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What To Do For A Heroin Relapse

Joseph Sitarik, DO

Medically reviewed by

Joseph Sitarik, DO

April 11, 2019

Heroin relapse is a common occurrence during heroin addiction recovery. To manage addiction long-term, it’s important to know what to do for a heroin relapse and how to prevent future relapses.

Relapse is a known and often an expected part of the disease of addiction. Heroin relapse is incredibly common, as the drug is extremely addicting. In fact, about 70 to 90 percent of people who have entered some form of addiction treatment, become sober, and integrated back into daily life will experience a mild to moderate relapse.

It’s important to understand that people who experience a heroin relapse are not necessarily choosing to relapse. Just as a person with any other chronic disease, such as diabetes or cancer, will experience relapse, it is likely that those with heroin addiction will also relapse.

However, with the current opioid epidemic has also come more effective addiction treatments and developing methods all the time. There are several measures a person can take in response to a heroin relapse, including:

  • calling on support
  • preparing for emotions and relapse triggers
  • relying on treatment principles
  • building a relapse prevention plan
  • enrolling in aftercare programs

Calling On Support

One of the most important components during addiction recovery is a strong support system. This system should be established before and during treatment. That way, when and if a person experiences relapse, they will know who to call for mental and emotional strength.

Most inpatient addiction treatment programs include a family component to involve family and close friends on a person’s recovery journey. Family components can include such methods as addiction education courses, family therapy sessions, and regular visitations during an inpatient stay.

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Support can also be found from the devoted and highly trained treatment professionals within inpatient rehab programs and from sobriety sponsors and support groups after completing treatment.

Because addiction requires long-term management, people supporting recovering individuals must keep an open mind and recognize that addiction management will be a long haul, but a worthy one.

Heroin is an incredibly addictive drug. Even once a person has completed inpatient treatment for heroin addiction, cravings for the drug may persist for months due to protracted withdrawal symptoms.

If your loved one is experiencing relapse, do not shame or guilt them. Heroin relapse commonly occurs during recovery due to the nature of addiction. With time, relapse will get easier to manage and avoid, and may not occur at all. However, to achieve this result, recovering individuals need all the support they can get.

Prepare For Emotions And Triggers

People undergoing a heroin relapse are likely to feel a number of emotions and may be dealing with triggers. They may feel guilty for relapsing or be too ashamed to tell anyone. Making it clear from the beginning that the person is not being judged for their drug addiction or their inability to stop use lets the person know they are supported.

This also allows them to rely and call on close family and friends during the time of relapse. With the right amount of support, as well as a high level of personal dedication, a person undergoing heroin relapse can move forward in recovery.

It’s also important that individuals newly in addiction recovery understand they have triggers which contribute to drug use, drug-seeking behaviors, and urges to use. For example, some people may live in a home with other people who regularly abuse drugs, or they may encounter drug abuse at school, work, or in social settings.

Recovering individuals may have to make lasting life changes to prevent daily triggers, such as avoiding drug-laden environments or cutting ties with friends unwilling to stop drug abuse or support the individual in recovery. Recognizing these triggers and implementing treatment principles to deal with them is key to preventing further relapse.

Relying On Treatment Relapse Principles

Most inpatient rehab programs support sober treatment principles, meaning people in recovery should avoid drug use altogether. However, because addiction treatment professionals now recognize that addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease, treatment is geared toward helping those in recovery deal with addictive behaviors.

Inpatient addiction treatment is dedicated to helping participants foster personal growth and build fulfilling lives, in turn helping them maintain a substance-free life. Inpatient programs may integrate any number of traditional and alternative treatment methods to ensure a person is fully equipped for recovery.

Inpatient programs may include the following treatments to help prevent heroin relapse:

  • Counseling and individual/group therapy: these methods heal the mental reliance on heroin, giving participants coping methods for triggering thoughts and past trauma so they can deal with addictive thoughts on a daily basis.
  • Behavioral therapy: this is especially useful for opioid-dependent individuals, such as those with heroin addiction. Behavioral therapy provides participants with coping strategies and life skills. Once a person removes the destructive thoughts tied to drug abuse, they can realign their thinking for a life free from heroin.
  • Alternative or experiential therapies: these can include a variety of therapies, depending on the rehab center and teach a range of skills. Outdoor therapy, for instance, puts a person in a situation in which they must rely on their own skills and knowledge, building the self-confidence and survival skills necessary for a successful recovery.

