Alcohol Relapse Warning Signs

Recovering from alcohol addiction is immensely difficult. It can take someone months or years to take back control of their life, and finally achieving sobriety is a fantastic achievement.

The recovery journey is long, so it can be easy to panic if it looks like someone you care about might be relapsing. Losing all of their hard-earned progress can be a frightening prospect, so what should you do? How can you help?

The process of relapsing is a scary but well-researched one. There is a lot of information out there, and identifying the stages and warning signs can make all the difference in preventing a full relapse.

Understanding relapse – what are the stages?

Understanding the key stages of relapse gives you the best chance of spotting the warning signs. According to research, there are three main stages: emotional, mental, and physical [1].

1. Emotional

Relapse tends to begin without the individual even realising it. In this first stage, it is their emotions and behaviours which draw them towards it.

At this stage, the individual can remember their last substance use. If you were to ask them, they would say they don’t want to relapse, and that they don’t feel like they are going to.

But this is not a dishonest answer. In emotional relapse, the individual genuinely believes they are fine as they are not aware of the processes pushing them towards it. Instead of wanting to relapse, certain things surface that tip the scales in that direction.

Whether it’s negative emotions or difficult situations, things begin to chip away at the healthy routine and mindset they have developed over the course of their recovery.

2. Mental

This is where the mind comes into it. After a build-up of the problems arising in the first stage, the individual begins to consider relapsing.

They don’t want to, but the negative emotions and situations they face are causing an inner conflict. They know they shouldn’t, and they know how much progress they’ve made, but they can’t shake the desire to use the substance again.

The positive mindset the individual has developed begins to dissolve, and they start to bargain with themselves. They think of situations where it could be acceptable for them to use their certain substance, such as only using it while on holiday.

3. Physical

After a long internal battle, the individual starts using again.

This stage is usually divided between the initial use and the lack of controlled use. The individual finally breaks, uses the substance, and is then at the mercy of the cycle of addiction once again.

Due to the previous two stages, the individual is no longer equipped to combat this final stage. Their built-up routines and procedures for handling their addiction have been slowly destroyed, and so they now have no defence against a full-scale relapse.

The warning signs of relapse

The prospect of reaching this final stage of relapse can be terrifying. Therefore, it is important to be able to spot early signs of relapse and understand at what point in the process the individual might be.

As these are ‘warning signs’, they mainly spring up during the emotional and mental stages of relapse.

1. A decline in mood or attitude

A change in how someone interacts with the world around them can be an early sign of relapse.

If they begin to take less care in keeping up their recovery procedures or start being more aggressive towards friends and family, this may be a sign that they are losing their mental battle with addiction.

Also, if they have become more stressed, it may be because they are struggling to cope with the challenges of life without the crutch of their certain substance.

2. Change in routine

A huge part of addiction recovery is the development of healthy routines.

If an individual begins to deviate or even abandon these routines, it could be a sign that they are slipping into relapse.

They may begin to skip out on arranged plans or appointments, and may even become more reclusive, avoiding social or recreational engagements.

3. The resurgence of withdrawal symptoms

When an individual is suffering from an addiction, they tend to exhibit withdrawal symptoms. These can be similar to those of a common cold or flu.

The return of these symptoms in someone who has recovered from addiction may be a sign that they are considering using again, as their body is beginning to crave the chemicals given to it by taking that specific substance.

4. A decline in social life

As an individual with addiction begins their recovery process, they are incentivised to develop healthy social circles and talk to other people more.

This routine is essential to coping without their certain substance, but as the early stages of a relapse take their toll, it can be easily broken.

It may be a sign of developing relapse if an individual becomes reclusive and begins spending less time with friends or family.

5. Difference in decision-making

Sound judgement is something individuals work hard to regain during recovery, but it can also be one of the first things to go during relapse.

If an individual starts getting confused easily, starts making rash or poorly thought-out decisions, or decides to do things that may not be good for them, they may be relapsing.

It may be the case that individuals are looking to do spontaneous or irrational things as a means of satisfying their cravings or delaying their complete relapse.

What causes relapse?

There is no setlist of what causes relapse, but there are several things that may push someone towards using again. These include:

  • A poor support system – if an individual doesn’t have the support they need, they can be susceptible to their own negative thoughts and impulses.
  • Unhealthy influences – if a recovering individual has a friend or colleague who still uses the substance or tempts them into using it, it could help break down their positive routines.
  • Aggravation of a mental health condition – if a person has anxiety or depression, things that fuel negative emotions, such as a bad day at work, may have a more profound effect and push them to consider relapsing.

Stopping relapse – what can you do?

If you’ve noticed some of these signs in a loved one’s behaviour, it can put you in a distressing situation.

Months of hard work has gone into their recovery, and now it might all be undoing itself. So, what can you do to help?

The most important thing to remember is that relapses are common. There is no shame in it, and your loved one is going through something that many others have been through and still come back from.

If you think someone is showing signs of relapse, speak to your GP or a specialised organisation about the routes available to you. As they have already been through one phase of recovery already, there will likely be medical professionals who are familiar with their case and can help with deciding what steps to take next.

In the meantime, try to limit the negative influences that may be causing them to consider relapsing. Support them, make them feel more at ease, and limit their contact with stressful or unhealthy situations.

It may also be of value to talk to the individual themselves. Depending on what stage of relapse they are at, they may not notice what is happening and will be eager to stop it as well.

Discussing the impacts of totally relapsing and the options available can help catch it before things get worse.

It is also worth noting that the individual will be in a much better place than when they first sought out medical help. They will already know what the route to recovery entails, and so reminding them of this may help them in getting back into their healthy routines.