How to Prevent or Overcome Relapse

How to Prevent or Overcome Relapse

Relapsing does not mean you cannot be helped. It is a common occurrence during addiction recovery. Learn more about relapse and addiction.

What Does Relapse Mean?

In terms of addiction, relapse is defined by an in-recovery patient partaking in drug and alcohol use. Relapse is a far more common occurrence than many people might suspect. Because the cravings and urge to engage in drug use are life-long, all individuals who recover from substance abuse are at risk.

A drug relapse prevention plan is essential to long-term recovery. Recovery and sobriety can still be obtained after relapse as long as an individual is willing to put in the work.

How Common is Relapse?

Studies show that on average, 70% of people relapse after entering recovery. Clients who have maintained sobriety for an extended period (defined in some medical circles as 15 years or more) are also at risk for relapse. Patients who have undergone recovery and maintained sobriety long-term often have fewer support systems in place to help prevent relapse. Most medical focus is given to people in the throes of dependency.1

What Does Relapse Prevention Mean?

Relapse as Part of Recovery

Strictly speaking, relapse is not a part of recovery, but it is a high risk. The high rates of drug relapse indicate that it is more likely for someone to experience relapse than it is not to, and special attention must be made to prevent relapse.

Relapse is often something a patient overcomes on the road to long-term sober living. Short-term relapses may be more dangerous than active drug use due to the adapting nature of the body. A leading cause of overdose-related relapse is when someone attempts to ingest the same amount and potency of drugs taken during active dependency. The body can no longer handle the excess amounts of drugs and alcohol, which can lead to various, mortal health complications.2

Stages of Relapse

Relapse does not happen all at once. Cravings steadily increase while resistance to drug use erodes. Over time, these cravings can lead to relapse. The stages of relapse include:4

  • Emotional: Emotional relapse is best defined as isolation and reflection. In this stage, patients began to withdraw from social circles and avoid dealing with their own emotional needs and processes. They may also take an obsessive interest in other people’s problems to avoid their own. In this stage, people are not likely to use drugs, but the possibility of it becomes more real.
  • Mental: Mental relapse occurs when actual thoughts of using enter a patient’s mind. They may begin to romanticize past drug use and think heavily on the feeling of being high, environments they were high in, and experiences they considered positive while high.
  • Physical: Physical relapse is the act of drug use. Worth noting, the amount taken does not negate the dangers. For example, an alcoholic having one drink or 10 is still in a state of relapse and will progress to full-blown dependency without proper treatment.

Causes of Relapse

Causes for relapse include:

  • Stress
  • Peer Pressure
  • Anger
  • Mental Illness

Relapse Warning Signs

These are the most common signs of relapse:4

  • Isolation
  • Changes in behavior
  • Lack of self-care
  • Depression, anxiety, and an uptick in other mental health problems
  • Irritability
  • Outbursts
  • Visiting triggering environments such as bars, friends that actively use, etc.
  • Not attending support groups/therapy or not sharing while at these events
  • Denial

Creating a Relapse Prevention Plan

Creating a relapse prevention plan that is specific to each patient is crucial to ensuring the plan’s effectiveness and the long-term success of the individual. There are three important factors to consider.

Assess History with Drugs and Alcohol

It is easier to gauge the likelihood of a patient’s relapse once their history with substances is understood. It can also reveal what methods have been effective or ineffective for patients who have been in and out of recovery.

Determine Relapse Signs

Uncovering the triggers of addiction, including habits or environments, helps to prevent relapse. Specific triggers are often revealed in therapy, such as certain feelings, senses, or memories that may cause relapse.

Establish the Actions to Take to Avoid Using

Figuring out what to do during intense cravings is critical for relapse prevention. It can be something as simple as working out, engaging in a creative activity, or talking with a support group. The specific action is often highly individualized. Committing to the alternative action can take time, but it is worth it in the end.

Important Components in Relapse Prevention

Here are some of the important components of relapse prevention:

  • Triggers: Triggers are specific words, senses, environments, etc. that a client mentally links to drug use. Triggers can essentially be anything and are not always as obvious. Therapy helps uncover and identify triggers to give someone a fighting chance at avoiding a relapse.
  • Cravings: Cravings are inevitable but being able to address cravings and what to do when experiencing them is vital for long-term success. Cravings can persist for years after the last drug use.
  • Damage Control: Should a relapse occur, there is a chance that several poor decisions have been made. While under the effects of drugs or alcohol, a client may lash out at family or friends, spend money irresponsibly, ruin professional relationships, and commit other forms of self-sabotage. Damage control exists to minimize the emotional, physical, and financial aspects of drug use.
  • Recovery Programs: Recovery programs serve to detox and medically monitor someone going through active drug use and withdrawal. Several health complications can arise from sustained or sudden drug use, and a hospital setting is designed to deal with these effects.
  • Healthy Coping Mechanisms: Coping mechanisms are crucial to the quality of life for anyone, not just someone in recovery. Health coping mechanisms teach a client how to process and act on their emotions positively. Positive coping techniques can reduce the time and intensity of stressful situations.

Relapse Prevention Models

Gorski-Cenaps Relapse Prevention Model

The Gorski-Cenaps model, named after Terence T. Gorski, focuses on healing all aspects of the body, mind, and spirit. In this way, it adopts a system-like view of addiction in which active drug use is only one component of the overall illness. Special attention is made towards the stages of relapse and how to recognize them.5

Marlatt's Model of Relapse Prevention

The Marlatt Model of RP, named after G. Alan Marlatt, hones healthy coping mechanisms, triggers, and life outlook. Marlatt’s model establishes the aforementioned factors and then works to build a client’s resiliency by changing their overall behavior.6

Relapsing is possible at any stage, but so is recovery. Get the help you need to better your chance of committing to sober living.



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