Stages of Relapse

Identifying Warnings Signs and The Stages of Relapse

When it comes to addiction recovery, no matter how committed to sobriety a person is, there is always, always the risk that they may return to using or drinking—especially during the first year of recovery.  Contrary to what many might assume, however, relapse is not an impulsive act.  In fact, the process that leads to an eventual relapse is just that, a process involving a breaking down of the barriers to addiction that the individual had so carefully erected in treatment. 

Someone new in recovery uses a great deal of energy to remain sober.  They may attend several 12-step or other types of non 12 step support meetings per week, get a sponsor, work the steps, and actively confront the demon of addiction on an hourly basis.  Depending on the severity of the addiction, efforts to override the temptation to use can be exhausting.  But, alas, addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease.  In fact, the statistics are indeed discouraging, with 40-60% of individuals relapsing in the first year of recovery, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

There is no shortage of triggers that tempt someone in recovery to fall down each and every day.  Stressors that seem to be abundant in recovery are usually consequences of the disease—such as relationship issues, financial problems, job loss, or custody issues—can become overwhelming without the crutch of the substance to ease the discomforts of dealing with them.

What are The Warning Signs of Relapse

Even with an ironclad relapse prevention plan in hand upon discharge from rehab, the brain is a very powerful tool that plays both sides of the fiddle.  The newly sober individual may have every intention of following discharge instructions to the “t,” adhering to the relapse prevention plan, and attending 12-step or support meetings.  But the brain is wily and may shift behavior back to the well-etched neuropathways that resulted from long-term addiction, the ones that dictated ongoing addictive behaviors.  Understanding the three stages of relapse helps loved ones, as well as the addict in recovery, to recognize potential trouble ahead and take the offensive.

Here are relapse warning signs that the individual in recovery or their supports can spot:

  • Isolating behaviors
  • Experiencing depression and/or anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Neglecting self-care
  • Not going to meetings, or lying to supports
  • Anger
  • Not up to performing daily tasks
  • Blaming others for misfortune
  • Cheating, stealing, other illegal behaviors
  • Romanticizing past substance abuse
  • Hanging out with those who are in active addiction
  • Justifying the use of substance, bargaining

When a loved one in recovery begins exhibiting these behaviors it is time to intervene, sooner rather than later.

The Three Stages of Relapse

Most relapse scenarios follow three steps or stages before the substance use happens.  It is a chain reaction, where one stage leads to the next, culminating in relapse if the process is not halted.  The three stages of relapse include:

Emotional.  Emotions, such as feeling depressed, can act as powerful triggers that may initiate the relapse process.  At this stage, the disease begins to chat you up in response to feelings of loneliness, loss of a loved one, stress and anxiety, or disappointment.  Being vigilant about conducting an honest self-review of current mood and emotions can help the individual identify the threats to sobriety, and take proactive steps, such as calling the sponsor, practicing mindfulness, journaling, attending a meeting, or seeing the therapist.

Mental.  When emotions are not dealt with, the mental phase of relapse will ensue.  This stage includes intensified fantasizing about using that take hold, intensified drug or alcohol cravings, and beginning to initiate a plan to obtain and use the substance.  It is still possible at this stage to stop the relapse in its tracks, as long as proactive measures are taken.  These include sharing with a support group and/or sponsor, and interrupting the mental process by distraction, like going for a run, going to the gym, taking a walk. 

Physical.  The final stage is when deliberate physical steps were taken to obtain the substance and use again.  This stage involves deep feelings of shame and guilt, as well as embarrassment in having to be a “newcomer” again at the next support meeting.  But relapse is so prevalent that people are more than willing to help the person right the ship.  Making the effort to redouble efforts to reinforce relapse prevention methods and recommit to working the program can swiftly stop the relapse event.

How To Prevent Relapse

Avoiding people, places, and situations that could provide temptation to drink is crucial in the early months of recovery.  Sometimes that means drastic measures, like avoiding holiday parties, sporting events, or wedding receptions where alcohol is flowing freely.  A live concert, where the scent of marijuana fills the stadium, is another situation to avoid.  Removing all liquor and medications from the home, including over-the-counter medications that contain alcohol is necessary.  Practicing the H.A.L.T. protocol, by checking in to see if you are hungry, angry lonely, or tired.

The most effective way to stave off relapse is by creating a solid relapse prevention plan.  Most individuals learn how to make a relapse prevention plan while in treatment.  The active process of writing the plan down on paper can help solidify the commitment, something tangible to follow, rather than just stating the relapse prevention steps audibly.  While each individual’s relapse prevention strategy will be unique, there are some general steps that are universal, such as:

  • Make life changes. Modifying your circle of friends, creating healthy habits by getting exercise, eating nutritiously, and getting quality sleep can all work together to make you stronger mentally and physically.
  • Ask for help. Addiction recovery is difficult, and is nearly impossible without enlisting a support system.  Keeping communication open with family members, therapists, sponsors, and close friends provides needed social support.
  • Learn to be honest. Addiction and deception go hand in hand.  Being honest with yourself and others who care about you keeps you accountable.
  • Learn relaxation techniques. Stress is one of the biggest triggers for relapse.  Learn to practice mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or deep breathing to manage stress.
  • Keep your own rules. When leaving treatment you no doubt were armed with a plan to stay clean and sober.  Stick to your own rules!  Do not allow the lying addiction to distract you from your mission.

Solutions 4 Recovery Can Help You Avoid the 3 Stages of Relapse

Solutions 4 Recovery is an addiction and dual diagnosis treatment program situated in the coastal community of San Juan Capistrano, California.  The expert clinical staff can help clients avert potential relapse by providing relapse prevention planning and ongoing therapy post-treatment.  This comprehensive and tailored approach to addiction recovery provides a program that is customized to be relevant to each individual client.  Do not attempt to go it alone—contact Solutions 4 Recovery today at (888) 417-1874.