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Is Relapse a Part of the Recovery Process?

Dr. Anna Pickering

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Anna Pickering

April 3, 2019

Relapse is when a person who has quit using drugs or alcohol returns to using them. Relapse doesn’t happen to everyone, but if it does, it is nothing to be ashamed about. Everyone’s recovery experience will be different and the most important thing to remember is that you are not alone in this.

Understanding Drug Abuse And Addiction Recovery

Addiction is defined by the National Institute on Drug Abuse as, “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.” It’s defined as a disease because addiction involves changes of the brain and body.

Generally, recovery from addiction means that a person has to stop using drugs and it doesn’t usually happen overnight. Addiction doesn’t normally happen overnight either. It might take someone years to develop a tolerance to a drug, and become addicted or dependent.

Many people gradually learn to overcome a compulsion to drink or drug, but even though the symptoms of addiction and urges to use go away, the disease will always be there. So there isn’t a cure for addiction, but it’s treatable like many other chronic diseases. Inpatient rehab centers have treatments programs that will help treat the mental, physical, and spiritual addiction that so often comes with years of drug abuse.

A relapse can feel like a loss, but it can also be a great learning opportunity. If someone in recovery relapses, support from friends, family, a sponsor, or a therapist can make the chances that it happens again less likely.

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What Can Cause An Addiction Relapse?

Whether the reason is losing a job, giving up support groups, breaking up with someone, or losing a loved one, a relapse can happen for a lot of reasons. There are also a lot of circumstances that can in order to maintain this new lifestyle of not using drugs through a change in behavior, of means that not only are you staying off drugs, but also making an honest effort to remain sober. The fact is that “relapse rates for addiction resemble those of other chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma” (NIDA).

There were an estimated 21.5 million people 12 and older in 2014 suffering from a substance use disorder. Among those people, some got treatment, some were successful and some relapsed. The reality is that relapse is more common than a lot of us think.

“Studies suggest that approximately half of all individuals who try to get sober return to heavy use, with 70 to 90 percent experiencing at least one mild to moderate slip. In other words, not many people say ‘I want to get sober,’ walk into a treatment center, and never use drugs again” (Psychology Today).

Some things that can result in a failed attempt recovery are not changing or avoiding places or people that are unhealthy to your recovery. Recovery can include everything from changing who you associate with, how much you sleep, and where you spend your free time.

From the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “treatment of chronic diseases involves changing deeply imbedded behaviors, and relapse does not mean treatment has failed. For a person recovering from addiction, lapsing back to drug use indicates that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted or that another treatment should be tried.”

There are also ways to make your chances of relapsing more likely, some of those triggers include:

  • HALT – hungry, angry, lonely, tired
  • exhaustion
  • boredom
  • loneliness
  • being overly confident
  • mental or physical illnesses
  • keeping to yourself – isolation
  • relationships
  • receiving a promotion or a new job – celebration
  • emotions – sadness, happiness, or anger
  • places or people associated with drug use
  • holidays and celebrations
  • seeing or sensing your addiction substance being used
  • looking at the drinking or drugging days as the good old days – glamorizing the past
  • places or people – drinking and drugging are accepted and encouraged

Going back to the definition of addiction, the word relapse is part of the definition, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a part of the recovery process.

Does Relapse Mean That You’ve Failed Recovery?

Some people have an easier time recovering than others. Compulsive substance abuse isn’t easy to overcome, whether it’s the first, second, or third time you try. The fact is that due to the chronic nature of addiction, relapse is not only possible but likely.

There are also a lot of stigmas attached to relapse, but it does not mean that you’ve failed recovery. Relapse doesn’t mean that someone is incapable of succeeding either. People suffering from addiction come from all different backgrounds and walks of life. A treatment that works for one person might not work for another. It just means you try something else.

What Are Some Ways To Avoid Relapse

A person who’s trying to stop drinking alcohol may have a hard time if they still go to the bar every night. A person who avoids the bar has a better chance of being a successful recovery. A relapse doesn’t have to be a failure, it’s just a nudge that you need to work harder at recovery.

There are a lot of efforts that people take to avoid a relapse, but it can still happen. It’s not a reason to give up, and the fact is that recovery isn’t always easy. Recovery is always worth the work—it can help to know what you might be doing wrong. Here are some pointers to come up with a relapse prevention plan:

  • stay away from places that trigger your addiction and drug-using behaviors
  • surround yourself with like-minded people also in recovery – it can be hard to say goodbye to old friends, but sometimes it’s necessary
  • loneliness and boredom can trigger a relapse, don’t avoid being with friends
  • have a recovery buddy
  • get involved in a support group if you find yourself craving drugs or alcohol
  • be honest with friends and family about your recovery – it can help to have people who can hold you accountable
  • be honest with your therapist about your thoughts and feelings
  • be honest with yourself about what you can and can’t do in recovery
  • take care of yourself – work out, eat right, meditate, and practice good hygiene
  • go to the doctor when you’re sick
  • don’t avoid going to the dentist either
  • cognitive behavioral therapy
  • find a treatment center that offers relapse prevention

Remember that even people with the best intentions relapse or slip-up. It doesn’t mean that they will be forced to live a life enslaved to addiction.

Keep Your Recovery Strong With Treatment

If you are struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, or have recently relapsed, contact a treatment specialist today. We can help get you on the road to recovery.

ABC News - Addiction In America: By The Numbers

National Institute on Drug Abuse - What Is Relapse?

National Institute on Drug Abuse - Treatment and Recovery

National Institute on Drug Abuse - The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction

National Institute on Drug Abuse - How Effective is Drug Addiction Treatment?

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

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