Many people assume that the risk of relapse is highest for those who have just achieved sobriety. However, it is possible for many who have been sober for years to relapse. Substance addiction is a developmental disease that affects the brain. It is important to understand the brain science behind relapse so that even people who have maintained long-term sobriety do not let their guard down.
Brain Science and the Risk of Relapse
Typically, people who have a substance addiction do not understand what causes their dependence on drugs and alcohol. They gain some knowledge while doing treatment and recovery. Addiction is hard to treat because it is a brain disease that affects the whole person. Even in sobriety, after brain structures are chemically and structurally changed, you are susceptible to risk factors that might trigger a relapse no matter how long you have been sober.
Stress can also be a brain changer. Workplace demands, raising children, relationship problems, or traumatic events can all produce stress which activates the brain’s fight-or-flight response system. Because drugs and alcohol affect your brain’s pleasure-reward pathways, your brain comes to understand that substances can temporarily undo the effects of such stressful situations. Be warned, though: self-soothing through substances leads to relapse.
Different Stages of Relapse
Relapse does not happen in an instant. It gradually builds up through a few phases. The first phase is emotional relapse when you fail to cope with your emotions healthily. Bottling up your feelings, isolating yourself from others, neglecting self-care, or denying problems are warning signs. Although you may not consciously think about using at this point, overlooking negative emotional habits lays the groundwork for a full-blown relapse down the road.
The second phase is mental relapse when your mind begins to turn to thoughts of substance use. You might subconsciously reminisce about past addiction while minimizing the negative consequences. During this phase, although a full-blown relapse has not happened, the option of using appears more and more appealing to you, often because your brain tries to justify and rationalize use.
The final phase is physical relapse. You might say to yourself that after so many years of sobriety, one drink or use cannot possibly rob you of all recovery progress. This self-deception leads to an initial incident of physical relapse. The brain’s pleasure-reward pathways immediately get what they desire. Those old habits and feelings return and can lead to a full-blown relapse.
The Price of Overconfidence
Confidence is important in recovery from substance addiction. It motivates you to maintain progress. However, if you have stayed sober for many years, that confidence may become overconfidence. There is a fine line between these two mentalities. Always check your pride and see if you have become complacent or believe that you are fully cured of addiction. Stay humble, remember recovery is a lifelong process, know that your sobriety has to do with humility, and your progress should not become a source of pride.
The risk of overconfidence is that it may lead you out of the safe zone. After years of sobriety, you don’t think you can be tempted to use again even when hanging out with people who use or at places where substances are accessible. You don’t value self-care as before and give up the regimen of a healthy diet and regular exercise. Once you let down your guard, these risk factors in your environment prepare you for a full-blown relapse.
Long-Term Relapse Prevention
Years of sobriety should have taught you about vulnerability. You should have become more versed in the knowledge about the connection between mental health and relapse prevention. If a relapse happens despite long-term success, you should not give up or consider yourself a failure. Just get back in the groove of what has helped you stay sober. Since you have succeeded before, this should not be as difficult as the first time. In some cases, you might consider re-entering a residential treatment program.
Before you backslide on progress, there are always ways to prevent relapse after long-term sobriety. The basics are managing triggers, coping with stress, and building a strong support network. You may need to refocus on how to manage and reduce stress in your life. There are many old and new techniques that can be helpful. You can diversify your de-stressing toolkit to include new methods such as journaling, meditation, art therapy, community service, or new hobbies.
Inspect your recovery support system and find out where you have been lax. Maybe you’ve been neglecting a peer group, stopped connecting with an accountability partner, or overcommitted yourself and have a lot of undue stress. Then go back to the old routines of participation and find an accountability partner. If you develop new mental health issues, work with a therapist to get help. Meanwhile, be honest with your family and share your struggles with them. You need all the support you can get. Recovery is a journey, not an event. Remain positive and press forward.
Even if you have maintained sobriety for a long time, relapse is still a possibility. Many people assume relapse is only a worry for those who have just achieved sobriety, but did you know that many people who have been sober for years may also relapse? It is important to work with recovery specialists who understand the brain science behind relapse so that they can help people who have maintained long-term sobriety avoid letting their guard down. At Laguna Shores Recovery, our team of licensed mental healthcare professionals and therapists can coach and counsel you. Most of our staff has been in recovery themselves, so we understand the importance of relapse prevention. Our full medical residential facility offers a range of treatments, including diagnosis, behavioral therapies, and 12-step programs to help you, even if you’re many years sober. You will connect with a strong recovery community that supports you toward full recovery. Call us at (866) 906-3203.