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July 24, 2022

5 Steps to Help Lower Your Risk for Relapse

Relapse is a common part of the recovery process for those dealing with drug and alcohol addiction. While a relapse should never be viewed as a failure, there are some steps you can take to lower your risk.

1. Manage stress

Stress affects everyone. For an addicted individual, however, stress is often the main cause of relapse. While no one can completely eliminate stress from their life, we can find ways to diminish its effect on our decision making and emotions. For instance, make a list of the people, places, or activities that are the most stressful, then work with a therapist or counselor to develop strategies to minimize those stressors. Avoiding these sources of stress altogether may not always be possible but being proactive can help.

Practicing techniques to handle stress, such as mindfulness and prioritizing healthy behaviors, is essential in recovery. Acts of self-care, such as exercising, eating right, or getting enough sleep, are all helpful. A therapist can also advise you on techniques to manage stress when you’re unable to minimize its impact.

2. Avoid triggers

Often, addicted individuals have certain people or places that are associated with their addiction. To decrease the chance of a relapse, it is best to avoid these activities or individuals that may trigger a desire to drink or do drugs. This may mean changing your daily routines or cultivating a new group of sober friends, for example.

3. Handle emotions

Difficult emotions can often trigger the urge to drink or use drugs. To avoid relapse, it is important to find ways to properly process any negative emotions. An addiction specialist may offer techniques to cope with disruptive emotions. For example, many people find journaling about their feelings, meditating, or practicing mindfulness to be helpful. The goal of these practices is to recognize the emotion, determine why you’re feeling this way, and then use this emotional response as an opportunity for growth and greater understanding.

4. Find new behaviors

It’s common for a reminder of an addiction to trigger the desire to use again. Sometimes a certain smell or sight will transport someone back to their previous life. When this happens, the key is to focus on the sober life in the present. For example, some individuals find it helpful to recall the negative consequences of addictive behavior. Another option is to try an alternative activity or behavior that is associated with positive outcomes. Feel the urge to drink? Try going for a run instead.

5. Celebrate differently

Momentous times in life often involve activities that may be triggering for individuals struggling with an addiction. Some find it helpful to have a friend present to support them during celebratory gatherings. Many individuals in recovery also find it helpful to create a plan with a therapist on how to manage such occasions.

Now that you understand the steps you can take to lower your relapse risk, it’s important to understand how relapse occurs as well as the warning signs and symptoms that can indicate you may be at risk.

The Process of Relapse

Substance abuse impacts your brain, resulting in changes to self-control that can make quitting drugs or alcohol difficult. That reality is what makes relapse such a concern for anyone trying to stop drinking or taking drugs. In fact, research has indicated that those with substance abuse disorders remain at an increased risk of relapse, with twelve-month relapse rates for alcohol remission ranging from 80% to 95%. The relapse rates are similar for substance use.

According to the Recovery Research Institute, almost three-quarters of people with a substance use problem achieve recovery, although the road to full sobriety is not always straightforward. Studies have shown that the median number of attempts to achieve and maintain sobriety is two, depending on the severity of the person’s addiction.

We’re still trying to fully understand relapse, but a current theory is that relapse is a gradual process. This means that if we can recognize the signs in the early stages, we have a greater chance of stopping a relapse from occurring.

Current research breaks the process of relapse into three stages: emotional, mental, and physical.

  • This emotional stage is marked by the person in recovery experiencing an increase in negative emotions such as anger or anxiety. They may also start to have issues sleeping or eating. During this stage, they may begin to turn away from their recovery support systems. All of this may happen without the person even consciously thinking of using addictive substances again. Recognizing this early stage and dealing with these warning signs before they reach the second stage increases the odds that an individual can prevent a relapse.
  • During the second mental stage, the person in recovery may start to struggle internally between their desire to continue on their sober path and wanting to start using drugs or drinking again. At this point, the individual will have active thoughts about using addictive substances again. It can be even more challenging to come back from this stage.
  • Finally, the physical stage occurs when the person in recovery actually uses drugs or alcohol again. This is the point that most people think of when they hear the word relapse. It is very important that the person returns to treatment if they reach this stage. Returning to using drugs or alcohol after a period of sobriety is actually more dangerous because the person’s tolerance is lower than when they were an active addict. If they consume the amount of drugs or alcohol that they were using before getting clean they are at a higher risk of overdose.

