What To Do When Addiction Relapses?

June 30, 2024
By Arch Recovery Center
Master what to do when addiction relapses, recognize signs, and triumph with effective prevention tools.

Understanding Relapse in Addiction Recovery

When discussing what to do when addiction relapses, it is crucial to first understand the nature of relapse in the context of addiction recovery. Relapse is a common part of the recovery process and understanding its stages and the significant role of treatment and support can make a considerable difference in managing it effectively.

Relapse as a Gradual Process

Contrary to popular belief, relapse is not an isolated event but a gradual process. It usually begins weeks or even months before an individual returns to using a substance of choice. This process involves distinct stages that, when recognized early, can be intervened upon for successful prevention. The goal of treatment is to help individuals recognize these early stages of relapse when the chances of success are greatest.

The Role of Treatment and Support

In the journey towards overcoming addiction, the role of treatment and support cannot be overstated. In fact, having a support system is crucial for ongoing success and fighting against relapse in addiction recovery, in conjunction with other treatments and therapy.

Support systems, whether they consist of family, friends, or organized groups, provide a sense of belonging and connection. They can help individuals combat feelings of loneliness and isolation, which are common during the recovery process. Moreover, support systems can offer practical assistance during the early stages of recovery, aiding individuals with tasks like transportation, grocery shopping, and errands. This can reduce stress and allow individuals to focus on their new lifestyle.

Additionally, a support system provides accountability and motivation during times of temptation and potential relapse. They help individuals avoid falling back into unhealthy patterns by surrounding them with positive influences. Further, support groups offer a unique opportunity to build connections with individuals who can relate to what someone is going through in addiction recovery. These groups offer a judgment-free environment where members can share experiences, learn from each other, and offer mutual support.

In essence, understanding the nature and gradual process of relapse, along with the critical role of treatment and support in addiction recovery, equips individuals with the knowledge and tools to successfully navigate and overcome potential relapses.

Recognizing the Early Signs of Relapse

Relapse, in the context of addiction recovery, is often a gradual process rather than an isolated event. It is characterized by distinct stages that manifest weeks or months before an individual reverts to substance use. Recognizing these early signs can pave the way for effective intervention and prevention of relapse. These stages include emotional relapse, mental relapse, and physical relapse.

Emotional Relapse

The first stage of relapse is emotional relapse, during which an individual may not be thinking about using the substance. However, emotions and behaviors can set the stage for potential relapse in the future. Negative mood states, high-risk situations, poor coping skills, and low self-efficacy may contribute to this stage of relapse.

During this stage, it's important to monitor signs such as anxiety, mood swings, poor eating habits, disturbed sleep patterns, and social isolation. Recognizing these symptoms early can help individuals seek timely help, reducing the chances of transitioning to the next stage of relapse.

Mental Relapse

In the mental relapse stage, the internal struggle with addiction intensifies. The individual may start thinking about using the substance again and may dismiss the consequences of their previous addiction. They may also start glamorizing their past use, spend time with old friends who are still using, or start planning a relapse.

Warning signs of mental relapse include cravings for substances, thinking about people and places associated with past use, minimizing the consequences of past use, and bargaining. At this stage, it's crucial to seek professional help to prevent the transition to physical relapse.

Physical Relapse

Physical relapse is the final stage, where the individual returns to substance use. This can be a dangerous stage, especially in addiction to substances like opioids. For instance, a person's risk of overdose with opioids is 25 times greater in the first few weeks following treatment [3].

Once the physical relapse occurs, it's vital to act promptly. Immediate intervention can prevent a one-time slip from turning into a full-blown relapse. It's crucial to remember that relapse doesn't mean failure; instead, it's an indication that the treatment needs to be adjusted or intensified.

In conclusion, understanding the stages of relapse and recognizing the early signs are essential steps in preventing relapse. By staying vigilant and seeking timely help, individuals on the recovery journey can navigate the challenges of relapse and continue on their path towards long-term sobriety.

Tools for Relapse Prevention

When addressing the question of 'what to do when addiction relapses?', it's important to discuss the various tools available for relapse prevention. These include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), medication-assisted treatment, and peer support programs. Each tool offers distinct benefits and can be utilized based on individual needs and circumstances.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely used tool in addiction recovery. It helps individuals overcome challenges that perpetuate harmful drug or alcohol use and equips them with the skills needed for recovery. CBT correlates with effect sizes of up to d=0.5, indicating its effectiveness in preventing relapses.

Through CBT, individuals learn to identify and change problematic behaviors. They learn to manage cravings, avoid situations that could lead to drug use, and cope with a range of problems that might influence drug use. By enhancing self-control and problem-solving abilities, CBT helps individuals maintain abstinence and effectively manage situations that might lead to a relapse.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment is another crucial tool in relapse prevention. Certain medications, such as disulfiram, naltrexone, and acamprosate, are used to prevent relapses in alcohol use disorders. These medications have shown effectiveness in reducing the risk of relapse, with specific outcomes such as increased time to relapse and reduced number of drinking days [5].

Each medication works differently. For instance, disulfiram creates an adverse reaction when alcohol is consumed, acting as a deterrent. Naltrexone blocks the euphoric effects of alcohol, reducing the desire to drink, while acamprosate helps normalize brain activity post-alcohol withdrawal, reducing symptoms like insomnia and anxiety that could lead to a relapse.

Peer Support Programs

Peer support programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous, and SMART Recovery, play a role in relapse prevention by providing guidance, frequent meetings, and mentorship. While evidence for the efficacy of peer support groups is limited, they remain an important aspect of relapse prevention interventions [5].

