Maintaining sobriety is the key to long-term recovery from addiction. But it’s not always easy. In fact, relapse statistics suggest that it can be quite hard. Studies indicate relapse rates for meth addiction are more than 90 percent. Relapse rates for alcohol and opioids are around 86 percent. Overall, addiction relapse rates hover around 60 percent. The truth is, even after treatment, relapse is a serious threat to lasting recovery. Why?
It’s important to remember that substance use disorders are relapsing conditions. Relapse is part of the nature of the disease. Other health conditions, too, are unfortunately associated with relapses, but when it comes to addiction, relapse doesn’t have to be a foregone conclusion. While many individuals do relapse at least once, not everyone does. Moreover, a single relapse doesn’t indicate treatment failure. It simply means the individual needs further treatment and support to get their recovery back on track.
Also, it’s crucial for recovering individuals to understand how relapse actually works. Very seldom does a person with months of recovery under their belt simply decide one day to start drinking again or abusing drugs. Relapse is a process. When a person can identify the parts of this process, particularly early on, they’ll be in a better position to control their feelings, thoughts, and actions. Here, we’ll explore the stages of relapse and what to do if relapse should occur.
The Three Stages of Relapse
Although there are different models that have been designed to explain addiction relapse, most treatment centers today point to the three-stage model. According to this model, the three stages of relapse are the emotional phase, mental phase, and the physical phase. Although the physical phase can occur quickly, the process, overall, is usually much slower than people may be aware of. Here are the three phases in detail:
Emotional Phase of Relapse
During the emotional phase, people may not be aware that they’re progressing toward relapse. This phase is characterized by problematic feelings and various actions related to them. Some common signs of emotional relapse include:
- Failing to manage negative emotions effectively
- Feeling defensive
- Keeping emotions bottled up inside
- Experiencing mood swings
- Spending increasingly more time isolated and away from family and friends
- Eating poorly
- Experiencing sleep problems
- Not asking for support or attending aftercare programming for support
- Attending aftercare meetings but not participating
- Not caring for your physical or emotional needs
Unfortunately, if the individual doesn’t get their recovery back on track at this point, their relapse can progress to the mental stage of relapse. However, individuals must be able to identify when they’re in this phase. It can be too easy to justify not going to recovery meetings because you’re having a stressful week at work. It’s easy to deny that you’re not managing your emotions well because they may seem quite justifiable– even reasonable to you.
However, when these issues continue and do not dissipate, the individual isn’t managing their addiction well, and that can lead to a worsening of symptoms and the progression of the relapse process.
Mental Relapse Stage
When relapse isn’t managed in the emotional stage, the mental phase can occur. The mental phase is quite pivotal because recovery is at heightened jeopardy at this point. During the mental phase, individuals begin to think about using drugs or alcohol again. They might fantasize about it. They’re often struggling between what they know is right and what they are increasingly wanting to do. The mental phase is associated with signs such as:
- Experiencing psychological urges to use drugs or alcohol again
- Reconnecting with friends who use alcohol or drugs
- Thinking about visiting places where drugs and alcohol are likely to be found
- Not going to recovery meetings or therapy
- Thinking about using for a special occasion such as a birthday or holiday
- Minimizing the past and the problems caused by drug or alcohol abuse
- Feeling nostalgic about using drugs and alcohol; missing “the old life”
These signs reveal a progression to actually drinking or using drugs again. As the cravings and desire to use again grow, it becomes increasingly difficult for the individual to maintain abstinence. At this point, one stressful event could be enough to cause them to progress to the final stage of relapse.
The physical stage of relapse, of course, is when the individual uses drugs or alcohol again. Once the individual starts, they can turn back— and some do. However, for many, the pattern of substance abuse will continue. A use here or there turns into more frequent uses until the individual is, once again, caught up in a cycle of abuse.
Importance of Understanding the Relapse Process
One of the reasons abstinence can be hard is because an individual has to avoid drug or alcohol use all of the time. When it comes to keeping your addiction recovery on track, there can be no half measures. It’s not like cheating on a diet because it’s the weekend or you can just tack on some extra fitness. For individuals with substance use disorders, there is no safe amount of an addictive substance to use.
While it may seem challenging to abstain from using drugs or alcohol forevermore, people do it. The disease is manageable. The best way to stop relapse from occurring is to manage it when it’s in its earliest stage– the emotional stage. When you understand the stages better, you’ll be able to identify those signs and symptoms of relapse earlier. When you catch yourself in the emotional phase, some things you can do include:
- Revisit the coping strategies you learned in rehab; be mindful about using them as often as possible.
- Attend support groups–and participate even if you don’t feel like it.
- Reach out for help from a therapist; schedule a counseling session.
- Don’t isolate. Stay connected with friends and family.
- Address your feelings in a calm place; don’t run from them but go for a walk or take time to explore them in a safe setting.
- Reduce stress. If you’re getting caught up in the drama of others, pull back for a time while you stabilize your emotions.
- Participate in sober-friendly activities. Take time to have fun and de-stress.
It’s much easier to control relapse when it’s in this first phase. Recognize the warning signs early and don’t ignore them; address them using the techniques you learned in your addiction treatment program.
What to Do If You Experience Relapse
Remember that if you experience relapse, you’re not alone. Relapse happens, but that doesn’t mean you have to let it continue to happen. You’ve stopped using before and you can stop again. If you suffer an addiction relapse, it’s often best to enroll in further treatment. The sooner, the better. Working with a therapist, you can identify where your recovery went off track and why. It’s important to understand where the pitfall occurred so you can avoid it in the future.
It’s a mistake to think that relapse is a failure. Recovery is never a failure, and sometimes recovery includes some unpleasant bumps in the road. Relapse is disappointing, but not failure. It’s an indication that you need more support to manage your addiction effectively.
If you are experiencing the early stages of relapse or have begun to use alcohol or drugs again, FHE Health can help. With additional support and renewed commitment to your recovery journey and healthy coping methods, you can regroup and strengthen your ability to stay sober over the long haul. Contact us to schedule an appointment or to learn more about our inpatient and outpatient addiction recovery programs.