Addiction Relapse: Meaning, Causes,
Recovery & Prevention

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As individuals recover from any form of addiction, they have the possibility of experiencing an addiction relapse along the way. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction relapse rates, while a person is in recovery, are 40 to 60 percent.

The possibility of addiction relapse is always there; however, knowing and recognizing the warning signs that foreshadow a relapse can help avoid it. It is crucial for family members and friends to be aware of what to look for as probable triggers for relapse. It is also essential for those in recovery to be able to monitor themselves with this knowledge.

Therefore, in this blog post, we’ll be closely looking at what exactly addiction relapse means, its causes, warning signs, and ways to prevent one from happening.

What is an Addiction Relapse?

Just like any other chronic health condition, a relapse signifies the recurrence of any disorder that has previously gone into the recovery phase. And similar to a recurring cardiac or liver disease, not all addiction relapses are created equal. However, in most cases, a drug relapse falls into one of the following two categories:

#1: A ‘Slip’

A slip refers to the moments recovering addicts consume a meager amount of an illicit substance but stop afterward. Some common examples of a slip include taking a drag from a joint when one is handed their way or a sip of alcohol at a wedding toast. Most individuals would hardly count such incidents as severe drug use. Still, recovering individuals need to acknowledge these slip-ups and take precautions to avoid them from happening again. Why is it important? Because after a period of abstinence, even a trivial amount of an illicit substance can invigorate cravings for severer drug use.

#2: Full Relapse

Full relapses ensue when addicts deliberately seek out drug use. It can vary from a single session to a full binge; however, it is regarded as a relapse as long as they return to treatment. Whereas, if they do not, it is considered a relapse that elicited a full-blown addiction.

Addiction Relapse Warning Signs

While the red flags vary from individual to individual, recognizing the typical warning signs of addiction relapse can help you save a loved one tumbling down the path of self-destruction. Some of the warning signs of drug relapse are, but not limited to:

  • Fantasizing drug use – Hyping the so-called ‘positive effects’ of any form of the drug can be a warning sign that the individual is not sincere about recovery.
  • Spending time around poor influences – Keep in mind that social support can either make or break a person’s path to recovery. Recovering individuals who spend significant time around drug-using people are almost guaranteed to fall into the temptation and relapse.
  • Glorifying past drug use – Praising the times spent in active drug use may signify that the addict is bored in recovery and craves the addiction lifestyle as much as, if not more than, the drug use itself.
  • Justifying moderate drug use – When an individual begins to explore whether they can or cannot use a drug in moderation, or perhaps vindicates the use of an illicit substance by stating that it wasn’t their ‘drug of choice,’ it’s a big warning sign that they are falling off the wagon.
  • Missing therapy or treatment sessions – Missed therapy or treatment sessions may signify that an addict’s priorities and focus are shifting away from the road to recovery.
  • Aggressively forcing others to choose sobriety – Targeting people who moderately use an illicit substance, and convincing them to live a sober life, can also indicate a potential relapse.
  • A rise in psychological health symptoms – Displaying higher amounts of anger, depression, anxiety, lethargy, loneliness, or general dissatisfaction may be a warning sign that the individual’s sobriety is in danger.
  • Spending significant time in isolation – Note that being alone or isolated makes it even more challenging for an addict to build positive connections in recovery. Furthermore, it also amplifies the likelihood that they will vindicate using drugs again and curbs the accountability for their decisions.
  • Engaging in compulsive behavior – An individual on the brink of relapse may focus intensely on only one area of their life rather than sticking to a balanced arrangement of positive activities.

Please note that these are just a few of the many warning signs of addiction relapse, and they may differ from person to person. Therefore, it is essential to be attentive and observant of any unusual behavior.

5 Common Causes of Addiction Relapse and Prevention Tools

It is not rare for people who struggle with substance use (addiction) to relapse at least once on the road to recovery. Some people even tumble off the wagon numerous times before they begin a sober life. Regardless of FDA-approved treatments for alcohol, opioid, and nicotine addiction, over two-thirds of addicts will relapse after commencing treatment.

