Addiction can be an ongoing struggle for many people, even after they complete an intensive treatment program; periodic relapses are not uncommon. Relapse-prevention planning is crucial, then, for maintaining long-term sobriety.
In its simplest terms, relapse occurs when you have abstained from using drugs for any period of time and then use again. This use may be a brief, one-time lapse in abstinence, which is often called a slip, or it may be a binge that involves using drugs in large amounts or repeatedly. In either situation, relapse does not mean you cannot get back on the road to recovery. However, it may indicate that underlying issues are not being managed effectively or that you could benefit from recommitting yourself to your sobriety.
The first six months of recovery is when a large percentage of relapses occur—studies demonstrate that between 66% to 80% of relapses occur in the first 6 months after treatment.1 Relapses can be motivated or influenced by changes made previously to the brain during active drug use, or by the experience of uncomfortable feelings, pain, stress, or a combination of these factors. With this in mind, creating a solid drug relapse-prevention plan before you leave inpatient treatment is a great proactive step to protect your sobriety.
Relapse Triggers – Why Do People Relapse?
Any number of factors may play a contributing role in a relapse, so part of a successful drug relapse-prevention plan is knowing and recognizing the signs of specific high-risk situations and applying effective relapse-prevention skills to maintain sobriety. Common contributing factors to relapse may include:2
- Emotional or mental health issues: Negative emotional states such as depression, anger, anxiety—or even boredom—often create high-risk situations associated with relapse. You may use drugs to avoid experiencing these uncomfortable emotions. An unmanaged mental health issue can be one of the highest risk factors for relapse.
- Conflict: Situations involving conflict with other people can leave you feeling anxious and upset, which could eventually lead to relapse.
- Social pressure: Social pressure includes both verbal and nonverbal pressure from friends or people in your social circles. This pressure may seem harmless, such as being around people who are using drugs, or it may be direct, such as a friend teasing you about not using. Any social situation where drugs are being used makes it easy for you to relapse—avoid them at all costs.
- Celebrations or other positive events: Weddings, sporting events, graduations, and other special events— generally viewed as positive activities, yet ones that are often associated with alcohol or other substance use and may therefore play a large role in relapse. You may have used drugs to celebrate or to enhance positive feelings, so be aware of this as another risk factor in relapse.
Relapse Warning Signs
In many cases, the path to relapse occurs long before you actually use drugs, so a vital component of relapse prevention is to learn how to detect the early warning signs of potential problems that might steer you toward relapse. By identifying these factors, you can take positive steps to remain on your path to recovery. And the better you are at spotting the signs of possible relapse, the earlier you can take action to ensure long-term sobriety.
Many people identify the following warning signs as issues that will challenge their sobriety:3,4
- Frequenting old using grounds or hanging around drug-using friends
- Keeping drugs in your home for any reason
- Isolating yourself from friends or support groups
- Constantly thinking about using drugs
- Quitting therapy, skipping scheduled appointments, or veering away from your addiction treatment program
- Overconfidence or feeling as though you no longer need support
- Relationship conflicts
- Being too hard on yourself or setting impossible goals
- Abrupt or sudden changes in eating or sleeping habits, personal hygiene, or energy levels
- Feelings of confusion, depression, uselessness, anxiety, stress, or being overwhelmed
- Boredom or irritability, usually stemming from a lack of structure
- Refusing to deal with personal problems related to daily life events
- Replacing drugs with other obsessive behaviors such as gambling
- Major life changes that cause intense emotion such as grief, trauma, or extreme elation
- Thinking that “just one time” won’t hurt
- Physical illness or pain
It is not uncommon for you to relapse at least once during recovery. It may happen when thoughts of using drugs resurface in the early stages of recovery. Changes in your attitude, behavior, thoughts, feelings, or disruption to routine can be early warning signs of an impending relapse.3 Developing and following an effective relapse-prevention plan can help stay ahead of a relapse.
