Recovering from drug and alcohol addiction is a long-term process that doesn’t simply end with the completion of treatment. The days, weeks or months that you spend participating in treatment are filled with counseling, group work and careful medical oversight — and that’s what allows you to create a solid foundation for your recovery. However, all of the tools you learn in treatment have to be kept sharp after you finish your allotted time in rehab. Otherwise, you may immediately find yourself face-to-face with what scares every recovering individual most: a drug and alcohol relapse.
Drug and alcohol felapse is not inevitable. Recognizing causes, signs and symptoms of relapse can help you or someone you care about avoid the pain of returning to drugs, alcohol, and destructive behavior. The reasons for relapse vary from person to person, but coping skills you need to deal with it are universal.
What Is Relapse?
In a general sense, to relapse means to experience a period of regression after temporary improvement. The term is often used to describe diseases — addiction included. Because addiction is a chronic brain disease, every recovery carries the risk of relapse. In fact, drug and alcohol relapse rates for addiction are very similar to those of other long-term diseases like diabetes or asthma.
Addiction is the result of complex behavior patterns becoming embedded in the brain, and recovery is about learning and using tools to combat that compulsive behavior. As such, relapse isn’t as simple as suddenly returning to drug and alcohol use — it’s a process that affects multiple aspects of a person’s life.
What Causes a Drug and Alcohol Relapse?
For many people, it may not make sense that someone would go through weeks or months of intensive addiction treatment only to turn around and relapse into drug or alcohol abuse in the time afterward. The unfortunate reality is that addiction is a long-term disease that requires careful management — and even with the best laid plans and intentions, it’s not always possible to anticipate when someone will relapse.
Living in recovery from addiction is a process of recognizing, avoiding and minimizing triggers, which are people, places or things that forcefully recall memories of substance use. Triggers kick the addicted brain into overtime by stimulating its motivation system to get you to use drugs again, and they can be incredibly difficult to resist. While triggers are different for everyone, these are some of the more common examples:
- TV & movies featuring drugs or alcohol
- Old drinking or drug friends
- Places where you had used in the past
- Certain types of stress (work, family, etc.)
Even if you have excellent coping skills and other recovery tools, being exposed to triggers can still catalyze what seems like a sudden relapse.
Types of Relapse
The first step to preventing drug and alcohol relapse, and staying clean and sober after treatment is to recognize the signs that a recovery is moving off the rails, and those signs of drug relapse can be much subtler than most people think. One vital aspect of rehab treatment is learning to monitor and work with the emotions and stressors that drove addiction in the first place, but that can become a lot harder once treatment is over and you’re back in the real world. It’s helpful to break down relapse into three different stages and learn the indicators of each one:
Although it can be more difficult to identify, knowing when you or someone you care about is displaying signs of emotional relapse can put a stop to the process right as it first begins. Emotional relapse sets the groundwork for mental and physical aspects to emerge by priming your feelings to work against your recovery. You may experience:
- Irritability and anxiety
- Sadness and depression
- Difficulty processing emotions
- Defensiveness and tendencies to self-isolate
- Deteriorating sleep and eating habits
- Increased emotional sensitivity
- Anger or frustration
- Lack of motivation to go to meetings
- Loss of drive in recovery
Emotional relapse is difficult to recognize because the overwhelming feelings you experience are so common in those who have just completed rehab treatment — especially if you’re still suffering some of the lingering symptoms of withdrawal. However, if you notice your emotions are consistently overwhelming and you are either refusing to deal with them or are letting them take over your life, you’re in very real danger of emotional relapse.
To combat emotional relapse, you have to take charge of your emotions. Of course, such a simple task is one of the most monumental — but these situations are exactly what you spent your time in treatment preparing for. Managing your feelings with healthy coping skills is one of the most important things you can do to prevent relapse from continuing along its destructive path.
This stage of relapse is significantly more recognizable for most of us because it’s when we become conscious of negative thoughts pertaining to drug and alcohol abuse. Where emotional relapse causes you to feel generally negative and uncomfortable, mental relapse tells you to do something about it — by returning to substance abuse. In this phase you are likely to spend time:
- Thinking about where to get drugs or alcohol
- Envisioning your physical relapse
- Socializing with old friends who use
- Romanticizing your past substance abuse
- Fantasizing about drugs or alcohol
This phase can be traumatizing for newly recovered individuals since the recovered part of you doesn’t want to break down and use, but your addicted brain keeps pushing you to think about drugs and alcohol to the point of obsession. This can be dangerous and hard to identify in others. Someone can be making all the right moves on the surface — like going to meetings, and practicing other healthy skills — while their head is somewhere entirely different and fantasizing about future drug or alcohol use.