Understanding what may cause or trigger them to relapse and having a plan for these causes are the necessary steps toward prevention. Here are some of the most common addiction relapse triggers that you must consider and discuss with your counselor or therapist.

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Trigger #1: Stress

Stress is the biggest and the most common cause of addiction relapse. Many individuals who struggle with anxiety turn to their activity or substance of choice as a maladaptive way of handling it. Several research pieces indicate that there’s an intensified “wanting” for the alcohol, drug, or any other addictive substance during stressful circumstances—especially if the activity or substance was the individual’s leading coping mechanism.

What to Do:

One way to prepare and equip for this relapse trigger is to gauge the stress you are experiencing. Though you cannot eliminate everyone and everything from your life, you certainly can avoid scenarios that cause you intense stress. Resultantly, it may help you to list all the places, people, and things that instigate unwarranted anxiety in your life.

For instance, are you in a financial situation or in a toxic relationship that stresses you out?

By making changes to your priorities, relationships, and lifestyle, you can considerably reduce stressful situations in your life. Plus, you will also be lowering the probability that stress will spark a relapse when you make these changes.

It is also crucial to understand and learn positive ways to manage stress effectively. You can manage or reduce your stress by:

  • Effectively managing your time to avoid functioning in panic mode
  • Engaging in healthy behaviors and activities such as healthy eating and moderate exercise
  • Engaging in relaxation training and practicing mindfulness

Diminishing the probability that stress will instigate a relapse not only encompasses finding healthier and positive ways of dealing with it but also being able to acknowledge when you’re in a stressful setting and taking action to alleviate it.

A counselor or therapist can help you learn to listen to your body and mind to recognize when you feel stressed. Moreover, they can also help you create a healthy coping mechanism.

Trigger #2: Sensing or Seeing the Object of Your Chosen Addiction

Reminders and cues of your chosen addiction can prompt a relapse during the recovery process. Watching strangers sip cocktails in a restaurant or bar, a whiff of joint or cigarette smoke, or a couple locked in a sensual embrace are a few of the many reminders that tend to be everywhere in the early phases of quitting.

You must understand that desiring to fall back into your chosen addiction is 100 percent normal! After all, it is a familiar place for you. However, you must also remember that recovery is not just about ‘abstaining’ or ‘quitting’ as much as it is about making a new life in which it’s easier and even more desirable not to use.

What to Do:

The best thing you can do is focus on the fresh start or the new life you are planning to build and the transformations you are making for it. Think about the harmful and destructive moments you experienced while partaking in the addiction—the relationships you lost and the people you hurt. Several addicts feel that they miss their old life when they see a reminder when, in reality, it only brought them hardship and pain.

You must embrace the notion that you are building a new, healthier version of yourself with zero room for the negative things of past times.

Having a substitute behavior such as taking a long bath or going to a yoga class can also help you to avoid being triggered. Even doing some relaxation exercises or reciting positive mantras may greatly help you resist these urges. We advise you to work with your therapist or counselor about how you can effectively deal with addiction reminders.

Trigger #3: Times of Celebration or Positive Situations

Times of celebrations or positive situations, such as holidays and birthdays, can also be a relapse trigger for many people. You may feel happy, confident, and in control; you may handle one smoke, one drink, or even one mild flirtation with an attractive stranger. But are you confident that you can keep everything under control?

In all our experience, we have noticed that people struggling with addiction often lose the ability to know when to stop. Hence, that one drink could turn into a binge.

What to Do:

Having a trusted friend or family member can help in circumstances where you are in danger of a relapse. Find somebody you respect and trust, and then ask them to kindly, but firmly, sway you to stop if you are doing something that may cause a relapse.

In addition to this, we suggest you avoid going into situations – especially alone – where you face a high risk of a relapse. You may be surprised by witnessing how quickly your good intentions and resolve disappear once the festivities begin.

Work with your addiction therapist or counselor to develop a fool-proof plan to tackle the temptations that come with positive and fun events like weddings, parties, holidays, and more. Believe it or not, if you go into such settings unprepared, you are more likely to fall off the wagon.