Relapse Prevention Strategies
While in early recovery, you may experience warning signs of relapse. However, relapse is not inevitable. There are many effective ways to prevent relapse, such as:
- Since drug use can alter brain pathways and impair your ability to regulate emotions and deal with stressful situations, to prevent relapse, it is important to learn how to deal with all of your emotions, both positive and negative.3,4 Ignoring day-to-day problems can create a buildup of stress, which can increase the likelihood of relapse.
- Because stress is a huge relapse trigger, it is important to learn how to maintain a balance in your life. An essential component of drug-relapse prevention, then, is to find ways to balance work and relaxation. This can include incorporating hobbies, exercise, socialization, or other enjoyable activities that can help you lower your stress levels and discover that life in recovery can be fun.2
- Learn how to manage high-risk situations.2 Weddings, holidays, or even spending time with family and friends can be triggering. Avoiding high-risk situations isn’t always possible, so it is important to plan ahead for how you will deal with them.
- Urges will occur, so part of a relapse-prevention plan is learning how to ride out the urge until it passes.2 Urge-surfing focuses the mind on experiencing the feelings of the urge, both physical and mental, and allowing you to distract yourself from thoughts of using.
- Building a sober support group is vital to your recovery. Friends, family, addiction professionals, and sober peers can all become part of your support group to help you maintain sobriety.
As we discussed before, identifying high-risk situations and mapping out a plan to deal with them is an essential component to your relapse-prevention plan. This is a great task to work on with your therapist as you work through all the potential landmines on your road to long-term recovery.
Begin by asking yourself several key questions to identify your personal high-risk situations:
- Are there specific days you used drugs, such as holidays or weekends, or were you a daily user?
- Are there specific times of day when you experience cravings most often?
- What specific locations are associated with your drug use?
- Who have you used drugs with in the past?
- Have you ever used because of your emotions? Which ones?
- What positive effects have you experienced from using drugs?
- What negative consequences have you experienced from using drugs?
The best relapse-prevention strategy is to identify these situations in your life, then make sure to have a specific plan in place to deal with each one. Ask a supportive friend or family member to role-play ways to refuse or avoid drugs, so that it feels comfortable and natural. Many recovering individuals find that bringing a member of their sober support group to what they know will be a challenging situation can make it easier to stay abstinent. Having an escape plan from one of your identified triggering situations (parties, a specific person’s house, a neighborhood restaurant) is also helpful so that you can leave if others start using or you start to feel a strong urge to use. Offering to be a designated driver can also help you stay sober and maintain control of the situation.
Unsure where to start? Take Our Substance Abuse Self-Assessment
Take our free, 5-minute substance abuse self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with substance abuse. This evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are designed to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of a substance use disorder. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result. Please be aware that this evaluation is not a substitute for advice from a medical doctor.
Coping with Drug Cravings
Recovery from drug addiction is a long process. For many, successful long-term recovery requires work that extends beyond the initial treatment period. Read More
People in early recovery are often taught that they are more likely to relapse when they are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired—otherwise known as the acronym, HALT. Stress and other negative emotions can also increase your cravings to use.3 Experiencing uncomfortable feelings, such as fear, boredom, anxiety, stress, anger, frustration, or sadness are especially difficult when you are in early recovery, making it appealing to turn to your drug of choice to manage these feelings.1
So learning how to regulate your emotions appropriately is another essential feature of an effective relapse-prevention plan. A few ways to help you regulate your emotions is speaking to a support group, exercising, or practicing other distraction techniques, such as reading, watching television, or listening to music while the feelings pass. Following a healthy daily routine can also help you reduce stress, so focus on managing your small daily stressors, eating a healthy diet, and getting adequate amounts of rest.2
Specific Actions to Cope with Cravings
After identifying situations where problematic cravings may arise, list the specific steps you will take to manage them, including:2
- Listing the names and phone numbers of supportive friends or family who you can speak to about your cravings. Ideally, choose people who won’t judge you for experiencing a craving but can be encouraging and supportive. Speaking to others in recovery can help you gain insight into how others successfully manage cravings.
