or isolating yourself
- Avoiding meetings or recovery commitments
- Bottling up emotions, not sharing openly, avoidance
- Being overwhelmed by feelings of guilt or shame
- Feeling restless, irritable, and defensive
- Letting your standards of self-care decline
- Not eating or sleeping well
Preventing Relapse in This Stage
When you or your support people see the signs of emotional relapse, taking action to improve self-care and prioritize your recovery will be the first step. This is why your program may use the reminder HALT to help you recognize the danger of being hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. Some of the immediate actions you can take to turn things around include:
- Focusing on self-care, including personal hygiene and mental health
- Remembering that self-care is not selfish; it is an essential part of recovery
- Giving yourself permission to make time for fun and relaxing activities
- Recommitting to treatment and attend as many meetings as needed
- Practicing relaxation techniques, including meditation, yoga, or martial arts
- Exploring new hobbies and sober activities outside of your existing circle of friends
Stage 2: Mental Relapse
In earlier stages, you had no intention of using again. If interventions supporting better self-care are not made or are not successful, a battle begins inside your mind, and you or your loved one enters the mental relapse stage.
You begin to have thoughts of using drugs or alcohol, and your ability to resist these thoughts begins to diminish. You have not yet relapsed, but these warning signs exist:2
- Thoughts of places, people, and things associated with using
- Cravings for alcohol or drugs
- Justifying or minimizing the consequences of using
- Creating plans to use in a controlled way
- Bargaining or lying to yourself or others
- Visiting places you know are high-risk or that trigger environments
- Preparing or planning to relapse by seeking sources
It is important not to interpret these feelings as signs of failure. Facing and coping with triggers and cravings is part of the brave work of recovery. It is normal to have thoughts like these, but it is vital that, to prevent relapse, you recognize them and seek support.
Preventing Relapse in This Stage
This may be the time to look for more focused therapy to stop your relapse before it becomes a physical reality. The time to take action is now for the greatest chance of success in recovery.2 Some steps you or your loved one can take right away include:
- Moving into a sober living facility and/or returning to an addiction treatment program
- Talking openly with individual and group counselors about what you are experiencing
- Using supervised medication programs or changing your existing treatment to help reduce cravings and improve your mental health
- Being honest with yourself and those who support you about the challenges and risks you face in this stage
- Reminding yourself of your reasons for staying sober by spending time with family, posting visible reminders, and playing your thoughts of using through to the inevitable consequences
- Taking any proactive and healthy course of action available to improve your ability to cope with stress and strengthen your commitment to sobriety
Stage 3: Physical Relapse
Without active intervention in stage 2, many individuals start using again. Physical relapse is a dangerous place to be, and your recovery, your health, and the things you care about may be threatened. Things to consider clearly when you or your loved one reaches this stage are:2
- You are at higher risk of overdose than when you were an active addict.
- Any amount of drug or alcohol use is dangerous to your physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
- One lapse is not a valid reason to go “off the wagon” entirely, nor should it be dismissed as a fluke or one-off.
- You need to take immediate action to protect yourself from the consequences of returning to alcoholism or drug addiction.
Managing Relapse in This Stage
You have not failed in your recovery, and there are steps you can take right now to move forward and protect what you hold dear. Keep these things in mind if you reach physical relapse:
- Relapsing is a normal part of recovery, and addiction has a similar relapse rate to other chronic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma.3
- When one treatment plan for a chronic disease like addiction is not enough, more and different treatment is needed, so do not give up on your recovery.
- It does not matter how small the amount or how isolated the event; you are in full relapse and should seek out sober living programs for more treatment.
- There is a strong recovery community of people nearby waiting to help you overcome this relapse with their compassion, understanding, and experience.
- Reach out, ask for help, and make the connection with those with the knowledge to help you break free from addiction.
What Causes Relapse Long After Addiction Treatment?
People who have achieved sobriety and avoided relapse during early recovery face different challenges than those who have just finished a treatment program. With success comes some feelings of complacency and a tendency to let the rules slip a little.
At these later phases of recovery, some of the causes of possible relapse include:
- A desire to put the memory of your addiction behind you, resulting in less focus on recovery and declining attendance at meetings and therapy.
- A tendency to focus on making up for lost time, over-committing, allowing your self-care to decline, and spending less time on healthy and relaxing activities.
- A mistaken desire to return to your old life without using, rather than changing your life to one which supports your goals.
- Feeling that you have learned everything there is to know about addiction and heard every story in your 12-step meetings or group counseling sessions and becoming jaded about recovery.
- Being embarrassed to admit that you may still have cravings or need to manage your risk of relapse after being engaged in treatment for a long time.
- Having thoughts of controlled exposure or limited use based on a feeling that you are fully in control and have “cured” the chronic disease of addiction.
- Returning to the dating scene or starting new careers without acknowledging the risk of relapse these positive steps forward will create.
Take Advantage of All Your Resources to Prevent Relapse
Preventing and managing relapse is your number-one concern in all stages of recovery and, just as asking for help is essential when you begin the journey, it is empowering to find the help you need at every critical place on your path to healing. Whenever you feel at risk of relapse, reach out for support.
One option to surround yourself in a safe and sober environment while you face these challenges or recover from a relapse is a sober living facility like the RECO Institute in Delray Beach, FL. Our evidence-based therapies and sober living programs are available to residents of our comfortable homes in an environment rich in natural beauty and compassionate support.
Our sober residential housing is supervised and comfortable, with direct access to RECO Intensive’s outpatient programs and organized events that will inspire your continued commitment to your own recovery journey. Contact us today to find out how we can help you prevent or manage your relapse.