An alcohol or drug relapse is the recurrence of any disease that has gone into remission or recovery. As a chronic disease, addiction is subject to periods of relapse. During the recovery process, you may become exposed to certain triggers and other risk factors that increase your risk of returning to substance abuse.
While relapses are common, they are not inevitable. Following steps of drug relapse prevention and taking action early on can minimize the intensity of a relapse period and can reduce your risk for further hardship from substance abuse.
Definition and Meaning Of a Drug Relapse
What is a drug relapse? The definition of a drug relapse is a downward spiral into compulsive behavior and addiction. This means a drug relapse does not occur suddenly. There are warning signs and other identifiable factors that typically appear early on. Learning how to identify these symptoms can help you prevent a relapse.
You may have heard of a relapse, but what does relapse mean? When someone relapses, it means the person has returned to using drugs or alcohol after not using them for some time. Addiction relapse can happen during a person’s recovery from substance abuse. While it is quite common for people to relapse during recovery, it is not something that is openly discussed as part of the recovery journey.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that relapse is so common during recovery that it occurs in 40% to 60% of people who are trying to end their substance use. This includes people who have received professional help at an addiction treatment facility. This relapse rate is said to be on par with other chronic illnesses, such as asthma, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
What Makes Someone Relapse?
People relapse for various reasons, and each reason is personal to each individual who experiences this gradual return to substance use. However, no matter why people relapse, they often are not aware that it is happening. By the time a person realizes they are in the breakdown stage, they are back to using the substance of choice. While the definition of a drug relapse makes it seem that a person has consciously made the decision to go back to using, it is usually not that simple.
Drug relapse is a downward spiral into compulsive behavior and addiction. This means a drug relapse does not occur suddenly. There are warning signs and other identifiable factors that typically appear early on. Learning how to identify these symptoms can help you prevent a relapse.
The process of relapse is gradual and can occur in three stages:
- Emotional Relapse
- Mental Relapse
- Physical Relapse
It is not uncommon for the return to substance abuse to develop weeks or even several months after the initial signs of emotional relapse. This means there is generally plenty of time prior to the return to substance abuse for warning signs to be identified and for relapse to be addressed.
Emotional relapse. During the emotional relapse phase, a person usually isn’t thinking about using drugs or alcohol again. They are more focused on not having another relapse. Denial is often present at this stage. The meaning of relapse at this stage signals that a person may fall into isolating themselves from others and avoiding talking about their feelings or struggles. They may not want to attend recovery meetings, fall back into poor eating and sleeping patterns, and continue on with their routine, knowing that they are not emotionally feeling their best.
Mental relapse. During the mental phase of relapse, a person is torn between going back to using substances or leaving them alone. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine advises that “As individuals go deeper into mental relapse, their cognitive resistance to relapse diminishes, and their need to escape increases.” This means that a person needs to get out of the mental relapse stage as soon as possible.
The longer they go back and forth over whether to use drugs or alcohol, the greater their chance of having a physical relapse. Having a plan in place to manage this stage is essential as it could mean the difference between stopping the relapse in the mental stage or allowing it to progress to the mental stage. Such a plan should help a person identify their triggers and have strategies to help them get out of a negative mindset that would lead them to relapse.
Signs of mental relapse include:
- Drug or alcohol cravings
- Glamorizing past substance use
- Thinking about people and places involved in past substance use
- Doubting whether it is in one’s best interest to continue with recovery efforts
Physical relapse. The physical relapse stage is when everyone is aware that a person is an incomplete breakdown and back to using alcohol and drugs. At this point, the person who is using substances may have rationalized that they’ll use “just one more time” or “have only one drink or smoke.” This is a critical point because a person will have to decide if their return is a temporary lapse or a decision to derail their recovery and start abusing substances again.
Drug Relapse Symptoms
Dealing with drug relapse symptoms is a long and often painful process. Many people attribute the breaking of abstinence as a relapse. While substance use and abuse is a contributing factor of relapse, it is not the entire issue.
In Addition to Substance Abuse, Drug Relapse Symptoms Will Involve:
- Destructive Thoughts
- Compulsive Behavior
- Neglect of Coping Skills and Healthy Habits
- Return to Unhealthy Behaviors and Environments
- Mood Swings
- Recurrence of Depression or Anxiety
- Isolation from Groups and Activities
Many people think that as long as they are free from their former addictive substance they are not in danger of a relapse. However, it is not uncommon for the re-introduction of substance abuse to develop late in the relapse process.
We feel it’s essential for people to know the signs of drug relapse and what they entail.
Signs of a Drug Relapse Can Be Broken Down into Three Stages:
- Emotional Relapse
- Mental Relapse
- Physical Relapse
It is not uncommon for the return to substance abuse to develop weeks or even several months after the initial signs of emotional or mental relapse. This means there is generally plenty of time before they return to substance abuse for warning signs to be identified and for relapse to be addressed.
The signs of a physical relapse can be more visible than those of emotional or mental relapse. That sliver of opportunity to use again revealed itself and was taken. Serenity at Summit provides a relapse prevention program that teaches those in recovery how to manage the triggers that can lead to a downward spiral of drug abuse again.
It is critical to successful and sustainable recovery to reach out for help when the signs of drug relapse manifest. Drug relapse can and does happen to some people. Make a recommitment to your sobriety. Go to meetings and share, call your sponsor if you have one, don’t skip therapy sessions, and engage in healthier ways of living. A relapse does not mean you failed at recovery. It means you are human and can redirect your life back onto the healthier, more stable path.
Behavioral Slips vs. Drug Relapse: What’s the Difference?
There are situations in which a person is exposed to an addictive substance and may even use that substance while in recovery. While doing so increases your risk of experiencing a relapse, it does not necessitate one.
The term “slip” is used to refer to behavioral mistakes or lapses in judgment in which an addictive substance is used in an isolated instance. The thought of lost sobriety often propels people into further destructive behavior, and this may lead to a relapse.
When This Happens, It Is Best To:
- Focus more on the recovery process
- Evaluate what might have led to the slip-up
- Make an effort to prevent future recurrences
A relapse does not un-do previous progress made in an addiction recovery program. The coping mechanisms and strategies you learned during a recovery program will still apply as you overcome a relapse. Try to remain conscious of your emotions, moods, and behavior throughout the recovery process to reduce your risk of experiencing a full relapse.