Concerned man with drink in hand, worried about relapse vs a lapse

What is Relapse vs. a Lapse?

In addiction recovery, it seems everyone’s biggest fear is relapse—or is it a lapse? A return to active addiction would be a significant setback in anyone’s recovery, but so is the loss of pride that accompanies restarting the clock on your recovery. So what is the difference between a relapse vs a lapse?


Recovery is continuous

Each person’s individual circumstances make the difficulties on the path to sobriety very personalized. Everyone’s progression looks different. The ongoing progress of recovery will ebb and flow like any other healing process.

Recovery involves not just avoiding problematic behaviors associated with addiction but requires a complete life change. Holistic healing includes moving away from all the damaging actions and beliefs connected to it, leading to it and around it. As you dive deeper into the healing process, you’ll recognize that recovery becomes more about your sense of self than it is about alcohol or drugs. 

Whatever your vice, the mere renouncing of it does not imply that total recovery has taken place. Anyone who has experience with addiction knows that the process isn’t straightforward. It isn’t whether or not you’re using; it’s about where your head is, the lying, manipulation, shame mentality or another plethora of behaviors associated with addiction.

Healing the underlying traumas is necessary to overcome addiction. In that journey, it’s ok to fall—so long as you get back up.



We define relapse as a resurgence of full-blown addictive behaviors. However, as we all know, addiction is not black and white, and neither is recovery. When someone in recovery relapses, their behavior is the manifestation of their mindset.

They remain focused on the need to hide, the need to be secretive and the need to dissociate—all of which represent a significant setback in recovery. Relapse implies a total reversion where finding and using alcohol or other drugs again takes priority.

During this time, the sense of failure sets in, and becoming emotionally detached and isolated is common. These feelings often begin the cycle of shame anew and keep their victim trapped in active addiction. 



A lapse is when an individual may return to using but stops again within a short time.

Even a nearly immediate revocation of use can still feel like a significant setback. Still, it is less damaging than falling back into full addiction. Lapses have fewer negative connotations. A lapse can represent the everyday slip-up and may be minor and temporary, although not insignificant.

Even if the person regains sobriety, we can use a lapse as a productive reminder to remain genuinely dedicated to recovery. Depending on how we handle it, a lapse could also start a downslide into relapse. When someone in recovery experiences a lapse, it is crucial to turn to all identified support methods immediately. Seeking support and getting back on track with recovery is essential when dealing with slips in recovery.


Learning from a lapse can prevent a relapse.

Having a casual discussion to reestablish one’s motivation to maintain sobriety can help. Being open about a lapse and not hiding provides an opportunity to learn and grow from the experience. When reviewing the incidents that led up to the setback, it’s important to note:

  • Where were you?
  • Who were you with?
  • What were you doing?
  • How were you feeling? 
  • What provoked those feelings?


If you or your loved one is looking to overcome addiction, don’t hesitate to learn more about the addiction treatment programs we offer. Contact us today at 855.298.3104, and Washburn House will get you on the road to recovery.


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