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Managing addiction recovery is a big feat. Many people do this effectively, going on to live fulfilling and rewarding lives. In 2015, an estimated 27.1 million people age 12 and older were illicit drug users, according to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. While using drugs and alcohol does not necessarily mean will one will develop an addiction to them, regular use raises the possibility that they might.

Not everyone will have an alcohol or drug relapse once they have quit drug use—it depends on the person, their genes, their environment, and many other factors, including personal commitment and family support. Regardless, there are many addicts who will experience the relapse cycle. This population needs to know they are not alone and that there are strategies they can use to overcome relapse and move forward with their recovery

Relapse happens when a person returns to using drugs and alcohol after a period of abstinence. This can happen to anyone who has completed addiction treatment, including people who have made their best attempts to fight off cravings for the substance.

Because addiction is viewed by many healthcare professionals as a chronic brain disease that changes the structure of the brain as well as how it works, it is common for people who are recovering from substance abuse to experience relapses along the way. In fact, it’s almost expected. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), relapse happens to 40 to 60 percent of people in recovery.

NIDA advises that drug addiction should be treated like any other chronic illness, such as asthma, diabetes, and hypertension. Multiple stints in rehab may occur during a person’s recovery from substance abuse.

Relapse does not indicate that treatment has failed, the agency says. Instead, it means that treatment needs to be reinstated, adjusted, or that another form of treatment is needed altogether in to help the person return to recovery.

The chronic nature of the disease means that relapsing to drug abuse at some point is not only possible, but likely.


is relapse dangerous

A relapse is believed to follow a conscious decision to return to uncontrolled substance use despite previously following a recovery plan. This decision can be deadly. Resuming drug use after a break in which drugs were not consumed can spark urges to take more of it and in higher doses, which can lead to sickness and death. If you think you are on the verge of relapse or are in relapse, consider seeking professional treatment.

It is important to note that a “lapse” and a “relapse” are not the same. A “lapse,” which some may refer to as a “slip,” is an initial use of a drug or drink that lasts a short period. Lapses do not always lead to a relapse, but they can be the beginning of problematic substance use that can slide into substance abuse that can lead to dependence and addiction.


what is relapse

It is important to understand that relapse is a gradual process that may take place over a period of weeks or months before the person takes the first drink or uses drugs, according to an article written by Steven M. Melemis for the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine. The process also has distinct stages, and treatment aims to help people in recovery recognize the early stages, where it is believed a person has a greater chance of preventing a relapse from occurring.

The stages of the relapse cycle, according to the article, are:

During this phase, the person isn’t thinking about using substances. Instead, they are actively remembering their last relapse and trying not to repeat it. Denial is a large part of an emotional relapse. Denial may play out by the person not wanting to attend meetings or withdrawing from others to remain isolation.

Early warning signs of an emotional relapse may include:

  • Going to support group meetings but not opening up to others about personal struggles
  • Focusing on others to neglect one’s problems
  • Poor eating and sleeping habits
  • Keeping emotions hidden, bottled up

In this phase, the person typically is going back and forth with themselves over whether they should use or not use. “As individuals go deeper into mental relapse, their cognitive resistance to relapse diminishes and their need to escape increases,” Melemis writes. Staying in this stage too long without a healthy exit strategy typically leads to physical relapse.

Early warning signs of a mental relapse also may include:

  • Craving drugs or alcohol
  • Thinking about people, places, and things linked to past substance use
  • Glamorizing past alcohol and drug use.
  • Minimizing the consequences of past alcohol and drug use
  • Looking for opportunities to relapse
  • Having unrealistic expectations about recovery, which can lead to doubts about whether it’s working or if it’s even worth it to continue.
  • Planning a relapse.

At this point in the process, the person has returned to using substances again. Some may rationalize that it’s “just this one time” or “it’s just one drink.” However, it is this stage that it’s most difficult stage to stop substance use, which is why relapse occurs. “Most physical relapses are relapses of opportunity,” Melemis writes. “They occur when the person has a window in which they feel they will not get caught.”


addiction treatment

NIDA asserts that while addiction is not curable, it is treatable, and that recovery from it involves treatment and lifelong continuing care. The treatment phase, which, according to NIDA, should last, on average, at least 90 days or longer, involves residential/outpatient treatment followed by management of the disorder over time. Management may include a reevaluation of a person’s treatment needs.

Also, according to NIDA:

  • No single drug treatment is appropriate for all individuals.
  • Treatment needs to be readily available.
  • Treatment must attend to the multiple needs of the individual, not just drug use.
  • Multiple courses of treatment may be required for success.
  • Remaining in treatment for an adequate period of time is critical for treatment effectiveness.

relapse prevention plan

A relapse does not have to be the beginning of a permanent return to addiction. If you relapse, consider seeing it as an opportunity to get back on the path to recovery.

Addiction recovery is an active, lifelong process. There are many steps one can take to fight back against drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, but the commitment to live and remain sober starts with discipline and a plan.

Before a relapse prevention plan is created, each person’s drug use patterns and drug-related medical, psychiatric, and social problems must be considered before planning an approach to treatment, NIDA advises.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is one tool used to change the negative thinking that leads to relapse. It also encourages the use of healthy coping strategies that promote achieving and maintaining sobriety.

Finding a supportive environment is key to staying on the straight and narrow. Groups such as 12-Step programs, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, help provide accountability and fellowship as other participants likely will better understand what struggles a person in recovery is facing.

Other things that can help prevent a relapse:

Triggers are important to identify because they can help one recognize when they may be wading into dangerous territory. Some of these triggers include stress and anxiety, but others may be less obvious, such as setting unrealistic goals or taking on too many responsibilities at one time.

These may include weddings, graduations, or any celebratory occasion. Often, events such as these may serve alcohol, which can lead to a “slip” that can later become a relapse. Other times, it might not be the alcohol but the high stress that accompanies these events. Develop an exit strategy that keeps you safe and in control of yourself and the situation.

Rely on healthy coping strategies to manage your feelings. A dip in energy or feeling down in the dumps could be an early warning sign.

Join a recovery group, attend support meetings, or keep contact information handy for friends and family who you can check in with when you’re experiencing cravings or changes in mood.


help after relapse

Drug Treatment Center Finder can help you find the support you need at this critical time. Call our 24-hour helpline at (855) 619-8070 to discuss your options with one of our agents and get the substance abuse treatment that’s right for you.