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

If you know how to create an effective relapse prevention plan, this can strengthen your chance of achieving sustained sobriety.

NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) recognizes that addiction is a chronic and relapsing brain condition. Substance use disorder, like all chronic conditions, has high relapse rates. NIDA reports that up to 60% of those who engage with addiction treatment relapse at least once.

The most recent data from SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) shows that 2.4 million adults engaged with treatment for drug addiction in 2020, and 2 million connected with treatment for alcoholism.

Relapse prevention planning is a powerful component of aftercare and will minimize the likelihood of relapse after discharge.

What is a substance abuse relapse prevention plan, then?

What Is a Relapse Prevention Plan?

A drug or alcohol relapse prevention plan is an invaluable tool for anyone in recovery from alcoholism or drug addiction.

Relapse is not typically an isolated incident or a spontaneous event. Instead, most relapses unfold over three stages, with emotional and mental relapse occurring before physical relapse – that is, using drink or drugs – derails your sobriety.

By creating a relapse prevention plan, you can better acknowledge and act upon feelings or events, reducing the chance of physical relapse and a return to active substance use.

Creating a personalized plan helps you to recognize any behaviors that may increase your chance of relapse. You can also focus on combating those behaviors.

A robust relapse prevention plan will also isolate your personal triggers for substance abuse and list healthy coping strategies you can use instead of alcohol or drugs.

If you go to inpatient or outpatient rehab, you will typically create a relapse prevention plan as part of ongoing counseling and therapy sessions. That said, you can easily write a personalized relapse prevention plan at any stage and in any setting.

Relapse prevention plans also work well as a blueprint you can fall back on when confronted with stressors in everyday sober life. A plan can also help to keep you fully focused on your recovery and accountable for your actions.

While you can use an example framework to help you create a relapse management and prevention plan, you should tailor the plan to your personal needs, triggers, and circumstances.

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.

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 Write A Relapse Prevention Plan

Relapse Prevention Plan Outline

Although it is possible to create a verbalized relapse plan, writing the plan down will help you to gain a clearer perspective of the concrete steps you can take if relapse threatens to disrupt your sobriety.

Before you start writing a personalized plan to mitigate relapse, you can take the following predatory steps. Take your time and keep in mind that recovery is an ongoing and lifelong process rather than a time limited event.

  1. Clarify your personal recovery goals and your motivations for making positive changes
  2. Identify your personal triggers for substance abuse
  3. Focus on craving management
  4. List the coping strategies and preventative tools you will use to counteract relapse
  5. Make lifestyle changes and prioritize self-care

1) Clarify your recovery goals and your motivations for making positive changes

Relapse prevention plans should be personalized for best results. To achieve this, it can be helpful to highlight your recovery goals and your personal goals.

Consider what changes you are prepared to kickstart your recovery. Explore your motivations for making those changes. The more you understand about why you are getting sober, the more effectively you can prevent relapse from blocking your progress.

2) Identify your personal triggers for substance abuse

Listing your personal triggers for substance abuse can make you more aware of the red flags that warn of a potential relapse looming.

Most addiction triggers are people, places, or things. Triggers can also be emotions associated with substance abuse.

If you are unsure of what prompts you to use alcohol or drugs, consider these questions as a starting point for identifying your personal triggers:

  • What places remind me of using alcohol or drugs?
  • Who might I see who would remind me of substance use?
  • Is an anniversary or a special time of year something that triggers you to use alcohol or drugs?
  • What thoughts related to addiction make me tempted to start using substances again?
  • Which feelings do I have that are associated with relapse?
  • What can I do if it is not possible to avoid personal triggers?

3) Focus on craving management

Cravings are one of the diagnostic criteria for both alcohol use disorder (alcoholism) and substance use disorder (drug addiction).

When you stop using addictive substances after sustained use, it is almost inevitable you will encounter cravings during detox, withdrawal, and ongoing recovery. Planning to deal with these cravings using healthy coping techniques can reduce your chances of relapse.