- Reaching out to a member of your support group. They can help change your perspective and talk you through the craving, or just keep you company until is passes.
- Preparing to distract yourself so that you aren’t focused on the craving. Healthy distractions may include cleaning, exercising, meditation, or anything else that will take your mind off the craving. While it feels interminable, cravings will eventually pass.
- Keeping a record of the successful ways you’ve coped with past cravings, and referring to this often.
- Switching your focus from the craving and thinking about all the positive experiences or growth you have made. List all the things you are grateful for.
- Writing down a list of all of the negative consequences you have experienced due to your drug use, and if you have an urge, referring to this list to help remind you why you no longer use.
Specific Thoughts to Cope with Cravings
Training your mind to think positive thoughts is an important step in managing cravings and drug relapse prevention. A few ways to do this include:2
- Remembering how bleak things seemed when you were using drugs.
- Thinking about the reasons you stopped using drugs and referring to the list of negative consequences that your drug use has caused.
- Reminding yourself that your cravings are a normal part of recovery and that you do not have to give into them.
- Visualizing the cravings as waves that you have to ride out. Urge-surfing is a technique that focuses your mind on the physical and mental experience of the craving, rather than giving in to the urge to use.
- Being positive. Encourage yourself by remembering your successes each time your cravings become intense.
Planning out each step you need to take to reach these goals is worth the time you invest in doing it because reaching these goals means actively building up safeguards for your recovery, rather than just hoping that challenges won’t arise. Celebrate your small milestones too. Self-help meetings are great at helping you do this and providing incentives to stay clean, such as coins or key tags earned for increments of sobriety. Surround yourself with people who celebrate with you.
Coping with Relapse
While having a relapse prevention plan in place is important, it does not guarantee sobriety. In fact, relapse is often considered a natural part of recovery. Even though you may know this, when you do relapse, you may be overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, shame, frustration, anger, or fear. If these emotions are not dealt with properly, the relapse can become a full-blown reversal into regular drug use.
Instead, try to view a relapse as a signal that you could use additional treatment to support your recovery efforts. You may also discover that an underlying mental health issue is affecting your sobriety and can work toward treating it. Either way, don’t try to manage alone. Reach out and ask for the help you need.
With your therapist, sponsor, and support group, recommit to your sobriety, talk through your struggles, and if needed, seek a treatment program. Managing the aftermath of a relapse is difficult, but support is available to help you normalize your experience and encourage you to get and stay sober.
It helps to remind yourself that no matter how stressful things get, or how bad your life may seem, the benefits of abstaining from using drugs outweigh the short-term relief you might gain from using again. Recovery is a long-term process, and the cravings, risk of relapse, and uncertainty will fade with time. Relapse-prevention planning means finding new ways to deal with life and all that it brings.
For more information on drug addiction treatment, please call our confidential helpline at . Treatment placement specialists can help you understand your options.
- Ramo, D.E. & Brown, S.A. (2008). Classes of substance abuse relapse situations: A comparison of adolescents and adults. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors: Journal of the Society of Psychologists in Addictive Behaviors, 22(3), 372–379.
- Larimer, M.E., Palmer, R.S. & Marlatt, G.A. (1999). Relapse prevention: An overview of Marlatt’s Cognitive-Behavioral model. Alcohol Research & Health, 23(2), 151–160.
- Shafiel, E., Hoseini, A.F., Bibak, A. & Azmal, M. (2014). High risk situations predicting relapse in self-referred addicts to Bushehr province substance abuse treatment centers. International Journal of High Risk Behaviors & Addiction, 3(2).
- Sinha, R. (2011). New findings on biological factors predicting addiction relapse vulnerability. Current Psychiatry Reports, 12(5), 398–405.