What Is Relapse?

The definition of relapse is pretty simple: It’s when your symptoms come back after a period of improvement. In terms of substance abuse recovery, a relapse means returning to the use of drugs or alcohol after you’ve abstained. In the example of an alcoholic, a relapse counts as any amount of drinking after you’ve tried to quit, whether that’s a single drink or a binge. Recovering addicts in treatment spend large amounts of time preparing for triggers, learning to cope with cravings, and developing a support system to help them avoid relapsing. Despite all these safeguards, it’s very common for those in recovery to relapse. It doesn’t mean all is lost! Learn about the signs of relapse, why it happens, and how to get back on track if you or a loved one relapses.

What Causes a Relapse?

Most people in recovery plan to stay sober when they leave addiction treatment. No matter how well-prepared, anyone can fall into alcohol or drug relapse, even if they’re careful. This doesn’t mean relapse is inevitable or that you have no control over whether you stay sober. But sooner or later in life, there will come times when abstaining from drugs and alcohol gets especially difficult. Below are a few examples of the types of events and situations, or “triggers,” that may cause you to relapse:

  • A major negative life event (a breakup, death of a loved one, or financial trouble, for instance)
  • Difficulty re-adjusting to life outside of treatment
  • Rejection from family or friends for your sobriety
  • Lack of positive sober supports
  • Continuous exposure to drug glorification (in movies, on television, “war stories” from others)
  • Lack of self-care (healthy sleeping and eating habits, proper hygiene)

Drug relapse happens when you don’t respond to situations like those above with the skills you learned in treatment. It could be that a situation affects you more than you ever thought it would, so you didn’t fully prepare for it.

What Are the Warning Signs of Relapse?

Relapsing doesn’t happen spontaneously. It’s a process that begins with your thoughts and emotions. If you don’t catch yourself in time, the next stage in the process is your behaviors and actions. It finally ends in relapsing. This is what’s known as the relapse cycle. It can look different from person to person, and how long it takes to move through the stages also varies. There are emotional, mental, and behavioral cues that someone is either about to relapse or already has. These are useful to know, so you can see them in yourself and correct your course. Some warning signs are more easily noticed by others, and your friends or family might point them out to you. It’s possible to fall into your relapse cycle without you even realizing it. Sometimes a wake-up call from loved ones is exactly what you need. Here are examples of warning signs of relapse in each of the major stages:

Emotional Relapse

  • Loneliness
  • Irritability and anger
  • Mood swings
  • Sadness and depression
  • Anxiety
  • Frustration
  • Impatience

These emotions set you up for relapse because they escalate and worsen if you don’t cope well. They can also be particularly difficult to cope with.

Mental and Behavioral Relapse

  • Reminiscing about past drug or alcohol use
  • Returning to places where you used to use
  • Hanging out with people you used with
  • Denial, either aloud or within yourself
  • Blaming others
  • Lying
  • Not going to 12-Step meetings or aftercare meetings
  • Cutting off sober supports

By the time you get to the mental and behavioral stage of relapse, you might sense that you are in danger. However, you’re probably making excuses to yourself and denying how close you are to relapse. Some part of you may have even resigned yourself to relapsing.


Indulgence is the stage of physical relapse. You’ll still maintain the same behaviors and attitudes you held in the earlier stages, but now you don’t make an effort to remain sober. You might resume using drugs and alcohol with your friends or reconnect with your dealer. You’ll find yourself in the same situations and facing the same consequences that sent you to treatment to begin with.

How to Treat Relapses and Avoid Future Ones

Relapsing is very common and doesn’t mean you’re destined to remain addicted. Everything you learned while in recovery is still available to you. The fact that you were able to abstain for as long as you did before relapsing is still significant and now something to build from. What you do to get back on track depends on your unique situation, but first you should refer to the relapse prevention plan you created while in addiction treatment, if you made one. Otherwise, look at the factors that were working to help you stay sober and which were not. Focus on replacing what wasn’t working with new strategies that may fit better. Here are a few suggestions to get you back on the path to recovery:

Ask for Help

Isolation will only make your drug relapse worse, and so will dwelling on your disappointment and regret. Reach out to your sponsor or another sober support, and talk through your experiences. This will help you feel better, and you’ll probably get ideas for next steps you can take.

Find New Ways of Coping

If you were using your coping skills consistently and fell victim to your triggers anyway, at least some of them weren’t working for you. New skills can be gained through therapy, 12-Step meetings, or another course of addiction treatment. If you do return to treatment, resist feelings of shame or embarrassment. Remember that relapse is normal and what matters most is how to bounce back from it.

Remember to HALT

This acronym reminds recovering addicts to pause whenever they face one of four dangerous emotions or attitudes: Hunger Anger Loneliness Being tired Taught by clinicians in treatment centers and well-known in 12-Step groups, the HALT principle is useful in helping people recognize when coping skills are needed most.

Be Mindful of Where You Went Wrong, and Be Vigilant

Review your personal relapse cycle, and identify where you went wrong. It isn’t always about implementing your coping skills better. If you were lacking motivation to be sober, you might need to create more compelling goals for yourself. If the problem is low energy or poor self-image, you might have a co-occurring mental health disorder that needs to be treated too. Treatment for drug and alcohol addiction at Washburn House includes comprehensive relapse prevention planning. With the help of our dedicated and highly trained clinical staff, you will identify the triggers you’re likely to face in your unique life. You’ll develop coping skills you can practice before you leave treatment, and we’ll help you build a thorough aftercare plan to give you the best chance possible at success. Contact us today for a free pre-screening.

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