At this point, open communication about your cravings and drug-related thoughts is vital. Personal logic is often no match for the addicted brain, even after rehab is over. Engaging with a one-on-one sponsor or other trusted individual is one form of failsafe that can help you keep mental relapse from transitioning into physical.
Physical relapse is the form most people are fairly familiar with, due to many tearful — and often inaccurate — depictions in television and film. While physical relapse means actually taking the drug you went to addiction treatment for, it doesn’t always end in a life-destroying catastrophe. A physical relapse could be anything from sneaking a single shot of alcohol to overdosing on heroin, and it depends on each person’s situation.
Though the severity of relapses varies widely, they are always a result of both emotional and mental relapse working together unchecked. If, for whatever reason, you’re unable to emotionally regulate and find a way to stave off negative thoughts and fantasies of drug and alcohol abuse, physical relapse is a very real risk.
Stages of Relapse
While the above are the three bigger categories of relapse, it’s also helpful to break them down into a step-by-step rundown of how recovery can change to relapse if not caught in the early stages:
- Unhealthy emotions.
If you can’t balance the negative emotions you are feeling surrounding your recovery, they tend to accumulate to the point where it seems impossible to deal with them at all.
When you can’t deal with your negative emotions, it can be very tempting to simply shut them off as best as possible and pretend nothing is wrong.
- Compulsive behavior.
In order to keep your mind off the emotions you are ignoring, you may find yourself giving in to compulsive behaviors now and again. These often manifest as over-working, over-eating, over-exercising and other forms of excess.
- Trigger response.
Triggers are situations, people, sights or emotions that cause our brains to prompt us to use drugs or alcohol again. When recovery is going well, coping tools can often make triggers easier to deal with — but if you’re already in the throes of emotional relapse, the slightest trigger can set off a destructive chain reaction.
- Internal chaos.
Feeling overwhelmed by emotions and triggers can destroy your sense of inner peace at a devastating pace. In turn, that leads to distorted patterns of thought — which are certainly not your friend when trying to avoid physical relapse.
- External turmoil.
Emotional and even mental relapse can sit on the shelf for a while, as we convince ourselves that our interior chaos isn’t that big of a deal. However, all these issues are accumulating, and at some point, you will become uncomfortably aware of them. It’s important to make sure you don’t project your emotional turbulence at home, work, school or social situations.
- Loss of control.
At this point in the relapse trajectory, you’ve seen personal and external indicators that your recovery isn’t going well at the moment. You likely feel extremely on edge and like your life is about to careen completely out of your control. Life can feel like a series of unsolvable problems — and that can be one of the greatest catalysts for physical relapse.
- Obsessive thinking.
Once you reach this point, it’s tempting to think about anything except the problems in your life —emotional and otherwise. That makes it much easier for the addicted brain to fill your mind with unwanted thoughts about using drugs and alcohol. Addictive mechanisms come back in full force, possibly convincing you that recovery isn’t working and you may as well give up altogether.
- High-risk situations.
On the brink of fully-fledged physical relapse, you will find yourself flirting with situations you know are dangerous — sometimes just to see how far you can push your recovery boundaries. You may try to reconnect with old friends who use or drink, or you might hang around in places you know you could easily get to your substance of choice. These bad moves are often justified by the flawed logic of mental relapse and can easily lead to a physical relapse as well.
10 Ways to Prevent Addiction Relapse
If you’re seeing any of the signs of drug addiction relapse in yourself or someone you care about, you may be wondering what you can do to prevent it. Here are ten tips you can use to stop relapse in its tracks and stay sober after rehab:
- Don’t panic!
Relapse can seem like the end of the world, especially if you’ve just completed rehab. However, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Don’t let a relapse cause you to second-guess or dismiss all the hard work you’ve done up to this point. Maintaining a healthy self-image is key to sustaining recovery and preventing relapse. Even if you’ve relapsed in the past, it’s much more important to focus on what you can do better in the future.
- Avoid temptation.
One of the bigger signs of relapse is a tendency to push boundaries when it comes to temptation. No matter what your addicted brain tells you, “challenging” your recovery by putting yourself in dangerous situations is never a better option than avoiding them altogether.
If at all possible, avoid situations (including people, places, and things), where you might see others partaking in drug and alcohol use — even if it means turning down some things you’d really like to go do. If relapse is a concern, your true friends will hopefully understand that the health of your recovery easily trumps a night of potentially-triggering festivities.
