Jun 1, 2024

What Does Relapse in Recovery Mean and How to Prevent It

When a person goes through addiction recovery, it’s often a hard-fought battle. The hope is that addiction is a thing of the past – forever. However, it doesn’t always work out this way. Long-term addiction recovery is possible, but relapse often interrupts the journey.

Relapse in addiction is a temporary setback, not a failure. Understanding what relapse means and how to prevent it is important no matter where you are on your road to recovery. 

What Is the Definition of Relapse?

Relapse in addiction happens when a person who has sustained a period of abstinence from drugs or alcohol resumes use, regardless of the circumstances. 

Relapse in addiction is defined as having three stages – emotional relapse, mental relapse, and physical relapse. In recovery, emotional and mental relapse are the stages that typically happen before resuming drug or alcohol use. 

While these two initial stages are indicators that physical relapse is a strong risk and help should be sought at this stage, most people consider relapse to be the actual, physical use of substances. 

Understanding Relapse and Why it Happens

To better understand relapse in recovery, it’s helpful to see addiction as the chronic disease that it is. With other types of chronic disease, such as autoimmune disease, for example, there are periods of remission and relapse. 

Some triggers can cause a flare-up of symptoms in these types of diseases. Addiction is very similar. 

Triggers include being around people, places, or situations that tempt the individual to use drugs or alcohol. This might come from peer pressure when being around those they used substances with. It might also come from being in a situation that reminds them of their past use, resulting in romanticizing the past. 

Triggers can also come from issues with physical or mental health. Pain, depression, anxiety, and fatigue can all act as triggers. There may also be a sense of guilt associated with relapse, causing the individual’s substance use to spiral beyond control. 

Preventing relapse begins with understanding why it happens, and accepting that while a wrong choice was made, this doesn’t define one’s future. Relapse is not the end of addiction recovery. It’s a stop or a glitch along the way that many people experience. 

When relapse happens, the most important thing you can do is seek help and continue your journey to recovery. 

Important Signs of Relapse

Someone who has relapsed may not immediately reach out for help, and they may want to keep their behavior secret. They might be feeling a range of emotions, from guilt and low self-esteem to anger at themselves, depression, or a sense of excitement from using again. 

Recognizing relapse signs can help those around the individual recognize the early warning signs and encourage them to get help sooner rather than later. 

The signs of relapse may differ depending on the individual and the substance they use. Here are a few signs and behavior changes you may notice. 

  • Noticeable Changes in Behavior: This is often one of the first signs of relapse. You may notice changes in punctuality, personal hygiene, and self-care, disinterest in hobbies or interests, or a lack of commitment to work, school, or family obligations. 
  • Changes in Attitude: Drug and alcohol use, combined with the emotions attached to relapse, can cause significant shifts in attitude. There may be aggression, anger, impatience, depression, and anxiety that seem to surface out of the blue. It’s also not uncommon to experience changes in behavior on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, such as newfound energy and enthusiasm that isn’t associated with positive life changes. 
  • Secrecy & Isolation: Someone who has relapsed will likely want to keep it secret. They may spend more time in isolation in an attempt to hide their drug or alcohol use from family and friends. They may not be as open about their whereabouts or who they are spending time with. 
  • Revisiting People & Places From the Past: Some individuals will hold onto what they view as enjoyable memories from the past. The people and places they spend time around when using drugs can have a strong allure and become romanticized. It’s difficult to revisit those people or places and not fall back into old habits. 
  • Dishonesty & Deceit: Lying is common during relapse. Dishonesty often centers around drug or alcohol use specifically. This may include lying about their whereabouts, missing work, finances, or who they are spending time with. 

If you or a loved one has experienced a substance abuse relapse, it’s important to seek help and get back on track. If you’re unsure of where to turn, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a valuable resource that can help. 

Contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or use their provider directory to find addiction treatment near you. 

Relapse Prevention Strategies

Relapse management requires a dedicated effort, but the simplest acts often make the biggest difference. Here are a few simple ways of caring for yourself while lessening the risk of addiction relapse.

  • Stick to your addiction recovery plan – attend meetings, counseling sessions, and therapies according to schedule.
  • Don’t neglect your mental health – seek a mental health assessment and take advantage of dual diagnosis treatment that addresses addiction and mental health at the same time. 
  • Care for your physical health – exercise, eat nutritious foods, get adequate sleep, and stay up to date on your wellness checkups. 
  • Consider complementary therapies – meditation, mindfulness, yoga, art therapy, animal therapy, etc, can have a profound positive influence during recovery. 
  • Surround yourself with supportive people – find your support network, whether it’s family, friends, or those you meet through peer recovery groups. 
  • Find new hobbies – use this season of life to discover and pursue new interests, using your energy in more enjoyable, productive ways.
  • Seek help if you need it – don’t hesitate to reach out for help, even if you’ve just found yourself thinking about using drugs or alcohol again. Early intervention is important for avoiding relapse.

What Does Relapse Mean? We Can Help

If you or your loved one are at risk of relapse or have begun using drugs or alcohol again, there is a road forward. Early intervention through addiction treatment is the most effective approach for managing relapse and getting back on track. 
When you need help, the Massachusetts Center for Addiction is here. Contact us any time of the day or night at 844-486-0671. Don’t hesitate to reach out for the help and treatment you need.

MCA Staff
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