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Relapse and Ways to Get Help

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

November 17, 2023

Table of Contents

It doesn’t matter how diligently you apply yourself to your recovery, and it doesn’t matter how committed you are to sobriety. Relapse is always a possibility for anyone with alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder.

While it’s tough to get accurate data due to the number of people who do not report relapses, NIDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) estimates relapse occurs in 40% to 60% of all those in recovery.

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Given the enormity of those statistics, the right relapse help can mean the difference between a blip on a lifelong journey or a problem spiraling further out of control.

Admitting that you need help staying sober is a sign of strength not weakness.

Remember, too, that you can use relapse as a learning tool. If you slip up, it absolutely doesn’t need to be the end of the road or wasted hard work. Double down and renew your efforts instead while drawing what you can from the experience.

What is a Relapse?

If you start using drink or drinks after a period of deliberate abstinence, this is classified as relapse.

In the case of chronic and sustained substance abuse, your brain undergoes functional and structural changes. This heightens the risk of relapse during the early phases of recovery, as it takes some time for the brain to recalibrate.

Relapse signs differ from person to person, but you should closely monitor any loved ones going through addiction recovery. If you’re the one teetering between sobriety and relapse, keep your defenses up at all times and learn some tips to avoid relapse.

Relapse vs Lapse: What’s the Difference?

There is some confusion over what constitutes a lapse and what is typically classified as a relapse.

The general consensus is that a slip or lapse occurs if you drink or use drugs but then immediately stop again. If these lapses become persistent, you will not be considered sober.

If, on the other hand, you use drink or drugs and then return to your previous pattern of abuse, this is a full-blown relapse.

Relapses often unfold over several stages. We’ll highlight these next before looking at how you can get sober help.

The Stages of Relapse

  • Emotional relapse
  • Mental relapse
  • Physical relapse

Emotional relapse

The early stage of relapse is emotional and it takes place long before you reach for alcohol or drugs.

If you find yourself bottling up your feelings or struggling to process your emotions, possibly even verging into denial, you could be entering the early stages of relapse.

Mental relapse

The mental stage of relapse is characterized by conflicting feelings about your sobriety. You may appreciate the manifold benefits of sobriety, but you may be battling intense cravings, and you may be pondering how you could get away with drinking or using drugs.

It’s common during this stage of relapse to sanitize the consequences of substance abuse while glorifying past patterns of abuse.

Physical relapse

When these emotions and thoughts lead to drinking or using drugs, this is a physical relapse.

What are the Risk Factors for Relapse?

  • Stress
  • Exposure to triggers
  • Peer pressure
  • Inadequate social support
  • Interpersonal conflict
  • Underlying medical issues


A combination of elevated stress levels and weak coping skills is a recipe for relapse.

The more negative emotions you encounter, such as depression, anxiety, panic, anger, and boredom, the more likely you will be to reach for your usual chemical crutch.

Work and marital stressors are primary drivers for relapse.

Exposure to triggers

Triggers are the people, places, and things that remind you of using drink or drugs and tempt you to relapse by inducing intense cravings.

From seeing your local dealer to getting a text from a drinking buddy, from the smell of weed to the sight of a busy bar, all of these things and more can trigger cravings. The less of these triggers you expose yourself to, the less your likelihood of relapse.

Peer pressure

Direct pressure from family or friends, or even simply being in close proximity  to people drinking or using drugs, is often enough to trigger a relapse.

If you have friends of family using substances, this is a strong predictor of relapse.

Inadequate social support

Anyone with a weak social support system is at increased risk of relapse, especially during tough times in the early phases of recovery.

Interpersonal conflict

Any conflict with friends and family usually brings about negative feelings, from sadness and anger to frustration and anxiety. If not efficiently managed, these emotions can snowball and end up leading to relapse.

Some research suggests that as many as half of all relapses feature conflict with loved ones as one of the underpinning reasons.

Underlying medical issues

If you are taking opioid painkillers, especially if you have a history of substance abuse, these can be highly addictive.

For anyone prescribed pain medication and finding it hard to control use, speak with your healthcare provider if you’re recovering from addiction to drink or drugs or you might find yourself relapsing.

Relapse and Ways to Get Help

  • Start by reflecting on the relapse
  • Continue avoiding triggers
  • Engage in proper self-care
  • Reach out for help
  • Attend a self-help group
  • Develop a relapse prevention plan

Start by reflecting on the relapse

You should reframe the way you view a relapse. It’s not a failure, and it doesn’t mean that treatment has been ineffective. It does mean, though, that you need to remain vigilant and ensure that you settle back into sobriety rather than returning to your old ways.

Use the relapse as a learning experience. Think about what happened in the lead-up to relapse, and think about whether or not you tried other healthier ways of coping before reaching for your substance of choice. Exploring these events can help prevent you making the same mistake twice.

Recovery is a process rather than an event. Be prepared for some fluidity in that process, and be prepared to adapt as you go, building on what you have learned to strengthen your sobriety rather than caving in at the first sign of trouble.

Continue avoiding triggers

By removing yourself from as many triggers as possible, you will reduce your chances of relapsing.

Be selfish and set yourself healthy boundaries. Don’t concern yourself with what others might feel if you decline an invitation to hang out. Don’t feel guilty about staying away from bar-centered meetups.

As you become more confident in your sobriety, you can start living with fewer self-imposed restrictions, but in the early stages of recovery, minimize exposure to triggers. If you have relapsed, you should renew efforts in this area.

Engage in proper self-care

Relapse can be physically and emotionally draining. In the aftermath of a relapse, you should spend as much time as possible on healthy self-care.

From yoga and meditation to exercise and journaling, do whatever you can to nourish your body and soul.

Eat healthy whole foods and avoid processed foods. Make sure you get plenty of fresh fruit and veggies on board. If you struggle to eat enough of these, consider juices or smoothies instead.

Stay hydrated. Concentrate on getting the right quality and quantity of sleep.

Reach out for help

Do not be afraid to ask for help when required. Reaching out to friends, family, or support network can help keep firm you up when you are feeling fragile after relapse.

Attend a self-help group

Attending 12-step support groups like AA, NA, or SMART Recovery can help you to explore your feelings after relapsing in a supportive and nonjudgmental environment.

Develop a relapse prevention plan

If you have relapsed already, you owe it to yourself to minimize the likelihood of a repeat performance.

Write a formal relapse prevention plan. This doesn’t need to be intimidating. Simply write down a bulleted list of your triggers then at least three coping mechanisms that will help you to deal with these emotions without resorting to drink or drugs. Add any relevant contact details and you have a firm strategy in place to help you when times are tough.

Other Treatment Options for Relapse

You could increase your time commitment to therapy if you are still engaged in therapy. Use this time to explore the reasons for your relapse and hone your coping skills to prevent this from happening again.

If you feel at risk of relapsing a second time, you could attend a formal relapse prevention group. This will give you an environment in which to sharpen your coping skills and further explore combating the triggers ruling your life.

You can also amp up your attendance of 12-step groups, perhaps attending meetings daily rather than weekly.

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Addiction Treatment and Relapse Management at Renaissance Recovery Center

If you have previously attempted to engage with treatment for addiction and relapsed, speak with our friendly team about the most appropriate options at your disposal.

We have a variety of highly personalized treatment programs to help you deal with any alcohol use disorder or substance use disorder, no matter how severe. If you have a co-occurring mental health condition, we have comprehensive integrated dual diagnosis programs to help you tackle both issues simultaneously.

Once you complete any of our treatment programs, we’ll provide you with the level of aftercare you need to minimize your chances of relapse. Get things started today by calling the friendly Renaissance team at 866.330.9449.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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