10 Warning Signs of Relapse Into Addiction

To help prevent the progression of thoughts and urges into a physical relapse, be aware of these warning signs:

  1. A change in attitude toward the recovery program. This could occur if you start to romanticize your drug or alcohol use or think you no longer need the help of your support network to stay sober.
  2. An increase in stress. When you begin to experience elevated stress levels in your life, you may be at an increased risk of relapse and need to find a healthy way to manage your feelings.
  3. A reactivation of denial. Before seeking treatment, you may have denied that you even had a problem. If you begin to deny that you have a problem again, this could be an indicator of increased relapse risk.
  4. A recurrence of withdrawal symptoms. When you first stop using drugs or alcohol, it’s common to experience feelings of anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness. Should those emotions and reactions begin to recur, it may indicate you are at risk for relapse.
  5. A change in behavior. Many people develop new routines at the start of sobriety to help them manage cravings. Pay close attention if you start to turn away from your healthy alternative behaviors or find yourself becoming defensive in certain situations.
  6. Avoidance of social situations. You may be on the verge of using drugs or alcohol again if you start to avoid social outings, cut back on the number of AA or NA meetings you attend, or feel uncomfortable in group situations.
  7. A lapse in self-care. If you start to neglect your own personal care, such as skipping daily hygiene and meals or oversleeping, you may be struggling with relapse risks.
  8. A loss of judgment. When you have a hard time making positive decisions or find yourself routinely making unhealthy decisions, you may be at risk for relapse. Becoming easily confused, overwhelmed, or quick to anger are also signs that fall into this category.
  9. A lack of control. Losing confidence in your ability to manage your life or emotions indicates that you are at risk for a possible return to substance abuse. For example, you may feel that you can return to social drinking or drug use without negative consequences.
  10. An erosion of options. If you stop attending meetings and actively limit your support network, you may be at risk of relapse.

Common Relapse Triggers

Increased stress in your life may lead you to start using drugs or drinking alcohol again. But that is not the only common relapse trigger. Other common triggers include a flare-up of depression. It is very common for someone who is depressed to turn to drugs or alcohol to manage their feelings.

Symptoms of depression to watch for include:

  • Hopelessness
  • Low energy
  • Significant appetite fluctuation
  • Guilt
  • Feelings of being worthless
  • Problems concentrating
  • Anxious feelings
  • Change in sleep patterns
  • Irritability
  • Lack of interest in activities you once enjoyed

Another relapse trigger is exhaustion. When someone living with addiction experiences a lack of sleep, they may engage in self-neglect. Not taking care of their physical, emotional, and mental well-being puts the person at greater risk of a relapse. Recovery is an ongoing, day-to-day process, and if someone is exhausted, they may not be able to access the necessary tools they have learned to combat an urge to use.

Finally, isolation can be damaging to someone in recovery. Having the support of family and friends, as well as regularly attending a support group or group therapy, is vital to helping someone fight relapse.

Recovering from a Relapse

If an individual does relapse, what should they do? It’s important for individuals who have relapsed to take immediate action to find support and treatment. The sooner the person can address what caused them to drink or use drugs again, the better their chances are of not falling back into regular abuse and avoiding serious health problems.

It is important that the person not view their relapse as a failure. Relapse is a part of their ongoing process of recovery. Many addicts judge themselves harshly for any type of setback, and doing so only creates a vicious cycle of self-doubt and blame. The truth is that setbacks are merely an indicator that the person needs to create stronger plans or find better coping skills. These issues are fixable and simply require the person to challenge their old way of thinking. Determining what led to their relapse can be important to help prevent future relapses.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been shown to be highly effective in helping those struggling with addiction to retrain their brains. CBT works to help individuals in recovery stop negative thinking and develop healthy coping skills. Many addicts experience negative thinking that causes them to feel anxiety, resentments, stress, and depression, all of which are emotions that can lead to relapse. CBT helps to break those old mental habits and retrains the brain.

Recovery from substance abuse is different for each person but everyone is capable of achieving sobriety if they follow five simple rules:

  1. Be ready to change your life. Recovery is more than just stopping using. A commitment to recovery means a willingness to create a new life.
  2. Be completely honest. Addicts must lie about their drug or alcohol use, so it is imperative that you learn to tell the truth to yourself and others.
  3. Be prepared to ask for help. Overcoming addiction without help makes recovery harder while engaging with a substance abuse program and a self-help group has been proven to increase your chances of recovery.
  4. Be willing to practice self-care. Self-care is not the same as selfishness. Anyone struggling with a substance abuse issue needs to understand they can’t be good to others if they aren’t first good to themselves.
  5. Don’t bend the rules. There are no loopholes in recovery. You must fully acknowledge your challenges and be willing to follow the professional help you receive to reach long-term sobriety.

Seeking Professional Help

Any type of setback, including a relapse, can become a learning experience and an opportunity to learn new coping skills or refocus on past successes. If you should relapse, reach back out to your addiction treatment provider for resources on how best to return to your recovery plan and take constructive lessons from the experience.

Meta, located outside of Boston, is an outpatient addiction treatment program dedicated to empowering clients to take charge of their recovery. We believe that our clients deserve a recovery experience that puts their needs first. That’s why we involve each of our clients in the recovery process through personalized treatment plans, recovery resources, and more.

We believe that with the right attitude and the right support, it is always possible to start a new chapter of your life. If you or someone you love is looking for help with substance abuse, Meta can provide a strong road map for long-term recovery.