It is often said that relapse is a part of recovery. This can be comforting to those who feel discouraged if they fall off course when trying to remain abstinent. The truth of the matter is that when you have a substance use disorder, you have relied on that substance for so long to handle life, and it is habit to revert to that comfort in moments of indecision. A relapse doesn’t have to be the end of your recovery journey, and it is possible to get back on track with the right mindset and determination.
Whether you have 10 years or 10 days, anyone who has dealt with addiction knows a relapse can happen. Our best defense against a relapse is to maintain a strong recovery regimen, and if one does happen, we can quickly realign using the tools we’ve learned so we don’t lose the momentum we’ve already established.
Risk Factors for Relapse
Recovery is about trying to begin anew, and to leave behind the things that have caused us harm. The disease tells us our substance of choice brought us good things, like comfort, happiness, calm… but everything it delivers is false and not based in reality. When we are living life on life’s terms and with a clear head, things can be difficult to deal with. It is a learning curve after having buried emotions and responsibilities for so long. There are many theories as to why someone could relapse, some of which we explore more in detail in “The Psychology of a Relapse.”
In the long run, the reasons you got sober in the first place will far outweigh any of those lingering feelings, but in the moment, this may not seem the case.
A few of the most common factors for a relapse include:
- Long-term drug use: Many drugs can cause post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS), where cravings and both physical and emotional symptoms can continue to surface after initial treatment and early sobriety. Sometimes, after the phenomenon known as The Pink Cloud diminishes and life get a bit harder, escaping through your substance of choice might seem preferential and can lead to a relapse. It also will take longer for a person who used for a very long time to be accustomed to a new lifestyle and adopt new healthy coping mechanisms. Drugs and alcohol also alter your brain’s pathways and have lasting effects on mood, cravings, and behavior.
- Environment: Your environment is certainly important when it comes to your recovery, and this is particularly true for those in early sobriety. Therefore, residential and post-residential treatment (such as sober living) is widely utilized. If you live in a turbulent environment where fights among family or friends is commonplace, drug abuse or criminal activity occurs, or other instabilities are present, you’ll have a higher risk of relapse. The support and cooperation with those you live with decrease your risk of relapse significantly. On the other hand, it is not recommended to live independently in early sobriety until you have a good grasp on your recovery routine and established support network. You can also learn more about stepping away from people in your life who do not support your new lifestyle choices in “Separating from Toxic Friends.” You also want to avoid places or people who enabled your addiction, such as dealers, people who know are still using, and the neighborhoods you used to frequent.
- Co-occurring Disorders: The presence of mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression, can also contribute to likelihood of a relapse. If they are left untreated, the person may not be equipped to handle the symptoms, likely having used their substance of choice in the past to do so. Personality traits such as neuroticism or low levels of conscientiousness are also noted in cases of relapse. Learn more about co-occurring disorders in “Mental Health and Addiction.”
What Happens After a Relapse?
Whatever your reason (or lack thereof) for using, if you find yourself having used, then it’s best to know what to do next. After picking up when you have made it a point to do anything but, it is likely you’ll feel a bunch of negative emotions toward yourself.
Some of these feelings might include:
- Shame: Often feelings of weakness, guilt, worthlessness can accompany a relapse, making us feel we are not deserving of recovery because we cannot stay sober. It may also be embarrassing to those who have been rooting for you and you may worry will be let down because of your setback.
- Anger: Feeling mad at yourself for giving into a craving or one of the components of your addiction that drove you to pick up again. It might also become anger at not being able to use normally as you once did,
- Fear: This can pertain to many things. Feelings of failure can result in fear, especially if you have a lot to lose in case of a relapse (for example, if custody of your children is contingent on your abstinence from drugs and alcohol).
In recovery, you re-learn how to process and deal with emotions, as addiction allowed them to take the backseat for so long. Relapsing makes us believe we failed ourselves and gave into our addiction, but it is not a moral failing in the same way addiction isn’t. Recognizing the lapse in judgment and resolving to do your best going forward is how you can honor your recovery and yourself.
To break the patterns of negative self-talk that may emerge following a relapse, it is important to incorporate mindfulness and affirmations into your routine if you don’t already do so. To continue thinking poorly of yourself will just allow your self-doubt to grow and might lead to another relapse. Try to practice some self-care so you can feel stronger moving past this.