Which of these treatment methods will be included in a person’s inpatient treatment program will depend on which rehab center they attend. The most reputable rehab centers will design a custom program according to the individual’s needs. This allows the greatest opportunity for a successful treatment outcome and aids in preventing relapse.

Building A Relapse Prevention Plan

Many inpatient rehab programs will incorporate an actual relapse prevention plan, in which the participant writes (or at least discusses) what to do in the case of relapse. The steps mentioned above are key to preventing relapse, but each relapse prevention plan needs to be specific to the individual using it.

For those newly in addiction recovery, it may be helpful to have a written plan posted or filed somewhere they can access it quickly. It may also help to review the plan each day. The plan should include not only what to do to prevent relapse, such as who to call, and what to do when it happens, but also a list of recovery goals.

Seeing these goals will remind the person of the reasons they became sober—for children, to build a sober, fulfilling life, or just for themselves—and help keep them strong. The key to recovery is staying dedicated to these goals, and this begins with daily and ongoing recovery management.

Enrolling In Aftercare Programs

After completing an inpatient addiction treatment program, many individuals step down to an outpatient program to continue with recovery goals. These come in many forms, but all pursue the common goal of helping individuals stay on track with addiction management.

Some proven effective outpatient addiction treatments include:

  • outpatient groups, such as intensive outpatient programs (IOP)
  • 12-step support groups, sobriety sponsors
  • counseling
  • individual therapy

Seeking addiction treatment at the level a person needs is important to stay the path of sobriety. Some people may need to be in varying levels of outpatient programs to remain on track, while others may need to attend weekly support group meetings to keep recovery principles alive.

Aftercare planning is especially important for preventing heroin relapse, as the addictive nature of the drug means recovering individuals often must work constantly to combat withdrawal symptoms.

What Causes Heroin Relapse?

Addiction actually changes a person’s brain chemistry, causing the addicted individual to continually seek and use drugs. Heroin works in the brain by attaching to opioid receptors and producing feel-good effects the brain normally produces on its own.

With time and repeated heroin abuse, the brain comes to rely on heroin to elicit these same effects. At this point, the person has developed a heroin addiction. When a person starts to have withdrawal symptoms, such as a headache, nausea, and tremors, when not using heroin, they have also developed a physical reliance (dependence) on heroin.

Heroin withdrawal symptoms can persist for months after stopping use in the form of strong mental cravings for the drug. Even with a strong support system and excellent treatment, heroin relapse is likely because of the way heroin changes a person’s brain chemistry.

Successful recovery asks recovering individuals to change the effects heroin has had on their brain, altering their chemistry once more. While this is challenging and will take a lot of dedication, it is possible to recover from heroin abuse and addiction and live relapse-free with time.

How To Prevent Future Heroin Relapse

To fully prevent future heroin relapse, it may be necessary for an individual to enter addiction treatment more than once. Addiction recovery should not be viewed as a one-and-done treatment process, but an ongoing spectrum of as-needed treatment.

Inpatient treatment programs are the most effective form of treatment for heroin use disorders. Facilitated on-site within drug rehab centers, these programs ensure individuals are removed from daily stressors and triggers. This removal allows for complete focus on recovery and immerses them in the treatment environment.

Many inpatient rehab programs include levels of programs, such as programs for those new in recovery, programs for those in relapse for the first time, and programs for those who have relapsed more than once.

Each level of treatment will be geared toward a person’s specific recovery journey. The best rehab programs will take into account a person’s past progress as well as their current need for treatment.

Heroin Relapse Prevention Programs

Heroin relapse prevention programs will include many of the same treatment principles and methods found in a typical inpatient program, but may also integrate more targeted methods for preventing future relapse. These can include more heavily saturated individual and/or group therapy components, more frequent behavioral therapy sessions, and a renewed focus on 12-step principles.

To learn more about what to do for a heroin relapse, or find a relapse prevention program, contact a treatment specialist today.

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Treatment and Recovery

Psychology Today - Why Relapse Isn’t a Sign of Failure

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