Recovering from Relapse
Relapse is a seemingly dreaded occurrence in the recovery community, as it represents a return to using drugs or alcohol after achieving a period of sobriety. A relapse may make the patient feel a sense of failure in their recovery form addiction, but it’s actually common. While relapse may occur, recovering from relapse is possible, and there are many ways to prevent relapse from happening again.
Understanding that Relapse is Part of Recovery
While relapse may seem bleak, it is actually a normal part of recovery from addiction. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the research shows that between 40% and 60% of those who receive treatment for drug or alcohol abuse will relapse. This rate is actually similar to levels for other health conditions like asthma or high blood pressure, for which the relapse rate ranges from 50% to 70%.
What does this mean? In short, it means that relapse is certainly not a failure. It simply means it may be time to try something new or re-engage in some sort of treatment. As NIDA has pointed out, addiction is a chronic condition, so ongoing treatment may be necessary since health conditions tend to return if treatment stops.
Causes of Relapse
Experts know that relapse is common, and they have also identified some causes associated with a return to drug or alcohol abuse. Before diving into these causes, it is important to understand its different phases.
A scientist writing for the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine has explained that there are three distinct phases of relapse:2
During this phase, those in recovery are not actually thinking about using drugs or alcohol. In fact, at this stage, they will wish to avoid relapse, but what occurs is that they begin to hold their emotions inside. They may isolate themselves, stop attending or sharing during group therapy, eat and sleep poorly, and fixate on problems of others rather than on their own.
This is the stage at which a fight commences between the part of the patient that wants to stay clean and the part that wants to return to using. They may begin to crave drugs, think about the people they used with in the past and the places where they used, think of ways to use drugs or alcohol without becoming out of control, convince themselves that the consequences of using weren’t so bad, and prepare to actually relapse.
Physical relapse is what most would consider being a true relapse; this occurs when using drugs and alcohol actually begins again.
Now that the phases of relapse are understood, it is necessary to discuss the causes of returning to drug and alcohol abuse. According to the scientist writing for the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, the following factors can cause relapse:2
- Going to fewer support group meetings, because of being tired of fixating on recovery
- Focusing less on self-care
- Denial of drug cravings or the existence of addiction
- False belief that one can relapse without losing control or experiencing negative consequences
Researches also believe that negative thinking patterns and coming into contact with people, placings, and things associated with drug use can lead to relapse.2 For example, if a recovering user used to go to Speedway gas station to buy drinks before going to the local park to inject heroin, being in a Speedway or in that same park may trigger a relapse.
Strategies to Help Recovery
Recovering from relapse is certainly possible, and some strategies may be helpful for making recovery a reality:
Consider Cognitive Therapy
This type of psychotherapy can teach how to overcome unhelpful thinking patterns, such as believing, “I can’t manage life without drugs or alcohol.” When engaging in this type of therapy, once can overcome the thoughts that contributed to relapse in the first place.2
Learn Other Ways to Have Fun
Instead of centering leisure activities around drugs and alcohol, consider alternatives activities, such as joining an exercise class or finding a new hobby.2
Recognize that It's Okay to Feel Challenged
A relapse may occur because they start to feel that sobriety is too challenging, or it makes them feel uncomfortable. Recovering requires them to understand that sometimes it will be challenging to stay sober, but that doesn’t mean they should return to using.2
Strategies for Preventing Another Relapse
Remember that Addiction is a Brain Disease
Researchers know that addiction is a disease of the brain, and it is important to remember this to avoid relapses in the future.3 As with other medical diseases, addiction requires ongoing treatment so one can stay healthy. Viewing addiction as a brain disease enhances the commitment to attend ongoing treatment, so relapse doesn’t happen again.
Sometimes those in recovery feel that it is okay to use drugs and alcohol in moderation so long as their use does not get out of control, but total abstinence is the best strategy for preventing a return to a clinical substance use disorder. In fact, one study followed those who were in remission from alcohol abuse, and results showed that after three years, 51% of people who continued to drink heavily had returned to meeting criteria for an alcohol disorder, compared to only 7.3% of those who completely abstained from drinking.4
Stay Away From Situations Where There Will Be Drugs
According to NIDA, research shows that coming into contact with drugs is one of the top causes of relapse, so it is important to avoid any situation where drugs will be present.3 This may involve avoiding places which were frequented by the user, even if they don’t plan to use when they get there, seeing others using can be tempting and prompt a relapse.
Keep Going to Treatment
To recover from and avoid future relapses, it is essential to stay engaged in some sort of treatment, whether it is going to support groups, meeting with a sponsor, or continuing routine appointments with a therapist. As discussed earlier, addiction is a chronic condition, so it is important to receive ongoing treatment, just as for any other health problem.
It is important to recognize situations and stressors that have contributed to past relapses to that they can be avoided. This will likely involve staying away from the people, places, and things associated with past drug use, as discussed previously.2
Taking care of the body as a whole is imperative. This involves exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and following a nutritious diet. When one takes care of themselves, they’ll feel better, making relapse less likely.
Look at Relapse as a Lesson, not a Failure
While relapse can understandably be disappointing, especially if there has been a long period of being sober, it’s important not to get down on oneself. Starting to feel depressed may increase the possibility of a return to drug use to make oneself feel better. In addition, getting down on oneself can lead to feeling of hopelessness, as if there is not point in trying to stay sober. This is a dangerous way of thinking.
Instead of being down, it should be used as a learning experience to help move forward with recovery. Allow the relapse to teach what the triggers for drug use are, and what is needed to do differently to achieve lasting abstinence from drugs or alcohol. In the end, it is possible to come out stronger and more committed to sobriety after recovering from a relapse.