4) List the coping strategies and preventative tools you will use to counteract relapse

Here are some commonplace relapse prevention tools you can use in your recovery and incorporate into your relapse plan:

  • Journaling
  • Exercising
  • Practicing gratitude
  • Deep breathing
  • Meditation
  • Attending support group meetings
  • Contacting supportive sober friends
  • Engaging with online therapy

5) Make lifestyle changes and prioritize self-care

A daily routine that includes a healthy diet, a fitness regime, and a structured sleep schedule will allow you to create a solid foundation for sobriety. The better you feel physically, the more clearly you can think and the less stressed you will feel.

Participating in hobbies and activities can help you to keep busy and prevent boredom from triggering cravings for substance abuse.

Schedule in self-care as a core component of your day-to-day life rather than treating is as an afterthought.

Writing a Personalized Relapse Prevention Plan

  • My personal self-improvement goals
  • Potential challenges and triggers
  • Strategies and techniques for minimizing triggers and managing stress
  • Daily routine and self-care
  • My support system
  • Consequences, accountability, gratitude

My personal self-improvement goals

An image of a person making a Relapse Prevention Plan
  • I want to re-enter the world of work and become more financially stable.
  • I would like to incorporate more exercise into my daily routine.
  • By making amends with loved one, I would like to start repairing relationships damaged during active addiction.
  • I plan to attend anger management therapy to help me stay calm and control volatile emotions.

Potential challenges and triggers

  • Eating a meal at a restaurant.
  • Going for after-work drinks at a bar.
  • Meeting friends who are still drinking or using drugs.
  • Stressors related to work.
  • Unexpected financial difficulties.
  • Problems in my relationship.
  • Parties or social activities where alcohol will be available.

Strategies and techniques for minimizing triggers and managing stress

  • Use mindfulness, meditation, and deep breathing for stress relief.
  • Head home directly after work.
  • Avoid bars, restaurants, or friends using substances.
  • Daily journaling to reflect on my recovery.
  • Attend 12-step meetings if appropriate.
  • Choose new non-alcoholic beverage to drink at social gatherings.
  • Reach out to loved one, mentor, or support person in challenging situations.

Daily routine and self-care

  • Exercise daily and join a gym or fitness class.
  • I will focus on trying to achieve at least seven hours of sleep each night.
  • By drinking small glasses of water throughout the day, I will stay hydrated.
  • I will go outside for a walk every day.
  • I will reduce the amount of processed foods I eat and increase the amount of whole foods, fruits, and veggies I eat.
  • I will become more aware of my feelings and needs and will take a few moments to monitor my emotions throughout the day.

My support system

  • Family members
  • Friends
  • Counselor
  • Mentor
  • Peers of 12-step support groups
  • Sponsor
  • Sober friends
  • Physician
  • Mental healthcare provider
  • Addiction specialist

Consequences, accountability, gratitude

  • My physical health, mental health, and sobriety are all closely interrelated. If I drink, this will limit my ability to look after myself and others.
  • I am grateful for my family. I want to be a good parent and partner.
  • Remaining sober and in full control is key to my financial stability.
  • I cannot perform effectively at work when abusing substances.
  • My recovery plan is a promise to myself and to my loved ones. This represents a commitment to be the best and healthiest version of myself while remaining sober.

If you are ready to move from active addiction into ongoing recovery, we can help you achieve that here at Renaissance Recovery.

Avoid Relapse at Renaissance Recovery

The most effective strategy for avoiding relapse is to engage with an appropriate treatment program that allows you to build a strong foundation for ongoing sobriety. You should also choose a rehab center that equips you with a relapse prevention strategy and aftercare when you complete the program.

Here at Renaissance Recovery, we provide gender-specific treatment for alcoholism, all types of drug addictions, and mental health disorders. In addition to traditional outpatient programs, we also offer more intensive forms of outpatient treatment, including PHPs (partial hospitalization programs) and IOPs (intensive outpatient programs).

By choosing to engage with outpatient treatment, you can remain anchored to your everyday obligations without compromising your recovery. You also get a more affordable and less restrictive route to recovery than residential rehab.

Your treatment team will draw from a combination of holistic therapies and the following evidence-based interventions:

When you finish your treatment program, you can either step down to a less intensive form of treatment or move directly back into sober living. Either way, your treatment team will ensure you have a personalized aftercare and relapse management plan in place. You can also take advantage of the alumni program here at Renaissance.

Start moving toward ongoing sobriety by reaching out to the friendly admissions team right now at 866.330.9449.

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

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