Steps to Take Going Forward
After a relapse, the feelings we mentioned above may discourage you from reaching out for support. You might want to isolate and feel that you aren’t deserving of guidance from those you feel accountable to. All of these are pretty natural—relapsing is traumatic—but it is important to fight through these inclinations and make some phone calls. Connection is of paramount importance in the recovery process.
- Reach out for support: If you have a sponsor or trusted friend from your support group, reach out to them. It will be hard to share that you relapsed, but it is very important to keep accountable. They can brainstorm ideas with you on how to move forward, discuss reasons why you picked up, and help you process the emotions you’re feeling. If they’ve been sober for a fair amount of time themselves, they’re likely to have gone through the same thing. Ramp up your meetings and do some 12-Step writing if you are at that point in the process.
- Don’t self-sabotage: A relapse doesn’t diminish the work you have done. The worst thing to do is to allow the relapse to rule you and make you believe all your hard work has been for nothing, and to beat yourself up so badly you feel you don’t deserve recovery and a better life. We are all human and are not invincible, especially when we are up against the monster that is addiction.
- Consider Treatment: Relapse can be a one-time slip, but it might not be. There is a chance your grip on sobriety is not as bulletproof as it could be, and perhaps treatment would be the next right step. If you attended a program previously, there maybe be something you left unexplored that needs to be identified. It also allows you to step back from stresses in your life to help you reassess what needs working on going forward.
- Forgiveness: As the saying goes, you are not defined by your relapses, but your decision to remain in recovery despite them. Accept that this was misstep and acknowledge that you have things to work on to prevent this from happening again. You will overcome this, but it’s important you forgive yourself first.
Making positive changes emotionally, mentally, environmentally and physically can all help you get past this bump in the road. Just know that you have people who are still rooting for you, and they are there to help you through the tough times—relapses being no exception.
After you have dealt with the initial emotional hurdles that often follows a relapse, you can arm yourself as you move forward, stronger and wiser than before. Use the knowledge you’ve gleaned from this setback and work to assess what went wrong with your sponsor or trusted support. This can help you avoid the dangerous behaviors and/or situations, and to have better coping strategies in place to handle whatever threw you off course.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: This form of therapy helps addicts recognize their faulty and self-limiting beliefs, identify the errors within, and replace them with more truthful, positive ideas about themselves and their ability to recover. CBT can also be successful in treating common mental disorders, such as depression or anxiety, which can lead to relapses if untreated.
- 12-Step programs: Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous can play a key role in preventing relapse. They place great importance on accountability, honesty, and intention, all of which will help lay the groundwork for sobriety. Working through your relapse with 12-Step methods can help you see more about your behavior and current recovery plan that needs adjusting so another won’t occur.
- Mindfulness and meditation: Development of mindfulness can increase awareness of potentially triggering situations and cues, and decrease cognitive and behavioral reactivity to difficult feelings that may have led to your relapse. Various exercises such as breathwork, practicing gentle yoga, sitting in silence, and meditation are ways to help you feel more clear-headed and mentally balanced.
- AA/NA and other support groups: If you already attend meetings, ramp up your attendance and go to a few more. You don’t know when you’ll hear the right message or meet the right person. If you already have a strong support group in place, lean on them for advice at this time. The gift of recovery is helping another addict, and they will be happy to be there for you at your time of need.
Due to the nature of this fatal disease, we also don’t recommend viewing a relapse as a “free pass.” While we are all susceptible to stumbles and taking time to adjust, we cannot allow them to continually occur. Our wellness and chance at a better life in recovery is one we must work toward every day. If you are a ‘chronic relapser’, consider making some changes to your recovery plan. This could be more accountability with your sponsor or support group, or it might be committing to more meetings. There are many ways you can tailor your routine to help you stay the course with more resolve.
Learn more about relapse prevention and strategies here.
Granite Recovery Centers
Granite Recovery Centers has drug rehab centers all throughout NH and incorporate relapse prevention techniques into our unique substance abuse and recovery programs. Our programs combine a foundation of 12-step work with proven clinical treatments that address both the individual’s addiction and any co-occurring or contributing issues.
Our caring and professional team of specialists can help you or your loved one learn what to do to avoid relapse, how to find post-recovery care to minimize risk, and what to do should relapse occur. With therapy, life skills training, a supportive community, and a beautiful and healthy environment, our drug and alcohol abuse programs will help you beat addiction and achieve a better life of sustained recovery.
If you or a loved one is considering getting help for your addiction, please give our admission specialists a call at 855.712.7784. We are available 24/7 and would be happy to answer any questions you may have.