If you’re early in your addiction recovery journey, it can still sometimes feel like the sand is shifting beneath you. You’ve done the work to physically withdraw from drugs or alcohol—and you’ve secured the resources to begin your sobriety—but you may constantly feel as though the risk of relapse is imminent.
If you’re still using, relapse also may loom large in your mind, and you may ask yourself if it is worth going through the daunting process of withdrawal and addiction recovery if you’re likely to relapse again after a few months.
The prospect of addiction relapse is intimidating; but, information is powerful. Regardless of where you are in your recovery journey, here’s what you need to know about relapse, including the common warning signs of drug or alcohol relapse and what to do.
Defining Addiction Relapse
According to Facing Addiction in American, relapse is defined as “the return to drug or alcohol use after a significant period of abstinence.” When you, friends, or family members, have suffered from a drug or alcohol problem, any period of abstinence can feel like a victory. Conversely, any period of relapse can feel like a significant setback. However, addiction relapse is an expected part of the sobriety journey. Knowing the common relapse warning signs can help you create a treatment plan with built-in protection.
How Common Is Addiction Relapse?
Addiction relapses occur, and they can feel discouraging, especially if you go through it yourself or watch family members struggle. Unfortunately, relapse is highly common. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) ’s drug and alcohol division reports that approximately 90 percent of people with alcohol addiction will face at least one period of relapse in the first four years of their sobriety journey.
Does Relapse Mean Treatment Failed?
People who have experienced alcohol or drug relapses may feel as though they have failed themselves or their loved ones, no matter how hard they tried to prevent relapse However, according to the NIH, relapse does not necessarily mean that treatment has failed. Instead, it is a standard part of the recovery process, and it is not isolated to just drug or alcohol abuse.
People with other chronic behavioral health or medical conditions—such as high blood pressure or asthma—can also be vulnerable to relapse if they stop following their prescribed treatment plans. Relapse rates for high blood pressure or asthma are often higher than for substance use disorders. Relapse is not a personal failure; rather, it is a manageable step in the addiction recovery journey.
What Are the Different Stages of Relapse?
Experts in drug or alcohol addiction often think of addiction relapse as a gradual process that occurs in a series of stages. Recognizing the early stages of relapse by being able to identify relapse warning signs can often make it easier to get back on track and keep compulsive behaviors in check.
During the first stage of relapse, known as emotional relapse, you may not necessarily be thinking about using a substance, but you may begin subtly behaving in ways that may set you up to relapse in the future—such as holding in your feelings, reducing your frequency of attending meetings, avoiding your needs, and neglecting self-care.
Emotional relapse is often followed by a mental relapse, during which you may begin to think about using but remain conflicted. You may start bargaining with yourself or making hypothetical exceptions to your sobriety rules.
During physical relapse, which is the final stage, you start using drugs or alcohol again. Oftentimes, the stage has been set long before a person gets to the actual physical relapse.
Warnings Signs of Drug or Alcohol Relapse
According to the US Surgeon General’s report, “addiction is a chronic brain disease that has the potential for both recurrence (relapse) and recovery.”
The very substances that you can become addicted to can cause changes in your brain structure that make it easier to relapse. These so-called neuroadaptations persist in the brain long after you stop using, which may be why more than 60 percent of people who are in recovery from an alcohol or drug addiction relapse within the first year of sobriety.
With this in mind, treatment centers, and you, must be able to identify relapse signs early on so that you can connect with the support and resources you need to avoid relapse into drugs or alcohol.
Here are some of the most common signs of relapse, according to experts at the University of West Alabama.
- Isolating yourself: When you isolate yourself, you lose one of the most important factors that can help you maintain your sobriety—social accountability. When you stop talking to others, you may feel less inclined to behave in ways that are socially acceptable, and you may be more likely to slide back into former behaviors.
- Skipping support group meetings or therapy sessions: You may start skipping these events because you feel like you’re doing better and that you don’t need them anymore. However, addiction is a chronic, lifelong disease. When you remove the supportive fabric from your life, you make yourself more vulnerable to relapse.
- Holding back or bottling up emotions: If you begin to hold in your emotions rather than let them air out, you can create a mental health storm. This may manifest as severe anxiety or depression, which you may feel compelled to manage with drugs or alcohol if those have served as coping mechanisms in the past.
- Falling into poor eating or sleeping habits: As your daily routine deteriorates, you may start feeling like you need assistance to help fill in the gaps. If your sleeping habits start to slide, you may feel compelled to take a drink so that you have an easier time falling asleep. These habits can compound themselves and make you more vulnerable to relapse.
- Neglecting self-care such as personal hygiene: If you find yourself showering less, or making less of an effort to take care of your hygiene, then it might be an early warning sign of relapse. One of the most important elements of the recovery journey is self-care because it is fundamental to self-esteem and maintaining sobriety.
- Practicing denial and lying to yourself: If you start noticing that you are blocking uncomfortable thoughts or feelings from your mind, or like you are starting to lie to yourself or others, then it may be a warning sign of relapse.
- Relaxing your self-imposed rules or creating exceptions: One of the most important foundations in any recovery journey is self-discipline, which is bolstered by self-imposed rules. If you find yourself starting to relax those rules, or making exceptions, then it may be easier for other walls to come down in the future.
- Having drug or alcohol cravings: If you’re experiencing drug or alcohol cravings, it can be very difficult to avoid thoughts of using. These thoughts can be highly compelling and can make you vulnerable to relapsing.
Other Warning Signs of Relapse
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs, other early warning signs of drug or alcohol relapse include:
- fantasizing or romanticizing past-use episodes,
- resisting reaching out to others when you feel like you need support,
- reconnecting with people who knew you when you used (or used with you),
- returning to old habits or behaviors that were a part of your life when you used, or
- stopping medications that may be prescribed for your addictive disorder.
While none of these behaviors involve physically lapsing back into substance use, they may contribute to a gradual slide that can eventually make it easier to fall back into use.
Preventing Drug or Alcohol Relapse
One of the most important things you can do if you recognize relapse warning signs in yourself or a loved one is to ask for structured help. Health professionals who are skilled at working with people who suffer from addiction can help determine precisely where you are in your recovery journey and how vulnerable you may be to relapse in the current moment. Specialized tools, such as the Advanced Warning of Relapse (AWARE) Scale can help guide your relapse prevention plan and measure your progress.
What to Do if You Feel Like You’re on the Verge of Relapse
It can be unnerving to recognize the warning signs of relapse in yourself, a friend, or family member. Even though relapse is a normal part of the recovery journey, it can also be dangerous. This is because when your body has been free from drugs or alcohol for a considerable period, returning to your former dose can have devastating, even fatal, consequences.
One of the best things that you can do to avoid relapse is to seek support for your addiction recovery and pursue a treatment program early on. Treatment programs that specialize in substance abuse have professionals who are experts at identifying each stage of relapse and helping clients create a personalized relapse prevention plan.
A relapse prevention plan that includes behavioral treatments and medications can help prevent a return to use. An official support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, or Narcotics Anonymous, can also help you regain traction if you feel that your recovery journey is veering off course.
How to Find Help if You’re Facing Recovery Challenges
If you live in South Florida and you are struggling with your recovery journey, Haven Detox in West Palm Beach is here to help.
At our premier treatment facility, we use evidence-based methods to help our patients safely and comfortably realign their drug or alcohol recovery journey and continue down the road of sobriety. We help people detox, heal, avoid alcohol or drug relapse, and successfully rebuild their lives.Contact us today at (561) 328-8627 for further information.