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What is a Relapse Prevention Plan and Should I Have One?

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

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Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

Relapse prevention begins in treatment. In fact, relapse prevention is treatment. All of your progress in a drug rehab center works toward preventing future relapse. Entering treatment for drug or alcohol abuse can be one of the best choices you make in your life. Once you enter the program, you’ll have a comprehensive journey comprised of therapy, counseling, medication, and other possible inpatient substance abuse treatment methods to help you get better. What comes after treatment can be scary to some. Will you relapse, or fall victim to addiction again? While it’s definitely a possibility, there are ways to ensure a higher rate of success. Although some may see relapse as a failure, the truth is that it’s really a sign that you’re not fully recovered. If you look at recovery as a spectrum, then you understand that in your path to full sobriety, there may be a few missteps. To prevent these missteps, you need to have a relapse prevention plan. It’s how you handle these temptations during your recovery goals that will determine the course of your recovery journey. When you face the triggers of addiction that threaten your progress, having an arsenal of relapse prevention techniques at your fingertips will instill confidence in your ability to rise to any challenge.

Why Do People Relapse?

As the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, “the chronic nature of the disease [addiction] means that relapsing to drug abuse at some point is not only possible, but likely.” However, contrary to what you may have heard or read, relapse is not a sign of treatment or recovery failure. It’s not surprising to us when someone with other major illnesses relapse. You wouldn’t question someone having to re-enter treatment for diabetes. Addiction is a chronic illness as well. Though it is possible to effectively treat and cure addiction, relapse is simply part of the course. “For a person recovering from addiction, lapsing back to drug use indicates that treatment needs to be reinstated or adjusted or that another treatment should be tried,” the NIDA explains.

What Is a Relapse Prevention Plan

A relapse prevention plan is a tool to strategize effective outcomes you learn in recovery. Having a plan can help you notice aspects in your own personal behaviors that may cause you to return to substance abuse or cause you to relapse. This plan is a contingency strategy that outlines ways to combat those behaviors and get back on track.

Most often, a relapse prevention plan is a written document a person creates with their treatment team and shares with their support group. The plan offers a “what to do” if you have strong feelings, urges, or are in fear of relapsing. Basically a course of action for responding to triggers.

Does Relapse Mean You Have To Go Back To Rehab?

Experiencing a relapse from sobriety is not a guarantee that you have to go back to rehab. Again, it’s all about how you handle that relapse. Life is full of substance abuse triggers. In treatment, you learn how to handle them. When you begin going through your relapse, it’s important to call on principles, skills, and thought management processes learned during treatment. These will help you to develop relapse prevention techniques. An example would draw from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), where you should have learned to assess a situation, identify troubling thoughts and behaviors, and how to confront those thoughts and behaviors through logical means. This sort of understanding can help immensely during a relapse, but sometimes the pull of addiction is simply too strong, or your grasp on treatment principles isn’t yet developed sufficiently. Admitting that you need some more time in treatment to gain a stronger hold on treatment principles doesn’t make you weak. It doesn’t even mean you aren’t well. It simply means you are still working on your recovery goals. At the end of the day, the important thing is that you’re making strides to getting well. At Renaissance Recovery, we recognize that relapse is not just an unfortunate possibility, but part of your recovery and help you to work through it.

How To Design A Relapse Prevention Plan

Each person will deal with relapse in his or her own way. Relapse prevention plans are as unique as the individuals who will use them. Unfortunately, relapse is a side effect that tends to catch you off guard. That’s why it’s so important to have a relapse prevention plan in place for managing relapse when it occurs, and preferably before leaving treatment. This can be as comprehensive as a written step-by-step guide to managing triggers and emotions or thoughts that lead to relapse and understanding relapse warning signs, or as simple as giving voice to this plan during counseling or therapy. The best way to design a relapse prevention plan is to take a look at some key components that lead to relapse, and measures that will help prevent it, such as:

  • Relapse warning signs: there are many things that trigger abuse, but each is specific to the individual. For some, it may be past trauma and feelings associated with it. Whatever your triggers are, you have to recognize them and know how to manage them.
  • Past relapses: if you’ve been through a relapse before, you may have the advantage of knowing how and when they may happen, which can help you in handling them.
  • Who gives you support: whether this is family, friends, or a new support group you enter, such as a 12-step support group, having people who are behind you in your efforts can make a vast difference in handling relapse.
  • Designing a life that is free from addiction: this may seem obvious, but it’s important to fill your schedule with healthy, fulfilling activities that help relieve and manage stress which often leads to relapse.

Having a relpase plan doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be less likely to relapse. It just makes you more prepared in case it happens, helping you to complete your journey to sobriety.

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Pat C

“I owe my life and my happiness to these people. October 8th, 2019 marked two years of sobriety for me, and prior to finding Renaissance I hadn’t had 24 hours sober in nearly 20 years.”

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Diana Vo, LMFT

Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country