These programs foster a sense of community and mutual support, allowing individuals to learn from others' experiences, gain practical advice, and receive emotional support. Regular meetings provide a structure that can help individuals maintain abstinence and navigate the challenges of recovery.

Together, CBT, medication-assisted treatment, and peer support programs provide a comprehensive approach to relapse prevention. By combining these tools, individuals can enhance their resilience and capacity to handle triggers, ultimately leading to a successful and sustained recovery.

Strategies for Relapse Prevention

Overcoming addiction and preventing relapse involves a comprehensive approach, incorporating therapy and skill development, medication, and progress monitoring. Here are some effective strategies for preventing relapse in individuals recovering from addiction.

Therapy and Skill Development

A crucial part of relapse prevention is therapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is widely used in addiction recovery to help individuals overcome challenges that perpetuate harmful drug/alcohol use. It equips them with the skills needed for recovery and is known to correlate with effect sizes of up to d=0.5.

Cognitive therapy is also effective in relapse prevention by changing negative thinking and developing healthy coping skills. This form of therapy focuses on identifying and changing thought patterns that lead to destructive behaviors.

Medications for Relapse Prevention

Medications can also play a key role in preventing relapse. For instance, disulfiram, naltrexone, and acamprosate are used to prevent relapses in alcohol use disorders. These medications have shown effectiveness in reducing the risk of relapse, with specific outcomes such as increased time to relapse and reduced number of drinking days.

However, it's important to note that medication should always be used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that includes therapy and support.

Monitoring Progress

Monitoring progress is another essential strategy in relapse prevention. This involves regular check-ins with a healthcare provider or support group, self-monitoring of cravings and triggers, and keeping track of personal growth and development.

By keeping a close eye on their progress, individuals can identify potential relapse triggers and take proactive steps to manage them. This strategy also helps individuals recognize their achievements, boosting their confidence and motivation to stay sober.

These three strategies - therapy and skill development, medication, and monitoring progress - are crucial in helping individuals recover from addiction and prevent relapses [5]. When implemented correctly and consistently, they can significantly increase the chances of long-term recovery. Remember, overcoming addiction is a journey, and each step towards recovery, no matter how small, is a victory.

Factors Contributing to Relapse

Understanding the factors that contribute to relapse is crucial in developing an effective plan for overcoming addiction. Several factors can trigger a relapse, including high-risk situations, lack of coping skills and self-efficacy, and interpersonal influences.

High-Risk Situations

High-risk situations can significantly contribute to relapse. These are scenarios or environments that increase one's vulnerability to drug or alcohol use. Such situations can be unique to each individual and often correlate with their past experiences and patterns of substance use. It is crucial for a person in recovery to identify and avoid these high-risk situations whenever possible to prevent a potential relapse [3].

Coping Skills and Self-Efficacy

The ability to cope with stress and other negative emotions plays a crucial role in preventing relapse. Effective coping skills can help individuals manage challenging situations without resorting to substance use. Cognitive therapy and mind-body relaxation techniques are often used to develop these coping skills.

Self-efficacy, or one's belief in their ability to accomplish a task or overcome a challenge, is another vital component of relapse prevention. High self-efficacy can enhance a person's confidence in their ability to maintain sobriety, even in the face of adversity.

Interpersonal Influences

Interpersonal factors, such as the quality of one's social support network, can also contribute to relapse. A strong support system can provide a sense of belonging and connection, helping individuals combat feelings of loneliness and isolation that can often lead to relapse.

Furthermore, support systems can offer practical assistance during the early stages of recovery. This help can include tasks like transportation, grocery shopping, and errands, which can reduce stress and allow individuals to focus on their new lifestyle [2].

Recognizing these factors can help individuals in recovery develop strategies to counteract them, thereby enhancing their ability to prevent relapse and maintain their recovery journey.

Supporting Recovery After Relapse

Knowing what to do when addiction relapses is crucial for both the individual who has relapsed and the people providing support. The journey of recovery doesn't end with a relapse, and there are ways to support a person's recovery journey after a setback.

Matching Support to Stage of Change

The stages of change in recovery include precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, and action. Each stage represents a different mindset and level of readiness to change, and it's crucial to match the support provided to the individual's stage of change.

For example, someone in the precontemplation stage may not recognize their substance use as a problem, while someone in the action stage is actively taking steps to change their behaviors. The type of support that will be most helpful can vary greatly depending on the person's current stage of change.

Avoiding Enabling Behaviors

It's critical to avoid certain behaviors that can unintentionally enable the person's substance use or harm their recovery. Enabling behaviors, hostility, aggression, blaming, shaming, and using drugs or alcohol in the presence of someone recovering from addiction should be avoided when supporting them after a relapse [3].

Instead, it's beneficial to offer non-judgmental support, encourage the person's recovery efforts, and maintain a supportive environment that's conducive to their recovery.

Accessing Support Services

There are various support services available for individuals experiencing a relapse and their loved ones. These services can provide crucial help in the form of counselling, medication, peer support, and more.

For instance, if you or someone you know needs help with substance use, including overdose prevention and tobacco cessation, Canada-wide services are available through various contact methods such as phone, text, chat, and email. These services are accessible to anyone, anywhere in Canada [6].

Reaching out to these services can provide the necessary tools and resources to navigate the often complex process of recovery after a relapse. It's important to remember that relapse does not mean failure – with the right support, recovery is always possible.


[1]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/

[2]: https://sperohealth.com/importance-of-a-support-system-in-addiction-recovery-benefits-and-strategies/

[3]: https://www.goodrx.com/conditions/substance-use-disorder/how-help-someone-who-relapsed

[4]: https://www.ashleytreatment.org/rehab-blog/early-relapse-warning-signs/

[5]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK551500/

[6]: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/substance-use/get-help-with-substance-use.html

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