Knowing what to do when you relapse will help set you on the path towards recovery as quickly as possible. A person relapses when they return to a previous negative behavior after positive improvement. Unfortunately, relapse happens to most people recovering from substance abuse. Studies have found that it often occurs within the first 90 days of recovery. 

When you relapse, one of the first things you should do is seek support from a trusted source. Whether the individual is a family member, friend, or professional, they will help you focus on your relapse recovery and end goal: living a healthy and sober life. 

What Does It Mean to Relapse?

When a person relapses, it means they have consciously returned to using a substance they previously stopped using. Because addiction is often a chronic disease (persistent and recurring), there is always the possibility of relapse. Research finds that most recovering addicts have less than a 60% chance of remaining clean.

A clinical addiction diagnosis refers to the physical changing of your brain. This change impacts your self-control, making it nearly impossible to choose to stop your substance abuse, especially without professional help. Other characteristics of addiction include:

  • Making the substance a priority
  • Refusing to stop taking the substance
  • Continuing to use the substance despite negative consequences
  • Fear over losing or not having the substance
  • Desiring the substance 

What Causes a Relapse? 

Staying sober is hard. There are many internal and external factors that can increase the risk of a relapse. How an individual copes with these factors greatly determines if they relapse or not. Self-efficacy, which is your belief in your capacity to do something, plays a large role in the outcome. The more you believe you are capable of remaining sober, the better you will resist the possible factors below:

  • Depression 
  • Lack of sleep
  • Attempt to combat physical pain
  • Upheaval or changing life circumstances 
  • Attempt to combat withdrawal symptoms
  • Feeling stressed, lonely, bored, purposeless, or isolated
  • Interpersonal problems such as poor, abusive, or otherwise unhealthy relationships 

Social and environmental cues, or “triggers”, may remind you of the substance you stopped using. Such triggers could include seeing a place you associate with the taking of the substance, running into your ex-drug dealer, or spotting drug paraphernalia. Any of these could cause intense cravings for the substance leading to your relapse. Additionally, surrounding yourself with or associating with people that still use drugs and alcohol increases the chance of relapse, as they may pressure you to use again.

One unexpected factor that can lead to relapse is wishing to enhance positive emotions with substances. If you are unable to resist these factors and triggers, it is essential that you know what to do when you relapse. 

What To Do When You Relapse

What you do physically and mentally immediately after you relapse can set the tone of your recovery. Seeking support is one of the first things you should do when you relapse. Whether you reach out to a doctor, therapist, family member, or friend, you’ll need to get help right away. Speak to someone who will help you focus on your sobriety.

When you relapse you will likely feel emotions such as guilt, shame, and humiliation. Don’t let these emotions govern your response as they may drive you to continue using instead of seeking support or getting back on the road to sobriety. Instead, look at your relapse as a step in the journey to a healthy life.

Relapse Recovery

Recovery is continually choosing to live a sober life. Important steps in relapse recovery include:

  • Reflection: Try to pinpoint which triggers or factors may have led to the relapse and work to develop coping strategies for the future. 
  • Seek support: As mentioned, speak to someone you trust who will help you focus on your sobriety. If it’s too difficult for you to speak to them in person initially, go digital. Send them an email or text. What matters most is that you reach out. 
  • Enroll or re-enroll in treatment: Trying to go it alone can add additional pressure and difficulties to relapse recovery.
  • Learn from your relapse: Your self-reflection will help with this step. Once you know what led you to relapse, you can learn from it and make the changes in your lifestyle that will help prevent relapse in the future. 

If you do not have one already, developing a relapse prevention plan is an integral part of maintaining long-term sobriety. Your plan will compile everything you learned in rehab to help you live a life free of substance abuse. 

Trying to recover from relapse alone and without professional medical care will make your return to sobriety more difficult and painful. A cycle of relapse and recovery (sometimes known as revolving door syndrome) can occur when a person is not entirely committed to their sobriety. Starting and stopping the use of substances is damaging to your body and can even lead to death.

Recognizing the Three Stages Of Relapse

You may not immediately notice when you relapse. While a physical relapse may gain the most notice and be most visible, it is usually the final stage of relapse. Since the body’s physical need and desire for the substance was addressed during detox, relapse first occurs emotionally.

