You may think relapse is only a real risk for people who have recently achieved sobriety. Indeed, the relapse rate for this population is high. However, even for people sober for many years, the risk of relapse is never zero. In fact, there are instances of relapse in those with years or even decades of sobriety under their belts. Because relapse is a chronic disorder that requires constant vigilance to keep at bay, relapse prevention is always needed.
When Does Relapse Happen?
Relapse happens when a person in recovery returns to alcohol or drug use after a period of abstinence. Whether they quit using on their own or achieve sobriety with a professional detox and recovery program, sustained recovery depends on lifestyle modification.
To understand why relapses happen, we must first understand how substance use addiction happens. Due to a wide range of factors, including genetics, family history, trauma, and environmental factors, people can become susceptible to substance use, especially when under excessive amounts of stress. With repeated use, dependence on drugs or alcohol can deepen, leading to changes in brain structures that make this coping mechanism into an addictive lifestyle.
Relapse is possible because addiction, often referred to as substance use disorder (SUD), is a chronic brain disease. When a person quits using, it does remove the presence of substances in life. However, if factors that contributed to their use still exist, SUD can keep hold of the individual’s mind and body. Substance use has altered their brain pathways, and certain things can still trigger cravings and, if unmanaged, relapse. Therefore, recovery requires more work than removing the substance from the equation.
Why Do Relapses Happen More Often in Early Sobriety?
Relapses indeed happen at higher rates among people in early sobriety, largely because this is a highly volatile stage in recovery. The absence of substances is a great start, but they may still deal with boredom, stress, or mental illness. If they do not work on lifestyle modifications, the same factors that initiated their substance use can dismantle their progress.
This is why many treatment centers focus on helping people unlearn unhealthy habits and relearn healthy life skills during treatment. From cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to 12-Step meetings, treatment activities help recovering individuals learn new, healthy ways to cope with difficulties. The treatment professionals at rehab centers prepare people to transition to a substance-free life successfully.
When a healthy and balanced lifestyle takes root, relapse risk gradually fades. This process takes years. People must maintain healthy recovery-promoting activities and refresh their coping skills as life circumstances change. Sobriety does not signal the end of adversity. Tragedies may happen and trigger the brain to seek comfort through drugs or alcohol again. Therefore, recovery is an ongoing, life-long process.
Why Do Relapses Happen to People in Long-Term Sobriety?
One common reason people in long-term recovery experience relapse is complacency. When life goes well, they may become less disciplined in keeping up their healthy regimen. They can lose sight of the principles of recovery, including honesty, transparency, and openness. When stressful events happen, they’ve already let slip layers of protection and may resort to old habits.
Some people in long-term recovery relapse after extreme challenges, including losing a loved one, a career, or other major life hardships. To cope with emotional pain, they may resort to substances because it’s the quickest way they know how to cope. Some people can easily overdose because their tolerance level has decreased.
Is Full Recovery Achievable if Long-Term Sobriety Does Not Guarantee It?
Recovery is a life-long process. As such, it’s hard to say whether anyone can achieve a “full” recovery. Successful recovery means that one has built a balanced and healthy lifestyle so solid that even the most difficult of events cannot shake this lifestyle. Individuals in this position know when to seek help from family, friends, or health professionals rather than resort to substance use. Until this foundational mechanism is built solid, one may always face the danger of relapse, no matter how far under the surface.
The great irony of SUD and recovery is that people who keep their guard high against relapse usually don’t think full recovery is achievable. Because they are always alert, their crisis radar prevents them from becoming complacent. In this sense, one’s recovery is only as full as one’s relapse prevention plan is. If one slips in relapse-preventative activities, one may slip in recovery safety. Perhaps it is better to consider full recovery as a continuous state rather than a destination.
What to Do When You Are Alert to Relapses
Addiction affects the people around those who have it as much as the people who have it themselves. Because they have been to that dark place, they probably never want to return. Recovery is like a trip to wellness. Where a one-way ticket is hard to come by, a round trip is devastatingly unaffordable.
Individuals in recovery might consider how much they have learned about themselves during recovery. This self-knowledge means they are well-acquainted with their emotional, physical, situational, or relational triggers. A high level of self-awareness can be invaluable in self-monitoring for potential relapses.
The risk of relapse is real, even for people who have achieved years of sobriety. Like the initial development of substance use disorder, it has a range of factors, including genetics and environment. Relapse prevention should be your constant mode of life. Laguna Shores Recovery offers strong relapse-prevention planning and an alumni program to help you continue challenging urges and cravings and maintain a fulfilling sober future. We apply evidence-based treatment and adopt an integrated and holistic approach to recovery. Alongside customized treatment plans, family therapy, and support groups, Laguna Shores Recovery also offers aftercare programs that connect you and your loved one with a community of recovering individuals. Call us at (866) 774-1532 today.
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