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July 24, 2022

What Are The Stages of Relapse?

Rehabilitating your life is a complex process that’s full of highs and lows. Relapse is a common “low” associated with addiction recovery. Even though relapse isn’t desirable, it’s not a sign of failure, either. Instead, relapse is a normal part of recovery that affects 40 to 60 percent of individuals working to rehabilitate their lives. More often than not, relapse is a sign that you haven’t been taking care of yourself, honestly addressing your needs, and asking for help when you need it. The good news is that you can continue to recover from addiction even after a relapse. The key is knowing that relapse happens in stages, recognizing the warning signs associated with each stage, and asking for help sooner rather than later.

What Is Relapse?

Relapse happens when a condition that previously improved begins to worsen. If you’re a recovering addict, relapse occurs when you start engaging in the addictive behavior you abstained from or stopped doing. This can look different for everyone, but most people identify relapse as using drugs or drinking after you quit consuming alcohol and using drugs. Experts have identified stages of relapse that tend to occur long before you start physically using drugs and drinking alcohol again. The stages, which include emotional, mental, and physical relapse, have different warning signs that can help you stop relapse sooner rather than later.

The Three Stages of Relapse

Contrary to what most people might believe, relapse doesn’t happen overnight. Relapse isn’t a quick, situational occurrence, but a slow-growing process that begins by affecting how you feel, changing how you think, and eventually determining what you do. Even though relapse can be frightening, uncomfortable, and difficult to talk about, the more you know about relapse and how it happens, the more empowered you’ll be. Identifying these signs can help you avoid relapse altogether or ask for help when you recognize it's happening.

Stage 1: Emotional Relapse

Relapse happens emotionally at first. During this stage, you may not have cravings for your substance of choice, but you may be experiencing negative emotions such as irritability, anxiety, or anger. These feelings can cause you to abandon the coping mechanisms and strategies you learned in counseling and peer support groups. This, in turn, can lay the groundwork for you to start using addictive substances again.

One of the most telling signs of emotional relapse is poor self-care. This can look different for everyone, but some of the most common signs include:

  • Abandoning your daily routine
  • Not going to counseling sessions, therapy, or peer support meetings
  • Attending meetings but not engaging or sharing
  • Having an irregular or non-existent sleep schedule
  • Binge eating unhealthy foods
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Suppressing your emotions

When you start noticing any of these signs in your life, it’s time to start paying some serious attention to how well you’ve been taking care of yourself. Doing so can help you overcome this stage of relapse and help prevent further emotional relapse as well.

How To Prevent Or Recover From Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse generally happens when your attention to self-care slips. No one is perfect so you don’t need to feel ashamed, but you need to get back into healthy routines. One of the simplest ways to do that is to take some time to consider the acronym HALT. Are you hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? If so, eat, do something that makes you happy, connect with others, and get some rest. If all of these basic self-care needs have been met, evaluate how well you’ve been:

  • Sleeping. Are you getting 7-8 hours of sleep every night and going to bed and waking up around the same time?
  • Eating balanced meals. Are you eating 2-3 healthy meals a day that includes protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, vegetables, and fruits?
  • Drinking water. Are you drinking enough water? Most nutritionists recommend 8-12 glasses of water every day.
  • Exercising. Getting your heart rate elevated can help you manage stress and boost your mood. Exercising 3 to 5 days a week can help combat negative emotions that can lead to emotional relapse.
  • Socializing. Spending time with people who truly know you can be a great source of emotional release and relief when you’re dealing with challenging and distressing emotions.
  • Participating in recovery groups. Hearing encouraging words and stories from people who have had similar experiences can help you combat negative emotions that often lead to emotional relapse.
  • Talking to yourself. The way you speak to yourself largely influences what you think about yourself, which can affect your emotional wellbeing.
Stage 2: Mental Relapse

If you don’t handle an emotional relapse right away, you might consider using drugs and alcohol again to temporarily relieve some of the emotional distress you’re experiencing. You might simply reminisce about your substance of choice at first, but doing this can quickly evolve into romanticizing and justifying the idea of resuming drug and alcohol use. Even though different people do this differently, some common thoughts associated with mental relapse include:

  • “No one will know I’ve relapsed”
  • “I should be allowed to relax”
  • “If I stopped before, I’ll be able to stop again”
  • “Just this one time”

This stage can make you feel like you’re at war with yourself. You may be fantasizing about using drugs and alcohol while simultaneously fighting to not fall back into a life of addiction.

Some of the most common signs of mental relapse include:

  • Thinking about relapsing
  • Romanticizing your past use
  • Thinking about people, places, and things you used drugs and alcohol with
  • Hanging out with old friends who still use drugs and alcohol
  • Bargaining with yourself about “one more” drink or hit

The good news is there are certain things you can do to stop mental relapse from developing into a physical relapse.

How To Prevent Or Recover From Mental Relapse

If you’re experiencing any of the signs associated with mental relapse, you need to do two things: address what is making you vulnerable to additional stress and resist the thought patterns that can lead you toward physical relapse. You can do this by reaching out to someone you trust. Don’t try to fight this battle alone. Tell a trusted person that you’re thinking of using again. Once you start talking about what’s going on, you’ll probably feel less alone and the urges won’t seem so powerful. Remember, there is zero shame in asking someone to help you stay clean.

Stage 3: Physical Relapse

This is the stage of relapse most people are familiar with. During this stage, all of the emotions and thoughts you’ve been dealing with start to overwhelm you, and you feel completely compelled to drink or use drugs again. Physical relapse can look different for everyone, but some of the most common examples include:

  • Driving to the liquor store
  • Calling a dealer
  • Going to places you went to use
  • Hanging out with friends you know will be using
  • Buying paraphernalia needed for drug use such as pipes, foil, and needles

Generally, if you don’t ask for help during the physical relapse stage, you will use drugs or alcohol again. Even if you do relapse, there’s hope. Approximately 40 to 60 percent of people recovering from addiction relapse. So you don’t need to feel ashamed. You just need to get help as soon as possible.

Helping You Understand, Avoid, and Overcome Relapse

Relapse doesn’t happen overnight. At first, it begins emotionally, then it affects your mind. Last, it starts to affect your behavior. Understanding these stages can help you stop relapse before it becomes physical. But if you do relapse, or have relapsed, we want you to know that:

  • You haven't failed
  • If you’ve been sober before, you can be sober again
  • You can learn from and move past this
  • You’re not alone and shouldn’t be ashamed
  • We’re here to help you get through this

Call us today if you or someone you know has been showing signs of emotional, mental, or physical relapse. We want to help you get back on track.