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Recovery can be a hard and lonely road to walk. Sometimes it can be tempting to seek comfort in old habits, even if those habits are bad for you. Those in recovery from substance abuse sometimes do this, “falling off the wagon” and using their old substances again. This is known as an addiction relapse. 

It can be dispiriting to know that an addiction relapse may happen to you, as it has happened to so many others. If you experience even just one addiction relapse, you may lose hope and stop trying. But addiction relapses are a common part of recovery – as long as you pick yourself up and try again, you have nothing to be ashamed of. 

Rather than be discouraged, by understanding what an addiction relapse is and what causes it, you can learn how to prevent it. In this article, we’ll go over what you need to know and what to do about it. 

What is Addiction Relapse? 

Addiction relapse is when a person in recovery returns to using drugs or alcohol after a period of sobriety. A relapse is different from a mere lapse – it’s far more sustained, involving a full-blown return to abusing substances, rather than a mere “slip-up.” 

Many people in recovery are at risk of addiction relapse due to chemical and structural changes in the brain resulting from addiction

What Happens to People During Addiction Relapse? 

People who suffer addiction relapses usually do so through three different stages: 

Emotional Relapse 

Before physically relapsing, a person’s emotional (or spiritual, if you like) state has to be compromised, breaking their will to resist temptation. This is known as an emotional relapse.  

Feelings you might experience during this stage include frustration, anxiety, restlessness, or hopelessness. These feelings can help set the stage for a full addiction relapse. 

Avoiding social interaction, bad eating and sleeping habits, skipping meetings, and mood swings are a few indicators of emotional relapse. 

Mental Relapse 

During this stage, there is a fierce internal battle raging within you on whether or not to use drugs or alcohol again. One part of you may want to go back to your former ways, but the other part recognizes that this is wrong and knows you should stay on the path of recovery. 

Mental relapse is characterized by fantasies and ideas of utilizing drugs and alcohol. You can begin making plans for when and how you could find and use drugs or alcohol, as well as rationalizing your choice to relapse. You might also start to withdraw from your recovery program activities or support group. 

Physical Relapse 

By this stage, you have lost the will to resist and have begun abusing substances again. Some of the physical actions you may take at this point include driving to the bar or liquor store or calling your dealer. 

To avoid getting to this point, a solid addiction relapse prevention plan is required. Relapse prevention concentrates on raising awareness of the signs, risk factors, and earlier phases of relapse. 

What Causes an Addiction Relapse? 

An addiction relapse can be caused by any number of things – often it’s a combination of factors rather than one sole cause. 

Knowing the various causes and warning signs of an addiction relapse can help you address and stop it correctly before more damage is done. 

Addiction relapse warning signs include: 

  • Increased anxiety or stress 
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits 
  • Poor self-esteem 
  • Isolation from recovery networks or support systems 
  • Secretive behavior 
  • Financial issues 
  • Poor self-care 
  • Increased desire to use drugs or alcohol 
  • Unhealthy relationships 
  • Difficulty managing triggers 
  • Unexplained changes in mood or behavior 
  • Overconfidence in one’s ability to control alcohol or drug use 
  • Reverting to past behaviors or patterns 
  • Physical symptoms such as changes in heart rate, blood pressure, or weight 

Perhaps the most important red flag for relapse is that the person in recovery begins to doubt the effectiveness of the recovery process. 

Risk Factors for Addiction Relapse 

Knowing the risk factors for addiction relapse can help you or your loved one reduce the odds of experiencing one. 

Risk factors for addiction relapse include: 

  • Weak or nonexistent social support system 
  • High levels of stress or exposure to triggers like individuals or locations connected to past drug usage 
  • Co-occurring mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression 
  • Not attending regular therapy sessions or support groups 
  • Lack of structure in daily life; feelings of purposelessness 
  • Peer pressure or being influenced by those who use drugs or alcohol
  • Lack of access to resources for maintaining recovery or adequate treatment 
  • Not recognizing and resolving the root causes that led to drug usage in the first place 
  • Being in the early stages of recovery 
  • Inadequate control over desires and triggers 

A strong addiction relapse prevention plan, in combination with counseling and medication, can reduce or eliminate many of these risk factors.  

Addiction Relapse Prevention Plan 

An addiction relapse plan is essential for long-term, sustained recovery. This plan should include methods for controlling triggers, establishing a network of supporters, and developing healthy coping strategies. 

First, identify your triggers. A trigger is anything that causes you to think about abusing substances again. For example, one of the most common triggers is known as HALT – an acronym encompassing four emotions: hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness. 

If these feelings cause you to think about abusing substances again, preventing them should be a top priority. That could mean sticking to a rigorous schedule for eating and sleeping, making time to socialize, and utilizing strategies to prevent becoming angry. 

One such strategy is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is a coping strategy that involves becoming more aware of your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. You can simply acknowledge the situation that made you angry and choose not to react to it. 

According to a study in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, people who engaged in mindfulness-based therapy had a considerably reduced risk of addiction relapse compared to those who did not. 

Make sure to stick to a daily routine to give your life structure. That means making time for hobbies, exercise, school, or some other constructive use of your time. This can help prevent relapses. Alcohol and drug addiction treatment can help you establish and stick to a routine. 

Finally, practice patience; real, lasting change is hard and doesn’t happen overnight. 

South Coast Can Help 

We at South Coast Behavioral Health understand that addiction relapse is sometimes part of the recovery process.  

Throughout Southern California, we provide compassionate care that is supported by cutting-edge research. Our gorgeous California treatment centers offer a close-knit community, highly qualified specialists, science-backed therapies, and addiction relapse prevention plans tailored to your specific requirements. 

Our levels of care for addiction treatment include: 

  • Medical Detox
  • Inpatient Treatment
  • Partial Hospitalization Program
  • Intensive Outpatient Program
  • Outpatient Treatment
  • Aftercare
  • Sober Living

Make sure you choose the right rehab center so you can remain sober following treatment. Located in beautiful neighborhoods, our luxurious Southern California treatment centers also provide aftercare resources such as: 

  • Science-backed behavioral therapies 
  • Life skills education 
  • Nutrition and wellness 
  • Mindfulness, yoga, and meditation 
  • Recovery support groups 

We offer substance abuse treatment in California in the following locations: 

Addiction and mental health are often intertwined. If your recovery journey involves dual diagnosis, we can help. If you are in recovery and at risk of relapse, contact us today at 866-881-1184.  Our highly credentialed staff is available day and night, 24/7 to take your call and help you understand more about insurance verification and how to pay for rehab for alcohol or other drugs.  


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