Relapse is incredibly common among those struggling with an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Educating those in recovery on relapse warning signs is a successful tool to prevent relapse. Recognizing thought and behavior patterns that lead to relapse and developing coping skills to deal with them is a common treatment goal among those in early recovery. According to an article published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), we can think of relapse as occurring in three stages: emotional, mental, and physical. Understanding the stages of relapse allows for prevention planning at each stage.

Emotional Relapse

Those suffering from substance use disorder (SUD) to drugs and/or alcohol are not thinking about using during the emotional relapse stage. Instead, they recall the first time that they relapsed and do not wish to repeat that instance. However, their behaviors and emotions are setting the stage for a subsequent relapse. Denial becomes a considerable component of the emotional relapse stage because those with SUDs are not consciously thinking about using at this time.

Signs of Emotional Relapse Include:

  • Isolation
  • Attending meetings but not engaging or sharing
  • Not attending meetings or group therapy sessions at all
  • Focusing on other’s problems
  • Suppressing emotions
  • Sleeping or eating problems

Emotional Relapse and Self-Care

Emotional relapse is often a result of poor self-care. Therefore, it is imperative for those dealing with the emotional stage of relapse to understand the importance of maintaining self-care. The acronym HALT is a great place to start. Standing for hungry, angry, lonely, and tired, HALT is a great reminder of basic needs that require daily care.

Physical Self-Care

Lacking in physical self-care, such as proper eating, sleeping and hygiene habits place those new in recovery at a much higher risk for relapse. Thus, it is extremely important to pay attention to hunger cues and sustain a consistent sleep-wake cycle.

Psychological Self-Care

Psychological care entails learning to connect with self and others as well as learning how to have fun without compromising sobriety. Taking care of mental and emotional needs also means practicing kindness towards self and others. People new in recovery can cultivate habits of checking in with themselves and their emotional state on a consistent basis, and practice choosing recovery based actions to support where they are at. Identifying denial and comparing current emotions and behaviors to past relapses is yet another helpful tool to see if psychological self-care is improving or declining.

Mental Relapse

When individuals with SUDs maintain poor self-care and live in emotional relapse for extended periods, they start to feel uncomfortable with themselves. This unpleasantness with oneself leads to irritability, discontent, and restlessness. Unfortunately, these negative emotions create a build-up of tension that can cause the individual to begin thinking about using to escape. Mental relapse is a war within the mind. One side wants to eliminate negative emotions by using drugs and/or alcohol, while the other side doesn’t want to relapse. Resisting relapse at this stage becomes more and more difficult, as the sufferer retreats deeper into this obsessive mental state.

Signs of Mental Relapse Include:

  • Reminiscing about past drug and/or alcohol use and addict lifestyle
  • Minimizing past use and the consequences related to using
  • Glamorizing and romanticizing past use and/or lifestyle
  • Craving drugs and/or alcohol
  • Lying or bargaining
  • Thinking of ways to control drug and/or alcohol use
  • Seeking out opportunities to relapse
  • Planning a relapse

During the mental stage of relapse, the individual suffering from addiction begins “bargaining.” Looking for excuses to drink and/or use again, or seeking out ways in which they could control their drinking and/or using are common examples of bargaining. The individual may feel they deserve to drink and/or use again to celebrate the holidays or a wedding, or because they are going on a family trip. Justifying the substitution one substance for another is also a bargaining technique noticed during mental relapse.

The Power of Support

Passing thoughts of using drugs and/or alcohol again are normal during early recovery and are not the same as mental relapse. Regardless, sharing openly about the experience with others in recovery is crucial. Many individuals in early recovery end up hiding thoughts and emotions pertaining to drinking and/or using due to shame and disappointment in oneself. However, it is secrecy around these thoughts and emotions, not the thoughts and emotions themselves, that often result in relapse.

Establishing a solid support system and good communication and coping skills allows those struggling with addiction to know they are not alone. Cravings to drink and/or use again are normal, and with the help of others in recovery, these individuals become able to identify them as such and slowly choose recovery based actions instead of relapse.

When thoughts of using increase and persist, it may be a warning sign that the individual is entering mental relapse. Without developing coping skills and exit strategies, it is more likely that remaining in mental relapse for extended periods increases the likelihood that the individual with the SUD will return to using drugs or alcohol merely to escape their inner turmoil.

Physical Relapse

Physical relapse is when an individual suffering from SUD begins using drugs and/or alcohol again. Sometimes, the first drink and/or drug use is considered a “lapse” or slip-up and relapse is the return to uncontrollable use. When individuals are hyper-focused on how much they used during a “lapse,” they distract themselves from recognizing the consequences of that first drink and/or drug. When this mindset persists, the slip-up can quickly become a full-blown relapse in which the obsessive and uncontrollable thoughts of using perpetuate the cycle of use.

Physical relapse can occur and persist when the individual dealing with the SUD has a window of opportunity during which they feel they can get away with it. Preventing these relapses involves rehearsing the reality of relapse and honestly appraising the consequences. From there, coping strategies and prevention plans can be developed to avoid future relapse and support long-term recovery.

Need Help?

Relapse is a normal, and difficult part of recovery from an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol. Coping skills are imperative to develop during recovery in order to deal with the inevitable thoughts of returning to use. An addiction to drugs or alcohol is a multi-faceted disease that requires a multi-dimensional recovery approach. The process of recovery is lifelong, but you don’t have to do it alone. At Fort Worth Recovery, we offer a safe and nurturing space for your long-lasting road to recovery. If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction to drugs and/or alcohol, call us today at 844.332.1807.


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