How to Deal With Relapse

Relapses back into harmful patterns of drinking or drug use are common for people recovering from serious drug and alcohol problems. Despite their common occurrences, if you are a person in recovery who experiences relapse, you might feel shame, frustration or a sense of hopelessness. You might think you have no options for continuing the recovery process. However, this is not the case; even the majority of people who eventually attain complete sobriety tend to have a history of at least one relapse along the way. Knowing this is the case, it’s best to focus on how to deal with relapse in recovery. Here are some key tips for coping with such a situation as effectively as possible.

Relapse - Close up of 2 sets of hands, a woman consoling a man as he sits in a chair after relapse.

Understand the Nature of Addiction as a Chronic Condition

When considering drug and alcohol relapse after rehab, it helps to view this kind of problem in its proper context. Today, nearly all experts agree that addiction is a form of chronic illness. Addictions don’t act similarly to acute conditions like the flu or appendicitis, which don’t take much time to resolve and usually have a treatment that cures them. Chronic conditions like addiction produce long-term effects, and they are managed rather than cured. For perspective, the list of chronic conditions also includes such common ailments as:

  • Diabetes
  • Asthma
  • High blood pressure
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sciatica
  • Depression
  • Cardiovascular disease

Roughly 40 to 60 percent of people addicted to alcohol or other substances will experience a relapse. However, this rate is comparable to (or even lower than) the rates for other chronic health problems.

The key to successfully treating all chronic illnesses is to learn good self-management strategies and work to maintain them. This principle also applies to the treatment of alcoholism and alcohol abuse (known collectively as alcohol use disorder or AUD) and to any substance use disorder (known as SUD). If relapse occurs, it’s not a sign of failure. It just means that you must take steps to manage your condition, which involve marshaling your support system. This step is essential to getting your recovery back on track.

This idea holds true whether your sobriety is new or has been long-term. A return to drinking or drug use after years of sobriety might seem especially crushing; having to reset your sobriety date to days ago rather than years ago can sap your morale. However, if you remember that you have a chronic condition, you’ll be better equipped to take on the challenges ahead. It’s likely that you learned extremely useful strategies along the way in achieving the sobriety that you’ve had. It can be helpful to figure out how those strategies can be reactivated. Similarly, it might help to understand whether there was a deviation from your normal routine, or any other factors that might have made you more prone to relapse.

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Stop Harmful Behaviors As Soon As Possible

So, what to do when you relapse? You now know that at least half of all people in recovery have faced that situation. You also know that addiction specialists view a return to harmful substance use as a normal and surmountable setback, not a failure.

With these things in mind, the most important thing to do is halt your damaging pattern of use as soon as you can. The quicker you can return to a healthy pattern of behavior, the lower the odds you will derail your long-term recovery efforts. In a best-case scenario, you will stop using substances altogether. That’s true because people who abstain from substances during their recovery experience relapses much less often than those who don’t. However, you can still reduce your risks by a significant amount if you lower your intake to a less harmful level. Even a gradual decline in consumption is better than continuing to use to excess.

Seek Additional Treatment

A doctor, addiction specialist or a rehab facility can provide the professional help you need to bring a relapse event to a prompt halt. If relapse has led to a return of physical withdrawal symptoms, especially from alcohol, opioids or sedatives, then it is imperative that detox begins in a medical or rehab facility immediately, since these types of withdrawal are particularly dangerous. Depending on your situation, you may still have access to the experts who treated you during inpatient rehab after you leave. If that’s true, take advantage of that access at once after a relapse. If not, you may want to consider re-enrolling in the same program, or choosing another suitable treatment option. Some people may need to return to the level of care they received before relapsing. However, many others get all the help they need from a less intense option (e.g., outpatient care vs. inpatient care).

Seek Continuing Care

Instead of returning to a treatment program after a relapse, you may choose to take part in some form of continuing care. You can also combine these two options, as is encouraged in most addiction treatment facilities. Perhaps the most well-known form of continuing care is a mutual self-help group like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA).

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Participation in such groups can benefit you in several ways. First, it can put you in touch with others who have insight into struggles like dealing with relapse. Self-help group involvement can also provide you with guidelines or principles that help you maintain sobriety going forward. In addition, organizations like NA and AA can provide you with crucial, peer-to-peer recognition for your ongoing efforts, and help you build a reservoir of self-esteem that can help prevent further relapses.

It’s important to note that mutual self-helps groups also exist for people affected by the substance using-related states of others, such as Ala-Non, Narc-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics. So, if you’re wondering what to do when a loved one relapses, you may want to seek assistance from this type of organization.

In addition to self-help options, the continuing care category includes a range of behavioral therapy options, such as:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Behavioral couples counseling
  • Behavioral family therapy

You might have already experienced some form of psychotherapy while you were enrolled in rehab. However, you can still benefit from it while recovering from a relapse after completing treatment. That includes therapy options not used in your inpatient or outpatient program. Of course, you can also benefit from appropriate behavioral therapy if you never received it during your stay in rehab.

Familiarize Yourself With Your Relapse Triggers

When recovering from a relapse, one of the most helpful things you can do is to understand what caused you to return to a harmful pattern of use. That includes recognizing the factors that make you more likely to consume drugs or alcohol in a given situation. Specific triggers vary from person to person, and can include things like:

  • High levels of stress in your daily life
  • Specific stressful events
  • Being around people who drink and/or use other substances
  • Being in certain locations (e.g., bars or clubs) that you associate with alcohol or drug use

You may also increase your relapse risks if your recovery is destabilized by stressful circumstances. Often these conditions can lead to self-justifying behaviors. The “one drink won’t hurt” mindset has played a role in disrupting an untold number of recoveries through time.

Responding to Someone Else’s Relapse

If you have friends or loved ones with a history of a substance use disorder, you may wonder what to do when someone relapses. In these circumstances, you can use the same basic guidelines that you would if you had those problems yourself. That includes having a perspective on addiction as a chronic health condition. It also includes knowing which resources are available for minimizing a relapse’s damaging effects. With proper support, anyone can properly manage the short-term setback of relapse and achieve long-term positive results.

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National Institute on Drug Abuse: Drugs, Brains and Behavior – The Science of Addiction: Treatment and Recovery

Alcoholism – Clinical & Experimental Research: Rates and Correlates of Relapse Among Individuals in Remission From DSM‐IV Alcohol Dependence: A 3‐Year Follow‐Up

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Exploring Treatment Options for Alcohol Use Disorders

Alcohol Research – Current Reviews: Treating Alcoholism As a Chronic Disease