What is Addiction Relapse?

The journey to recovery for any addict is full of its challenges. At any point during this challenge, someone suffering from addiction might be tempted to resume their alcohol or drug misuse.

This could be very early on in the road to recovery, a few weeks, months or even years later down the line. This is known as a relapse.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) [1] Individuals recovering from any kind of addiction often experience at least one relapse in their life.

If you’ve ever struggled with an addiction, then you need to continue working towards recovery, likely, for the rest of your life.

Therefore, it’s highly important that anyone with addiction understands what relapse is and understands the risks associated with relapsing from an addiction; whether that’s in the early days of recovery or years down the line.

The Stages of Relapse

Despite many people’s beliefs, relapsing is more of a process than a one-off, singular event and moment of weakness. It’s broken down into three stages [2]:

1. Emotional

The first step of the process is the emotional relapse stage. Despite many people’s beliefs about relapsing, this begins long before you physically put up the addictive substance once again.

During this stage, you might start to feel like you’re falling behind, struggling to cope with your emotions or feel like you’re starting to bottle up your emotions. You may start to feel isolated from others and might start neglecting your self-care and mental health.

This may or may not be a conscious process and although you may not be consciously thinking about starting taking the addictive substance again, avoiding your emotions will result in this action later down the line.

2. Mental

During this stage, you become aware that you’re suffering from your emotions. Whilst you maintain sober at this point, you may be secretly battling cravings.

A mental relapse may also involve nostalgic thoughts and glorification of previous drug use. You might start to forget the negative consequences caused by your addiction and you might start to seek opportunities to acquire your addictive substance – whether this is acted on or not.

3. Physical

The last stage of relapse is the physical stage. This involves the final action of actually using the addictive substance again after beginning the road to recovery. This can either be a one-off event, or what began as just a one-off can very quickly turn into a full-blown relapse.

At this point, you’re back to feeling that you have little to no control over your addiction once again.

What Triggers a Relapse?

Having understood the consequences of relapsing, knowing some of the triggers and ‘red flags’ that often lead to addiction can help you to avoid relapsing.

Here is a list of a few triggers that may cause or contribute to a relapse [1,2,3,4,5].

  • Not committing to recovery fully. Without a firm commitment to sobriety, you’re more likely to relapse. In order to recover from your addiction you must be willing to put in the hard work required. This may include attending therapy meetings or rehab.
  • Lack of a support system. Particularly at the start of your road to recovery, it’s really important that you have the right support structure in place.You should try to maintain good relationships with your friends and family during your journey, and ask your family to keep you accountable or attend meetings with you.
  • Not wanting to quit for yourself, but for other people. Sometimes, someone suffering from an addiction is often pressured into starting recovery not for themselves but for other people. Instead, friends or family might be more committed to recovery than you are. Unless you want to quit for yourself, your risk of relapsing is much higher.
  • Exposure to physical triggers. Triggers in the social and physical environment such as seeing a friend who uses, seeing a drug deal take place, coming into contact with certain smells or places previously associated with your addiction.
  • High levels of stress. If you’re suffering from high levels of stress or have poor coping skills then you might feel tempted to turn to drugs and alcohol for relief. These stresses are often heightened during addiction or the recovery process and can be triggered by anger, anxiety, depression, work or marital stress [4].
  • Peer pressure. Active Peer Pressure can come from anyone; whether it’s family, friends or colleagues [3,5]. However, peer pressure can sometimes form by simply being around other people who are using abusive substances. As a result, you’re much more likely to relapse [3].
  • Injury or medical issues [1]. When suffering from an injury or an illness, doctors can often prescribe pain relief or narcotics to try and ease the pain. While taking pain medication under careful supervision, people with a history of addiction issues might struggle to control their use. This can often turn to relapse using the same addictive substances or result in the sufferer becoming addicted to new ones.
  • Low self-efficacy [3,5]. Self-efficacy is described as confidence in your own ability to succeed. When someone suffering from low self-efficacy tries to recover from a substance or addiction issue, they struggle to truly believe in a better future for themselves and increase the risk of relapsing.

How to reduce the risk of addiction relapse

Each person’s experience with addiction is different. Therefore, each individual will have their own set of strengths and pitfalls to address as they try to live a life free from their addiction.

Therefore, it’s important to play to your own strengths and use those strengths to plan ahead in order to reduce the risk of addiction relapse.

By taking the time to identify what these individual strengths are and what your personal triggers are, you will be much better prepared to tackle your addiction head-on and successfully begin the road to recovery.

By doing so, you’ll feel ready to avoid and ignore the negative influences and triggers that have a negative effect on your abstinence and that might potentially lead to you relapsing.

Here are a few ways you can reduce the risk of relapsing from your addiction;

  • Be mindful of negative people in your life who may not support you in your new and healthy life. Although this may be difficult, it might be a good idea to avoid or steer away from certain individuals who may still take drugs or are unhappy about your new goals and lifestyle
  • Avoid stressful environments. Stress can be a major cause and trigger for any addiction, so it’s important to maintain a relaxed and healthy lifestyle whilst trying to recover. You should try to monitor your physical and mental wellbeing and seek help for any stress you might be experiencing from family or work or from the addiction itself
  • Engage with as much support as possible. Support won’t always be offered to you, there may be times when you have to actively seek the help you need and deserve. Make sure you take the time to find the services that suit and benefit you the most

What to do After a Relapse

If a relapse does occur, or if you’re simply thinking about relapsing, remember to be kind to yourself. This doesn’t need to signal the end of your recovery which you’ve worked so hard for.

Make sure that you accept what’s happened and seek the right help to help you get back on track. This could be by reaching out to a friend, your GP or a therapist.

Whatever happens, if a relapse does occur then it’s best to be open and honest with people around you so that you get access to the right help at the right time.

[1] The National Institute on Drug Advice. ‘What Triggers a Relapse? “Cues” Give Clues.’ 2020.https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/what-triggers-relapse-cues-give-clues

[2] Melemis, S.M. (2015). Relapse prevention and the five rules of recovery. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 88(3), 325–332.

[3] Moos, R.H. & Moos, B.S. (2006). Rates and predictors of relapse after natural and treated remission from alcohol use disorders. Addiction, 101(2), 212–222.

[4] Mohammadpoorasl, A., Fakhari, A., Akbari, H., Karimi, F., Arshadi Bostanabad, M., Rostami, F., & Hajizadeh, M. (2012). Addiction relapse and its predictors: A prospective study. Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy, 3(1), 1–3.

[5] Larimer, M.E., Palmer, R.S., & Marlatt, G.A. (1999). Relapse prevention: An overview of Marlatt’s cognitive-behavioral model. Alcohol Research & Health, 23(2), 151–160.