Recovery doesn’t end the day an individual completes treatment with an addiction recovery specialist. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 40-60% of people treated for alcohol or drug addiction relapse within a year of recovery. While those who have never struggled with addiction may wonder why relapse is so common, scientists, doctors, therapists and those battling substance use disorders know that returning back to daily life after treatment is one of the hardest parts of the recovery process. 

What exactly is a drug relapse? 

Because relapse varies from person to person, the actual experience can be hard to define. But in every case, a relapse is a setback in an individual’s recovery journey that occurs when they return to substance abuse after a period of abstinence. For some, a relapse means repetitive use of drugs or alcohol after refraining from them for a period of time. For others, it’s a one-time slip-up, referred to as a “lapse.” More severe relapses can lead to a full-on return to substance abuse and are sometimes linked to a continuation of old habits, patterns and lifestyles. Regardless of how big or small the relapse may seem, it’s important to know that relapses are part of addiction, which for many, is a lifelong illness without a permanent cure. 

It is equally significant to note that relapse is not synonymous with failure. It does not mean that rehabilitation or treatment did not work nor does it mean that whatever progress was made is undone and that hope is lost. In fact, family, friends, support systems and even those who have relapsed should view the setback as a learning opportunity instead of a failure. In doing so, everyone involved can learn how to better support, encourage and manage sobriety. 

How and why do relapses happen? 

Relapse happens because addiction is a chronic disorder. “As there is no cure [for addiction], there is always the potential for relapse,” addiction specialist Dr. Stephen Gilman explained to  Everyday Health.

Although relapses happen for various reasons, generally, stress, addiction triggers and thought patterns are to blame. As individuals transition back into everyday life, common stressors like looking for work, difficulty with friends and family, challenges in romantic relationships, rejection and psychological issues can lead people to return to their old coping mechanisms. Even guilt from a one-time lapse can generate so much stress and self-blame that it causes a return to repetitive, destructive habits. 

Addiction-related triggers can also lead to relapse. While specific addiction triggers vary from person to person, some common examples are: 

  • Being in a place or with a person where drugs or alcohol abuse happened previously
  • Parties and social settings where drugs or alcohol are present 
  • Being around family and friends who use drugs or drink alcohol 
  • Boredom and/or feeling lost, lonely or helpless 

But social pressure and stress aren’t always to blame. Sometimes, relapse happens simply because an individual’s thought patterns are misaligned. After graduating from a treatment program, a person can unintentionally think of themselves as cured, leading them to thoughts such as: 

  • “One drink/use can’t hurt me.” 
  • “I know how to manage it now.” 
  • “No one will know or notice.” 
  • “This will be my last time.” 

That’s why it is extremely important for family, friends, therapists and even co-workers to know the signs of relapse. 

What are some warning signs of relapse?

Among the vast range of physical, emotional and behavioral signs of relapse, the most common indicators are: 

  • Cravings 
  • Depression 
  • Drastic mood changes 
  • Avoiding people, places and things that once brought stability, support and joy 
  • Hiding/withholding information and keeping secrets 
  • Irritable behavior
  • Steady increase of impulsive behavior 
  • Talking about or returning to past habits, behaviors, places and people 

Of course if you notice these signs in anyone you know battling addiction and substance abuse, we encourage you to take immediate action. First and foremost, contact medical and clinical personnel from the graduate’s treatment program should you notice any unusual or significant symptoms. We also urge you to contact other members of the individual’s support system. The more people that are paying attention, the greater the chance of preventing relapse. 

Does the risk of relapse depend on the substance used? 

While anyone who has suffered from substance abuse in the past is at risk for relapse, it is important to know that the risk of relapse does vary depending on the substance that was used and abused. Opioids are widely known, for example, for having high relapse rates. Those recovering from alcohol dependency, on the other hand, have anywhere between a 30% to 70% chance of relapsing. The risk for relapse can also increase as a result of other factors like: 

  • Family history 
  • Psychiatric problems (i.e. ADHD, depression or anxiety) 
  • Mental illness such as bipolar and schizophrenia 

Because of the body’s decreased tolerance level for the substance, some relapses can lead to overdoses. Luckily, even the most high-risk people can work to mitigate their risk for relapse.

Managing, decreasing and preventing risk for relapse 

We believe the best way to decrease and prevent the risk for relapse is with a customized prevention plan. In fact, we equip our alumni with a detailed, tailor-made discharge document, created by our clients in collaboration with therapists and sponsors. We also recommend the following prevention exercises, activities and strategies: 

  • Participation in aftercare 12-step and outpatient programs 
  • Building a strong support system 
  • Creating new coping mechanisms including mindful breathing and meditation 
  • Forming new social networks  
  • Attending sober social activities 
  • Attending therapy sessions consistently 
  • Creating better self-care habits 
  • Calling upon clinical help whenever needed 
  • Engaging with positive people 
  • Paying attention to yourself and getting support when HALT (hungry, alone, lonely, or tired) 

Family and friends can help their loved ones limit their risk for relapse by reminding them of any and all upcoming appointments they have, talking with them (consistently) about how far they’ve come and how much progress they’ve made, and by offering to accompany them to follow-up appointments.

Supporting those who have relapsed 

Unfortunately though, the reality of addiction recovery often does include relapse. So, in the event of a relapse, getting support is vital. While the individual in recovery works with clinical support to understand what caused the relapse, re-enroll in treatment or counseling sessions, family and friends have an important role to play, as well. If you are supporting a loved one who has relapsed, remember to:

  • Express love, not disappointment
  • Avoid accusatory or labeling statements
  • Provide positive, uplifting encouragement 
  • Help them seek treatment if necessary 
  • Remind them that relapses are not failures

Having A Relapse Prevention Plan

A relapse is any return to substance abuse after a period of abstinence. Relapses are common but can be upsetting. Luckily, if handled properly, they can help form the foundation for a stronger recovery program. With proper support, they can be prevented altogether. 

Here at Solution Based Treatment and Detox, we understand how difficult it can be to transition back into everyday life. As such, our relapse prevention plan equips our clients with the tools, encouragement and discharge plans they need to manage their relapse risk. These plans include everything from outpatient services and aftercare programs to one-on-one check-in meetings with our therapists to ensure our alumni have the support they need to be successful.

Do not struggle alone in silence or give up hope on your loved one. We are here to help. Give us a call today at (877) 309-4311 if you believe you or a loved one is at risk for relapse. 

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