- Change your environment.
In addition to avoiding negative situations, it’s equally vital to create healthy spaces for yourself. If your usual Friday evening haunt was a corner pub, you’ll need to find another place to unwind for the weekend. For example, your local park, garden, library or museum can provide a place for you to meet up with friends or co-workers — or find alone time without most of the triggers and relapse risks that can come with other environments.
- Create a schedule.
While everyone needs a bit of free time to break up stress and monotony, too much of it simply leaves room for creeping thoughts of substance abuse to take hold. When you’re addicted, every free moment becomes a potential opportunity to use, and completing treatment doesn’t fix that altogether. You likely picked up helpful tools to shut down obsessive drug-related thoughts during the quiet moments, but the more free time you have, the more time you’ll spend combatting those thoughts.
You don’t need to regiment every second of the day, but knowing your schedule, and developing structure ahead of time gives you things to look forward to and focus on when cravings hit.
Physical activity can fall by the wayside pretty quickly when the stress of everyday life takes over. But adding a bit of movement into your day can greatly increase your mental and emotional health overall, as studies have shown. In fact, regular vigorous exercise can decrease your chances of developing anxiety or depression by up to 25%. As anxiety and depression are huge factors in addiction, a little exercise can go a very long way in drug and alcohol relapse prevention.
- Eat healthy.
In addition to adding a little exercise to your regimen, it’s important not to neglect your nutritional health. There are many different nutritional imbalances and nutrient deficiencies that can lead to depression, including omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, vitamin B and magnesium, and they can worsen your chances at staying sober after treatment. Keep an eye on what you’re eating — a healthier diet can steeply reduce your drug and alcohol relapse chances.
- Develop a support network.
Isolation is a big factor in addiction, so your recovery strategy should include reaching out to as many healthy support sources as you can in order to find the one that’s right for you. While there are many different support groups out there, the 12-step treatment format is one of the most effective. Joining a recovery group and/or finding a sponsor to support you in recovery provides one-of-a-kind accountability, and thereby reduces your risk of a drug and alcohol relapse.
- Find meaningful activities.
To avoid returning to the substance abuse habits of old, you have to find something better to replace them. And while hobbies might be better than nothing to fill that void, it’s best to find an activity that adds real meaning or purpose to your life. Many people in recovery know the benefits of volunteering, and they’re certainly hard to deny. In a recent study of people who had volunteered in the last 12 months, 76% said volunteering made them feel healthier and 96% said it improved their mood.
- Practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness meditation is a practice that centers on creating intense focus on the self and the present in order to heighten awareness and clarity. There are many techniques you can use to practice mindfulness, and many of them are short exercises that help you focus on your breathing, physical presence or environment.
For instance, take the time to concentrate on what a few deep breaths feel like. Really focus on the air coming in and going out. You might also concentrate on how the wind feels on your hand or your arm. The clarity you can gain with regular practice of mindfulness can help you think more rationally when it comes to cravings so you can help stop a drug and alcohol relapse.
- Avoid complacency.
Above all, don’t let the importance of your recovery fall to the wayside. Even with a strong showing in rehab treatment and a heap of initial motivation, the stress of life can make you devote less attention to the nuts and bolts of recovery. You may work late and figure you can skip a meeting or two or pay less attention to the places you spend your time in. Each time you choose not to actively work on recovery, you’re adding to a buildup that can leave you up craving creek without a paddle — where you’re much more likely to sink into relapse.
Get Help With Drug and Alcohol Relapse Prevention
Staying clean after rehab is an achievable goal, but it is extremely difficult without help. Even with the assistance of a 12-step group and an excellent sponsor, recovery is a tough road to travel. That’s why you should utilize every expert resource you can. JourneyPure Emerald Coast, Florida’s premier drug and alcohol rehab center, understands that preventing drug and alcohol relapse is just as important as completing an effective addiction treatment program.
At JourneyPure Emerald Coast, our comprehensive aftercare includes a relapse prevention program that’s open to everyone looking to stay clean after rehab, not just those who have completed our initial treatments. With individually-molded programs, expert clinical care and a wealth of support from peers and professionals alike, we are your destination for top-tier rehab and drug and alcohol relapse prevention programs.
If you or someone you care about needs drug and alcohol relapse help, don’t hesitate. Contact JourneyPure Emerald Coast to find out more about beating addiction and living the healthy life you deserve.