Emotional relapse can go unnoticed by you and others as it involves mostly unconscious behaviors. Advancing past emotional relapse to mental relapse is not inevitable. If you notice the following symptoms, seek help right away:  

  • Mood swings
  • Refusing help
  • Withdrawing from loved ones
  • Feelings of anxiety, agitation, or anger
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns

If you do advance from emotional to mental relapse, you will start to experience internal conflict. You could begin reminiscing about the enjoyable times of your addiction. You may start to rationalize substance use again or even start to believe that you could use the substance casually without returning to addiction. Possible symptoms of mental relapse include:

  • Denying thoughts of addiction
  • Socializing with people struggling with addiction 
  • Idealizing memories of your addiction
  • Considering physical relapse

After mental is physical relapse. You have started using the substance again and can no longer be considered sober. 

Relapse Doesn’t Mean Failure

A relapse can be discouraging, but as previously mentioned, it is a common part of recovery. Most people will relapse at least once. As such, relapse should never be seen as a personal failure or a failure on the part of treatment. Individuals should see relapse as a sign that there is more work to be done on the journey to long-term sobriety. 

Indeed, by viewing relapse as weakness, the person experiencing the relapse will have feelings of guilt and shame that can further hamper their recovery. They may even abandon their recovery entirely.  

Some Tips For Preventing Relapse

Knowing what to do if and when you relapse is important, but having the right skills and habits can help prevent it all together.

  • Accountability is important in resisting relapse. Don’t isolate yourself from professionals, friends and family. If you do have an urge to use again, tell someone. Talking about it can help reduce that urge. 
  • Attend support groups and socialize with your peers. People who are also in recovery and living a sober lifestyle will help you stay sober too.
  • Keep your body healthy. Exercise regularly and get regular sleep.
  • Keep your mind healthy. Practice reflection and staying grounded through activities like meditation and yoga.
  • Forgive yourself and practice self-love. Relapse is not failure and actively choosing a sober lifestyle, day after day, is success. 
  • Believe in yourself. As mentioned before, the stronger you believe you are, the better you will resist and cope with relapse triggers. 

What to Do When Someone Relapses

Relapse comes with a lot of emotions and struggles for the person going through it. Identifying possible signs of relapse and knowing what to do when someone relapses will help you provide the best support possible to your loved one. 

As stated above, the first stage of relapse is emotional. An emotional relapse may not be as visible as a physical relapse, but if you are aware of the warning signs (mood swings, withdrawal from family and friends) you may be able to help head off mental and physical relapse. One especially strong warning sign to be aware of is if the person starts to doubt the recovery process or tells you that they think they can handle casual use of the substance.

When someone relapses, don’t do anything drastic, such as cutting them out of your life or trying to force them back into treatment against their will. Be empathetic. Relapse is not an indication of how strong someone is. It only means there is more work to be done on the road to recovery. 

Be sure to provide support. Encourage them to end their substance abuse. Recommend that they speak to someone with professional or medical qualifications. Suggest they practice some of the relapse prevention tips listed earlier. 

Educating yourself on kinds of treatment is also a valuable step in helping someone recover after relapse. While researching, make sure you look for providers that:

  • Are licensed/certified and accredited (they have met the standards set by a national compliance organization)
  • Operate using evidence-based and proven treatment methods
  • Include family members in the program
  • Provide long-term treatment options

Amidst helping your friend or loved one, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Helping someone who has relapsed can be draining for you, too. Practice self-love and set healthy boundaries. 

What To Say to Someone Who Relapses

Knowing what to say to someone who relapses can be difficult. Keep an open dialogue with the person and avoid language that stigmatizes their history with substance abuse and their present circumstances. Whatever you say, say it in an open and non-judgemental way, and make sure that you listen first.

If they are open to hearing from you, encourage them to:

  • Stop their physical relapse
  • Think through the full scenario of what using again will mean
  • Speak to someone with professional or medical qualifications
  • Practice some of the relapse prevention tips shared above

You can also remind them of the physical and mental benefits of them being sober and the positive effects their sobriety has on you and their loved ones.

We Are Here To Help In Your Relapse Recovery

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction or has relapsed, finding treatment can be overwhelming. If you have questions about the types of treatment you may need after relapse, reach out to us at any time to learn more. We offer evidence-based, nationally recognized addiction treatment at our beautiful campus in West Virginia. 

References:

https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/what-triggers-relapse-cues-give-clues