Relapse: Knowing the Signs

Relapse: Knowing the Signs

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Addiction is a relapsing disease, and the challenges of recovery continue long after leaving the treatment center. The rate of relapse for addiction is close to those of other chronic conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes—around 40 to 60 percent. 1

A relapse doesn't occur out of nowhere. A relapse unfolds in stages, and there are usually clear warning signs that a relapse is imminent. Knowing the signs of a potential relapse can help you take action before you reach the point of returning to substance use.

Identifying the Triggers

Relapses are generally brought on by triggers—relationships, events or situations that may make a person feel like using again. Triggers are usually connected to past experiences and memories, and they're different for each individual. A few common triggers include:

  • Being around friends or places that remind you of using
  • Seeing an object of addiction, like a syringe or an alcoholic drink
  • Feeling social pressure to drink or use
  • Having a good time and wanting to enhance the experience
  • Dealing with stress, depression or other negative emotions that may provoke the desire to self-medicate

Recognizing the Warning Signs

Although relapse is a common occurrence, it rarely occurs out of the blue. Certain thoughts and behaviors usually signal that the risk of relapse is increasing.2

Some of these warning signs include:

  • Having an overconfident attitude—believing that you no longer need your support group or your 12-step program
  • Telling yourself that you could handle one drink or one dose
  • Seeking out people from your old drinking or using days
  • Romanticizing your old days of substance abuse and only remembering the "good times" of this period
  • Feeling defensive if someone points out any changes in your attitudes or routines

If you find yourself experiencing any of these warning signs, an intervention is necessary to keep from derailing your recovery efforts. Reach out to people in your support system. Go to more meetings of your support group or 12-step program; if you've stopped going to these meetings, it's time to get back into the habit. You may also want to talk with a therapist or trusted sponsor.

Prevent Relapse

Certain relapse-prevention techniques can go a long way toward avoiding a slide back into substance use. You can't eliminate every trigger from your life, but there are some things you can control. The following strategies can help you reduce the risk of relapse:

  • Know your personal triggers
  • Steer clear of the people and places that remind you of using
  • Lean on your support system when you hit rough patches, and ask your support network to watch out for warning signs
  • Avoid events where drugs or alcohol will be present
  • Attend support group meetings regularly

Preventing a relapse isn't easy, and a slip-up may occur despite your best efforts. It's important to remember that a relapse doesn't mean that your treatment has failed; instead, it's best viewed as a learning opportunity and a reminder to reinforce your coping skills. Recovery is a lifelong process of learning and growing, and it's always possible to get back on the right track.


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