Content Reviewed by Jennifer Wheeler, Clinical & Community Outreach for New Life

Unfortunately, relapse is often a part of one’s recovery journey as one works to achieve lifelong abstinence from alcohol and other drugs. Relapse is not a sign of moral weakness or failure. Instead, sometimes it is just a part of the journey to achieve and maintain lifelong sobriety. Relapse also does not necessarily mean that a treatment program has failed. Rather, relapses of substance use should signal that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted.

Most people understand relapse as the action of using substances again after a period of abstinence; however, relapse occurs in a three-stage process. It is essential to become familiar with these three stages of relapse to recognize better when you or a loved one is straying off the path of recovery.

The Stages of Relapse

Relapse occurs as a gradual process that occurs in three stages. Addiction treatment prepares individuals to recognize these stages and associated warning signs. Still, bringing awareness to these stages can be challenging, especially during long-term recovery or when an individual is not engaging with long-term continuous treatment.

Stage 1: Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse occurs when an individual is not consciously thinking about using alcohol or other drugs. Instead, they are struggling to learn how to deal with negative emotions. Emotional relapse is typical for individuals working to recover from substance use, especially for those who used alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate their symptoms of distress.

Signs of emotional relapse include:

  • Anxiety
  • Intolerance
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Discontent
  • Defensiveness
  • Mood swings
  • Isolation
  • Anger
  • Poor sleeping and eating habits
  • Not attending meetings
  • Going to meetings but not sharing
  • Focusing on other people’s problems
  • Bottling up emotions

It is important to understand that many warning signs of emotional relapse overlap with typical withdrawal symptoms. If these symptoms surface after initial withdrawal symptoms fade, one should seek immediate treatment support to avoid moving into the next stage of relapse.

Stage 2: Mental Relapse

The second stage of relapse involves the psychological battle nearly everyone will experience as they withdraw from substance use. A part of a person may want to use substances, while the other part of them does not.

Many warning signs may point to a mental relapse, including:

  • Cravings for alcohol and other drugs
  • Remembering or glorifying past substance use
  • Minimizing consequences of past substance use
  • Lying
  • Associating with people, places and things that serve as reminders about past substance use
  • Fantasizing about future substance use
  • Thinking about ways to control substance use in the future
  • Bargaining
  • Thinking about relapsing
  • Planning a future relapse

This stage of relapse typically follows emotional relapse because while an individual is working to instill healthier coping mechanisms in their life, they may feel at a standstill as their new ways of coping do not seem as chemically effective or efficient as their perceived substance use once did. As a result, they may reminisce about their past substance use or believe that one day they can regain control over their drug use. However, once an individual develops a chemical addiction, there is no way that they can learn to control their substance use again in their lifetime. This lack of control is why addiction treatment emphasizes the importance of accepting a loss of control over substance use.

Stage 3: Physical Relapse

The third stage of relapse happens when an individual begins using substances again. Sometimes, physical relapse is divided into two subcategories: lapse and relapse. A lapse occurs when an individual drinks or uses drugs again once, and relapse occurs when an individual returns to uncontrolled substance use. More often than not, however, one lapse will result in relapse.

Once a person starts thinking about relapse, it is only a matter of time before their physical relapse occurs. Once emotional or mental relapse occurs, they must be proactive in seeking treatment and engaging with sober community resources to avoid physical relapse to the best of their ability.

Relapse Risk Factors

To prevent relapse, it is crucial to be familiar with relapse risk factors and work to prevent these factors from occurring in one’s life. Some relapse risk factors include, but are not limited to:

  • Low self-efficacy, which is the individual’s belief in their ability to control their substance use or stay on track during their recovery
  • Favorable attitudes toward substance use, meaning the individual’s belief that substance use brings positive effects
  • Lack of motivation or ambivalence surrounding one’s willingness to change
  • Insufficient coping skills, especially during high-risk situations
  • Inadequate social support

Prevention Strategies

On the other hand, several protective factors can help an individual stay on track during their recovery and, in turn, prevent relapse. These strategies include:

  • Avoiding people, places and situations associated with substance use
  • Identify and reduce anything that may increase one’s risk of relapse
  • Instill positive and healthy coping mechanisms for navigating emotional distress, such as meditation, exercise and hiking
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting an adequate amount of sleep
  • Surrounding oneself with healthy social support
  • Attending long-term continuing treatment groups
  • Engaging in self-care, daily
  • Avoiding isolation and withdrawal from others
  • Creating a relapse prevention plan for high-risk situations, including how to navigate cravings

New Life Addiction Counseling & Mental Health Services is a treatment center that knows the challenges that can surface during treatment and long-term recovery. We help prepare our patients to recognize relapse warning signs in themselves and others to better prevent physical relapse from occurring in their future. Please call (877) 929-2571 today to learn more about our treatment programs.