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Relapse Prevention

Just because addiction treatment has ended doesn’t mean that the fight for recovery has been won. The disease of addiction is a chronic illness and requires consistent attention and effort in order to maintain sobriety.

That’s where relapse prevention comes into play—making sure you’re actively taking steps and working towards avoiding falling back into old patterns is crucial.

Relapse prevention is a cognitive-behavioral approach to relapse with the goal of identifying and preventing high-risk situations such as substance abuse, obsessive-compulsive behavior, sexual offending, obesity, and depression.

Taking control of your life and recovery is important. Relapse prevention is a great way to maintain your recovery and stay vigilant in recognizing the early warning signs of relapse. Since relapse is, in fact, a process as opposed to an isolated event, you can stay proactive against relapsing.


If you have relapsed back into using drugs or alcohol, it’s important to keep the following in mind:

Taking the time and effort to create a practical, feasible relapse prevention plan based off what you and your addiction therapist or counselor know will work best for you can both greatly decrease the risk of relapsing later and also help you bounce back faster if a relapse does occur.

Recovery treatment makes managing addictive behaviors easier, but it is still important to be able to spot common situations or feelings that can leave someone vulnerable to a relapse.


Some examples of these high-risk scenarios include:

  • Negative interpersonal situations, whether the relationship in question is romantic or platonic. Feelings of conflict, disappointment, sadness or guilt resulting from an important relationship in someone’s life can leave them extremely vulnerable to relapse.
  • Negative emotions on their own can very quickly put someone on the path to relapse. Feelings such as anxiety, frustration, depression, and more, whether they’re a reaction to something external or manifested internally, can all be dangerous.
  • Positive emotions can also present issues though, as recalling the good feelings associated with drug or alcohol use can be a dangerous first step towards relapse. Another example is feelings of pride and confidence if they get too out of control and lead someone to think they don’t have to be careful when it comes to avoiding drug or alcohol use.
  • Peer pressure doesn’t stop when someone isn’t a kid anymore, and it can be a powerful trigger. Peer pressure can come in either a direct form, like friends urging you to drink at a party when you are in recovery from an alcohol use disorder, or indirect, such as being invited to a gathering where alcohol will be present, like an after-work happy hour.


As previously stated, relapse is a process that can occur quickly or slowly. An individual returning to a drink or drug is just the final stage of relapse. In reality, relapse occurs in steps or stages over time. Relapse prevention can teach you how to both identify and combat the various stages of relapse before it’s too late and you fall back into the patterns of active addiction.

By creating your own relapse prevention plan of action, you may be able to successfully stave off relapse. Recognizing the stages of relapse is the first key to relapse prevention. The relapse process can be broken down into these three stages:


The emotional stage is the first part of relapse. This occurs when an individual experiences a negative emotional state like depression, anxiety, or anger. These negative emotions may sway an individual to return to drinking or using substances in order to cope with these feelings.

The emotional stage of relapse can begin to be experienced prior to any actual thought of relapse. If managed prior to moving to the next stage of relapse, the individual may successfully avoid using or drinking again.


Some behavioral signs that can be observed during the emotional stage include:

  • Isolating themselves from systems of support like family and friends
  • Bottling up emotions instead of dealing with them
  • A lapse in mental or physical self-care
  • Noticeable change in eating and sleeping habits
  • Not following their personal rules for their recovery


The mental stage of relapse can be particularly difficult to deal with. This is when the actual thought of acting out on the relapse begins to creep into the individual’s mind. Typically during this stage, a person will wrestle with these thoughts.

They will try to fight the urges to relapse since they know that drinking or using drugs is not the answer but may find it difficult to combat these persistent thoughts. It’s crucial to stop the relapse process once it’s reached this point because once an individual has made a decision to use again, it is almost impossible to prevent the relapse.


Some common behaviors to watch out for that point to someone being in the mental stage of relapse include:

  • Making bargains with yourself such as “I’ll only use or drink this once, and then that’s it forever.”
  • Lying to family and friends about being strongly tempted to use drugs or alcohol again
  • Trying to minimize the impact of past substance abuse or otherwise romanticize how life was when they were using
  • Pointedly seeking out reasons or opportunities to justify a relapse


The final stage of relapse, the physical stage, is the actual part of relapse that people visualize when discussing relapse. It is the physical action of using or drinking again. At this point, a person sacrifices their sobriety and returns to active addiction.

Even after just using once, a recovering addict leaves themselves susceptible to easily continuing their use of drugs and developing a severe habit again. Following a physical relapse, an addict or alcoholic should return to treatment to cut the relapse as short as possible.


With all of the odds stacked up against addicts and alcoholics in recovery when it comes to maintaining long-term recovery, what can be done? Since relapse is so prevalent in the recovery community, practicing relapse prevention is extremely important to individuals struggling with substance abuse who are attempting to practice sobriety.

If you’re struggling in recovery, you can follow these easy steps to keep yourself in check and incorporate them into your own relapse prevention plan. This is not meant to be a quick or easy fix, but a simpler way to think about relapse prevention meant to make it less intimidating and more achievable, giving you the motivation you need to make your own plan and stay with it.

When it comes to living a life in recovery, it’s both helpful and important to change a lot of your life. Recovery is not simply about abstaining from drugs and alcohol, but also about making a variety of positive changes in every aspect of your life. By doing so, you’ll not only grow as a person but make a life in which it is easier to avoid using drugs and alcohol.

Another key step in relapse prevention is maintaining honesty with yourself and others. Since active addiction fosters lying and deceitful action, it only makes sense that a life in recovery requires the opposite.

Falling back into patterns of lying can be a telltale sign of impending relapse, so keeping yourself on track in sobriety calls for staying open and honest. Even if you fall short in this particular area, since practicing honesty is not always easy, so long as you rectify your misgiving, you’re still on the right path.

Relapse prevention is not a solo endeavor. It takes an entire support system to flourish in recovery and avoid relapsing into active addiction. By surrounding yourself with positive influences, you’ll increase the likelihood of maintaining long-term sobriety.

Joining a program or fellowship like Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery can be great tools for relapse prevention, as it opens up an entire network of other recovering people on the same path in life as you. Asking for help from other people lessens the burden of undertaking the difficulties presented in recovery alone.

Another important aspect of relapse prevention is to always practice self-care. Practicing self-care helps circumvent the idea of escapism that using drugs and alcohol presents. If you’re happy and taking care of yourself, the need to escape is immaterial.

It also shows that you value yourself and by having self-worth, you dispel the need to turn to drugs and alcohol. Being kind and never being too hard on yourself is important to relapse prevention. Never be over critical and take care of yourself first.

Relapse prevention calls for strict adherence to rules of recovery. By insisting on pursuing recovery on your terms and your way, you’re setting yourself up for failure. As history for most addicts and alcoholics has shown, making decisions regarding life choices is not necessarily the best. By humbling yourself and agreeing to follow the directions and suggestions of addiction professionals, you can help prevent falling back into your old patterns of using and drinking.


Recovery is more than just gaining an understanding of the issues behind your substance use disorder; it also means ensuring that you have the tools and knowledge you need to create an effective relapse prevention plan and stay with it.

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