Addiction is a chronic and relapsing disease. While it can’t be cured, it can be sent into remission though abstinence from drugs or alcohol. But once you’re in recovery, using psychoactive substances again—known as a lapse—can lead to a relapse of the addiction, which is characterized by returning to uncontrollable drug or alcohol use.
Stages of Relapse
An article published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine points out that relapsing doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, it’s a gradual process that occurs in three stages, each of which has clear warning signs.
The first stage is emotional relapse. You aren’t consciously thinking about using, but your emotions and behaviors are setting you up for a lapse sometime down the road. Signs of emotional relapsing include skipping meetings, not taking care of your physical health, experiencing feelings of isolation, focusing on other people’s needs instead of your own and bottling up emotions.
The second stage is mental relapse, during which a war is going on in your head: part of you wants to use again, but another part doesn’t. Some of the signs of mental relapse include experiencing cravings for drugs or alcohol, reminiscing about or glamorizing past use, minimizing the consequences of past use and planning a lapse around loved ones’ schedules.
Physical relapse occurs when you actually use again. By the time you’re on your way to procure drugs or alcohol, it’s usually too late to stop the lapse, and swift intervention will be essential to prevent it from turning into a relapse.
Common Causes of Relapse
During treatment, you’ll learn a number of strategies and techniques for preventing a lapse and relapsing. An educational component of relapse prevention will ensure you understand the mechanics of relapsing and know the signs to watch out for so that you can address problems before it’s too late.
Some common causes of relapse include putting yourself in high-risk situations, such as going to an alcohol-fueled party; negative emotional states like anger, intolerance, anxiety, boredom, and self-pity; social pressure to drink or use drugs; and stress.
Skills and strategies for preventing relapse include learning stress reduction techniques, identifying and developing ways to cope with high-risk situations, attending support group meetings as often as possible, engaging in ongoing therapy, and staying productive and busy to help defuse negative emotions and prevent boredom or feelings of isolation.
Four Essential Rules to Follow to Prevent Relapsing
Recovery is a process of personal growth, and each stage of recovery carries its own relapsing risks. Regardless of the stage of recovery you’re in, you should follow these four essential rules for preventing relapse:
- Make lifestyle changes that promote ongoing recovery. These may include developing a new set of non-using friends or picking up hobbies that don’t involve drug or alcohol use.
- Always be honest with yourself and others. Dishonesty and living in denial are surefire recipes for relapsing.
- Ask for help when you need it. Talk to your therapist, your support group or a loved one, and be honest about what you’re going through and what you need.
- Take care of yourself. Eat healthy food, exercise most days of the week, get adequate sleep and stay mindful of your daily choices.
Relapsing is Not Failure
Relapse after treatment is a likely possibility, but it’s no longer considered the catastrophe it once was. Relapsing is now seen not as the exception, but as the rule in recovery. It takes time to develop an addiction, which is characterized by changes in your brain, and by the same token, it takes time for your brain to change back. It also takes time to change your way of thinking about addiction and to adjust to a life of sobriety.
Thinking of a lapse or relapsing as the categorical failure of treatment is detrimental to ongoing recovery. Relapse provides an opportunity to readjust your recovery plan and learn new and better strategies for coping with cravings, triggers and stress.
For some, it takes more than one stint in treatment to recover for the long-term. The key is learning from relapsing so that you’ll come back stronger than before and more prepared to make long-term sobriety a reality.