Trigger #4: Places or People Connected to Addictive Behavior

People who were actively involved or participated in your addictive behavior can be potential triggers for relapse. Note that this is applicable even if they no longer smoke, drink, or use any other illicit substance. Similarly, specific places or situations that remind you of the addiction days can also act as an addiction relapse. At times, even family members can be a significant relapse trigger, mainly if they make you feel vulnerable and more child-like.

What to Do:

When you are reminded of your chosen addiction, it is integral to have pre-planned effective ways of managing your feelings. For example, if you are an alcoholic and see work folks going out for a happy hour or if a group of drinking friends ask you to go out with them, it will be of great help if you have a specific response ready.

In addition to this, having a healthy activity that you can do instead such as, seeing a movie, going for a run, reading a good book, or dinner with a sponsor, can also significantly help.
If you fail to prepare and plan for such situations ahead of time, you will be more vulnerable to a relapse. Therefore, we suggest you try to brainstorm ideas or work with your therapist or counselor to develop an effective action plan.

Trigger #5: Challenging or Negative Emotions

Individuals who struggle with substance use addiction need effective ways of managing, tolerating, and making sense of the challenging or negative emotions encountered in daily life. Drugs, alcohol, or addictive behaviors are used to offer temporary relief from those emotions, but you cannot depend on them anymore.

What to Do:

For starters, you must aim to learn how to get comfortable with your uncomfortable emotions and feelings.

It is essential to realize that those negative emotions you are experiencing do not have to be an indication of a looming impediment. It is crucial to acknowledge that it’s natural to feel challenging or negative emotions. But recognize that what is more important is how you deal with them.

See these feelings and emotions as an opportunity for understanding and growth. Believe us; you can discover a lot about yourself by taking note of what you are feeling and, in return, asking yourself why. We believe that learning how to face negative or challenging emotions without fleeing into addiction is invaluable.

Hence, try meditating, journaling, or even praying when you’re feeling negative. Seek healthy ways to release and let go of your negativity and lift your mood. If you are experiencing any difficulty achieving that, an addictions specialist or some other mental health expert can help you create effective coping strategies.

Learning to identify triggers, receiving help from an addiction therapist or counselor, and building a reliable support network are some of the most useful and effective tools in averting a relapse. Do everything you can in your power to stay on the recovery path; however, do not beat yourself up if you make a slip.

Keep in mind that addiction relapse isn’t an indication that your recovery failed. Instead, acknowledge that you are navigating an unfamiliar and new path. Thus, with continued support and therapy, you will be successful in building more robust defenses against prevalent relapse triggers.

Addiction Relapse Recovery

Both drug addiction recovery and relapse recovery are ongoing processes for addicts seeking a new, healthier life. Remember that abstaining or quitting a substance is only the first step of this process. Recovery from addiction or relapse typically takes a long time and prevents affected individuals from using again.

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Depending on the individual’s needs and level of severity, relapse recovery can vary anywhere from thirty, sixty, or ninety-day treatment programs in supervised facilities to a lifetime of maintaining sobriety. It is crucial to understand that addiction recovery has no limitations, and hence you should not confine yourself to a fixed time limit. Failing to understand this may push you to relapse once the time is up.

Get the Help You Need!

If you have already undergone drug addiction recovery or relapse recovery treatment but are struggling with the reality or potential of a relapse, there’s help available. We suggest you get yourself enrolled in a treatment program that better answers your needs and helps you attain sustained sobriety. At Recovery Institute of Ohio, we offer several addiction program options suiting both your needs and budget. Do not allow a relapse or multiple relapses to keep you in a cycle of substance abuse.

Are You Ready to Start a Better Way of Life?

Reviewed by Jessica Kitchen

Jessica Kitchin is the Clinical Program Manager/Primary Therapist at Recovery Institute of Ohio. She received her Master’s Degree in Addiction Counseling from Grand Canyon University. Jessica believes that the best part of her job is knowing that she is apart of creating a safe, healthy, nonjudgmental environment where people can come and better their lives. "There is nothing more satisfying than helping others learn to live again and piece their lives back together as they become strong, productive members of society. Together, we can bring families back together and promote healing and wellbeing.

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