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What Is The Most Common Cause Of Relapse?

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

January 17, 2019

Fighting a drug or alcohol addiction is a process that requires great diligence and time. Even after an individual has ceased their substance abuse or successfully completed a rehabilitation program, relapse is a realistic and common occurrence. It is important to be aware of the circumstances that trigger a relapse in order to better protect against it.

Why Does A Relapse Occur?

A relapse occurs when an individual returns to using after a period of sobriety. The first year out of recovery can be very daunting and the majority of relapses occur within this period. Understanding the situations and triggers that can cause a relapse, and subsequently being on the lookout for them, is one way you can safeguard yourself against relapsing.

Situations that can trigger relapse include: encountering negative emotions or people; crisis within relationships; boredom; depression and self-doubt; being near substances; and suffering from withdrawal.

Maladjustment And Stress: A Prelude To Relapse

Stress is considered by most to be one of the foremost reasons for relapse. Often, the majority of stress an individual feels within their recovery is linked to a failure to adjust to life in sobriety. An individual may find that they are over-confident about their recovery and harbor unrealistic expectations. This often makes a person too comfortable in their recovery and leads to them to cease practicing their rehab sobriety methods.

They may think they can handle casual use again.

Stress is not only a major cause of relapse, but it also contributes to other factors for relapse, including depression and anxiety. In fact, researchers at the University of Liverpool found that individuals within relapse had elevated levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Another study suggests that alcoholics have a reduction in a hormone that is crucial in the body’s response to stress.


Stress is interconnected to the following common relapse triggers: hunger, anger, loneliness and tiredness. These triggers have been granted their own acronym, HALT, which is now used as a method for fighting relapse. Addressing the danger of these four situations helps you fight off stress and avoid the dangers of relapse.

  • Hunger: This can be a physical hunger for sustenance, or a hunger for mental and spiritual engagement. Research indicates that deficient nutrition is one of the dominant causes of relapses. Consuming a balanced and regular diet creates a sense of physical well-being and also plays a significant role in managing our mood, emotions and behaviors.
  • Anger: It is common that those in recovery foster resentment towards themselves for their addiction or the damage their addiction may have inflicted on their relationships or job. They may also harbor animosity for others—for not understanding their journey or for having it “better.”
  • Loneliness: Unfortunately, an individual that is recovering from an addiction can often alienate themselves at a time when they need the most interaction and support. Often, they still experience a sense of shame for their addiction, and have a hard time articulating this and their new role within their recovery. Sadly, it is possible for many to feel lonely even when we are surrounded by people. As a result, they often turn to the only friend they feel they have left: their former substance abuse.
  • Tiredness: Exhaustion takes a toll on our bodies and depletes our patience, our ability to think clearly, and to cope with the situations of daily life. Being excessively tired can make us more predisposed to anxiety or depression, and alter our mood in a manner that makes hope or progress seem elusive.

When these basic needs are ignored, you put yourself at risk for self-destructive behaviors that may lead to relapse.

If I Relapse Will I Go Right Back To Square One?

As you contend with progressing through your relapse, it is imperative that you utilize the support and education that you received while in recovery. You may even consider going back to rehab. The good news is you’re not starting fresh. Relapse is not true failure: it’s just one more step in your constant progress through recovery. You now have the experience and knowledge of your previous pursuit towards sobriety to consider.

Despite the fact that you can successfully overcome a relapse, learn from it, and embrace lasting sobriety, you must keep in mind that relapsing is still a dangerous problem and one that is not without consequences and risks. Just don’t beat yourself up about it emotionally, but try to safely progress past it.

Detrimental Impact Of A Relapse

Returning to substance abuse can have very negative repercussions on your health, including the following:

Substance abuse takes an exceedingly large toll on the body. The body is able to only contend with this abuse for so long and returning to your addiction could become life-threatening, or cause any number of illnesses or diseases. Additionally, withdrawal alters your tolerance, so your expectations of what your body once handled may no longer hold true, increasing your risk for an overdose.

Self-esteem is a crucial part of the recovery journey. After a relapse, a person’s self-esteem may disappear, making it harder to achieve sobriety again.

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Often, an addiction deeply affects not only the person but also those that surround and support them. Relapsing may dash the delicate trust that they’re granted you after witnessing you achieve sobriety. Remember: recovery is easier with the support of those around you.

There is one difference after a relapse: you have encountered the freedom of a life of sobriety. Thus, after relapsing, you may feel worse, because now you possess the understanding and experience of how life can be without drugs or alcohol.

Keys To Maintaining A Balanced Recovery

Self-care and self-awareness are two of the most valuable abilities an individual can possess for their recovery. Through this mindfulness, you can examine your life and bear witness to triggers that may cause you to falter.

One common tool that some people choose to use is the aforementioned HALT method which builds off some of the biggest causes of relapse. This encourages you to stop and examine your circumstances, and ask yourself if you are feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. These four feelings are some of the biggest causes of relapse and using this method encourages you to consider how you can address them and alleviate the stress they cause.

This ongoing dialogue with yourself requires honesty and humility. Through your rehabilitation, you’ve learned to combat guilt and denial and you must continue to set these aside and strive toward wellness. Life can be oppressive, in ways that may make using drugs or alcohol seem appealing.

It can be beneficial during your recovery to take time, even just twenty minutes a day, to rest, meditate, clear your mind, or order your thoughts to center yourself within your recovery and sobriety goals.

Individuals that have completed a rehab program are more able to handle relapse in a manner that is most conducive to getting back on track and maintaining a healthy, drug-free lifestyle. Recovery programs not only grant you the skills to combat addiction, but also teach you how to contend with situations that may encourage a relapse after you leave, allowing you to continue to find equilibrium as you again strive towards sobriety.

Some individuals may have to enter into a treatment facility on more than one occasion to become properly suited to continue their recovery on their own. Don’t let that discourage you: recovery processes you must be engaged with on an ongoing basis. As your life changes, and as you continue to grow, it is pertinent to evaluate and modify your recovery strategies.

Contact Us Today

If you are fearful that you or someone you love may fall prey to relapse, or if you feel like a recovery program may be helpful for you, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with one of our trained professionals today at We can help guide you to a new life of permanent sobriety.

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