Recovery from a substance use disorder or addiction is rarely an easy path. Some days will be a breeze, while others can be downright scary and overwhelming. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that relapses happen to almost everyone. In fact, some research estimates that up to 80 percent of people seeking long-term sobriety have at least one relapse.
A relapse is not a moral failing or a sign that you’ll never be able to get sober. Though staying free, clean, and sober long-term is the main goal, your immediate focus should be developing healthy coping mechanisms and habits. These mechanisms and habits will be different for each person, so it’s important to figure out what works for you. After all, everyone has different reasons for getting sober. Plus, some people must also manage mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or even another underlying medical condition.
In this article, we’ll dive into some tips that can round out your recovery toolkit and help you stay sober.
Find Your Personal Triggers
When you have a substance use disorder, your brain has created countless links between your addiction and seemingly unrelated actions that you usually perform. One of the most common examples of this dynamic is when a former smoker reaches for a cigarette while drinking a beer, even though they stopped smoking years ago. These associations and links are some of the hardest to break. Even certain emotional states can trigger a relapse, especially if you used a substance to help cope with something else in your life.
Identifying the personal triggers that have caused you to use or relapse in the past will help you create a plan to avoid them in the future. Even if you can’t avoid the triggers entirely, just being aware they exist can allow you to find alternative ways to cope. Some of the most common triggers include:
- Emotional distress and fear
- Environmental cues and habits
- People using drugs or drinking around you
- Relationship difficulties
- Job, school, and financial troubles
Remember, this is far from a complete list of triggers, so you may have to dive a bit deeper to recognize yours.
Physical Effects of a Relapse
Most people are aware of the mental and emotional toll that a relapse can have— feelings of shame, guilt, or anger are common. However, many individuals are less prepared for the physical toll that relapse can have on the body. If you stop taking a substance and then take the same amount that you used to, your body probably won’t be able to handle it. This results in an overdose, which—depending on the substance—can cause a range of major issues.
Opioid overdoses often involve a loss of consciousness, breathing difficulties, choking, or an inability to respond to stimuli. Excess alcohol consumption can cause confusion, loss of consciousness, seizures, vomiting, and drops in body temperature. Other drugs may trigger hyperventilation, high blood pressure, panic attacks, hallucinations, and aggressive behavior. Any overdose is potentially fatal, making any relapse extremely dangerous. Keeping this in mind can be a powerful motivator for avoiding relapse.
Recognize the Warning Signs of a Relapse
Experts often describe relapse as a process that begins long before an addict returns to using a substance. This process includes the various triggers and stimuli that drive a person to find comfort in an old addiction, as well as the dozens of warning signs that indicate a relapse is coming. Like the triggers, making an inventory of warning signs that you experience may allow you to avoid an oncoming relapse.
Early on, you may worry about your wellbeing or about being able to remain sober. Over time, you may begin to deny these feelings. In fact, this process may occur at the subconscious level, and you may completely forget about the moments you felt doubt about your sobriety.
Some individuals start to exhibit compulsive behaviors, performing the same actions over and over, seemingly without reason. Impulsive behaviors may also develop, especially in moments of high stress.
In many cases, as an addict nears a potential relapse, they begin to isolate themselves from their friends, family, and other close relationships. Often, they have “good” or “valid” excuses for self-isolating, but the behavior worsens as they become more lonely.
Emotional changes are also major warning signs for relapse. You may find your friends more irritating than usual or you may be quick to anger. Overreacting to minor issues is the textbook example of these emotional shifts.
Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues also tend to worsen just before a relapse. This may also manifest as insomnia, loss of desire, changes in eating habits, or a loss of daily structure.
Eventually, a person often recognizes that they are losing control of their sobriety, which only drives them toward substance use.
As with the triggers, these are merely a few of the potential warning signs that you are heading towards a relapse, so make sure to do some self-reflection and uncover what yours might be.
What to Do When You’re Trying to Stay Sober
Here are a few quick tips to help you stay on the road toward long-term sobriety.
- Focus on each day. Don’t try and take on years and years of future sobriety; just take it one day at a time.
- Ask for help. Staying clean is hard and you’ll probably need some help. Don’t be afraid to reach out.
- Build a support system. Having healthy relationships is the best way to limit your chances of a relapse. Spend time with other people in recovery, stay in contact with a mental health professional, and keep your loved ones close.
- Find your motivation. Find a concrete reason for staying sober. Is it your kids? A new life you’ve made for yourself while getting clean? How good you feel physically? Whatever it is, keep that in mind each day.
- Be easy on yourself. Punishing yourself for past mistakes or transgressions doesn’t help anyone, especially you. Take pride in your wellbeing and find things that make you happy that aren’t related to your previous addiction. If you do relapse, just reset and focus on the next day.
Where to Turn for Help
Many people start recovery on their own. Some try to prove that they have control over their addiction and don’t need any help. It is not a weakness or a personal failure to ask for help with something as difficult as recovery. Friends, family, and loved ones can all be powerful supporting figures, and recovery programs like 12-step programs or counseling are also extremely effective.
If you’re not sure where to turn or if you just need someone to talk to about your sobriety, go ahead and contact FHE Health today. Our experts have decades of experience helping people with all kinds of substance issues and can help you identify your personal triggers and warning signs.
Remember, you can get sober and you can stay clean, even if you happen to fall off the path.