• Addiction & recovery

Understanding Relapse: Why It Happens and How to Prevent It

Nzinga Harrison

November 8, 2022


Just like any other chronic illness, such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, addiction is a relapsing disorder. This means that, just as a person with cancer or heart disease may have a relapse of symptoms of their illness, a substance use disorder may also relapse, or return to drug and alcohol use. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that about 40-60% of people treated for substance use disorders will face a relapse.

Although it is a common part of the illness, relapse can be an upsetting, and potentially dangerous, experience. Despite setbacks, a relapse doesn’t mean that the recovery journey is over. It is possible to overcome this setback and achieve recovery again.

Does a relapse mean that the person or treatment failed?

Addiction relapse isn’t a reflection of a person’s willpower or strength. By nature, addiction is a chronic condition that may “flare-up” or worsen from time-to-time. If a relapse occurs, it’s not a sign of failure—it’s a sign that treatment needs to be reevaluated.

What causes relapse?

Because addiction is a chronic disease, even when symptoms of the illness are in control, like when a person is in recovery, it doesn’t mean the illness is gone. Relapse after a period of sobriety is caused by a variety of factors that affect each person differently, including:

Environmental and Physical Triggers

There are likely certain people, places, and things that create the urge to drink or use drugs again. Some examples include:

  • Being around or in contact with substance-using people

  • Going to a bar, night club, or party where alcohol and drugs are present

  • Seeing objects associated with substance use, such as a pipe or wine glass

  • Abruptly stopping medication-assisted treatment

  • Lack of a strong support system or aftercare plans

Infographic about understanding what causes relapse from alcohol addiction and drug addiction

Mental triggers

For many people in recovery, there are thoughts, emotions, and untreated behavioral health needs that make them more vulnerable to relapse. These include:

  • Negative or upsetting emotions, like anger, fear, resentment, and self-doubt

  • Stressful experiences related to work, family, or other responsibilities

  • Dealing with trauma or violence

  • Untreated mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression

Biological triggers

  • Physical pain from physical illnesses

  • Accidents or injuries that cause body pain and aches

Is relapsing dangerous?

Depending on the substances, relapse can be dangerous. After detoxing and going through treatment, a person’s body adjusts to not having drugs or alcohol in it. When their tolerance is lower, restarting substance use and taking the same amount they used before treatment can overwhelm the body and brain. This causes an accidental overdose and leads to serious physical consequences or death.

How can relapse be prevented?

Avoiding Triggers

To prevent relapse, a person must first understand which specific triggers make them feel vulnerable. While it’s not always possible to completely avoid them, becoming self-aware of the physical, environmental, and mental triggers that cause cravings is a crucial step in recovery. Many people find it beneficial to work with a counselor or therapist to identify triggers and learn healthy ways to react and cope.

Ramp up Treatment

Taking action early can stop a relapse from occurring. If a person in recovery is worried about relapsing, they should proactively reach out to their doctor or addiction treatment program to adjust their existing plan. This may mean adding a new component of treatment, such as medication-assisted treatment (MAT) or increasing therapy sessions.

Build a Support System

Although a person might feel guilty or embarrassed, seeking support is one of the best things they can do to prevent a relapse from happening. Family and friends can provide positive encouragement, while support groups offer a non-judgmental environment to learn how other people in the same situation were able to cope and overcome it.

What should someone do if they have relapsed?

Get Help

If a drug or alcohol relapse has happened, the first step is to seek help. Contact a sponsor, therapist, or trusted loved one for support and safety. The sooner a person takes action, the easier it is to manage the relapse but it’s never too late to get back on track.

Reevaluate and Re-Engage in Treatment

Even if a person already completed a treatment program, there is no shame in participating again. It can be beneficial to forming a new recovery plan that may include different types of therapy, relapse prevention classes, and medication. Depending on the length of the relapse period, it may be necessary to go through medically-supervised detoxification to manage withdrawal.

Learn from Setbacks

After a relapse, some people may feel like they lost all the progress they made and that their recovery is back at day one. Instead of getting discouraged, it’s better to put energy into recommitting to recovery. After all, a person who has relapsed after being in treatment is still in a much better place than they were before treatment. Relapse is an opportunity to learn how to make the necessary changes to prevent another one from occurring in the future. It’s important to recognize recovery for what it is—a lifelong journey full of learning, change, and growth.

If you need help with your substance use disorder, we are here to help you build your confidence and momentum towards the future you want. We provide treatment services for adults with alcohol, opioid, and other substance use disorders. We are currently located in Louisiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, Ohio, Texas, and Washington.

If you are seeking help with addiction or for a loved one’s addiction, contact us today or complete our quick contact form below, to speak with an addiction treatment specialist.

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