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What Is a Relapse?

man-after-relapse

Relapse is possible with any chronic disease, including addiction. It’s often hard to imagine returning to drug or alcohol use after finishing detox and professional rehab. However, for most recovering addicts, both the fear of relapse and the potential for relapsing is very real. Once the brain and body have become conditioned to using drugs or alcohol as coping mechanisms, temptations and cravings are ongoing challenges. The good news is that these challenges rear their heads less frequently as time goes on. Moreover, there are countless ways to mitigate these and other relapse risks, and to keep your recovery on track. A single relapse event doesn’t mean that recovery has come to an end. In fact, many recovering addicts relapse at least once throughout their journeys. The key to limiting the damage caused by these events is finding the right tools, resources, and support. When people make recovery their primary focus, they consistently make decisions that make staying sober easier.

The Definition of a Relapse in Addiction

At its most basic, relapse is the return or worsening of any chronic illness or condition. It’s when a chronic illness recurs after having been successfully managed or treated for an extended period of time. Sadly, no matter how long a person abstains or remains in remission, there is always the danger of resurgence. This is just as true of drug and alcohol addiction as it is with any other diagnosed illness.  Although relapse events can seem sudden, there are often subtle signs of a developing relapse. For addicts, these can include:

  • Spending more time alone
  • Lacking structure or adequate stimulation
  • Intentional exposure to unhealthy relationships or environments
  • Decreasing interest in important recovery-related activities
  • Intense, negative emotions without strategies for alleviating them

Relapse happens in several distinct stages. Long before physical use occurs, you may find yourself gradually drifting away from the preventative strategies that you learned in addiction treatment. Detoxing and completing rehab are important parts of your journey. However, they’re also merely the first steps towards getting well and staying that way. Detox and rehab establish a foundation for lasting sobriety. Patients learn many tools while in addiction treatment. These tools are vital for providing coping strategies for when treatment ends.

What Contributes to a Relapse?

There are many things that might contribute to a person’s relapse. Some people simply don’t spend enough time in addiction treatment. When rehab is too short, it doesn’t fully prepare people for the stressors and temptations of the outside world. The risk of relapse is highest during the first year of recovery. With many people spending just 30 days in addiction treatment, staying clean can be difficult without follow-up. Even when people complete three-month or even six-month rehab programs, it’s important to continue recovery with the help of:

  • Outpatient treatment
  • Sober living facilities
  • Sober sponsors
  • Accountability partners
  • Sober meetings
  • Support groups

or structured relapse prevention programs. Addiction treatment should take a needs-specific approach to help people battle addiction. Your post-treatment support should be streamlined to suit your unique needs as well. Sometimes people relapse as the result of overconfidence. Many people feel very accomplished after leaving rehab. Although this sense of accomplishment is well-deserved, overconfidence can cause a person to take unnecessary risks or face unnecessary challenges including:

  • Returning to high-risk environments like bars, clubs, or other venues where people are drinking or using drugs,
  • Forgoing all forms of post-treatment support
  • Considering themselves as “cured”
  • Failing to practice adequate self-care
  • Considering ways to return to substance use in a limited or “controlled” fashion

Sometimes relapse is the result of external triggers. Job loss, housing loss, and tension with family members are among some of the most common relapse triggers. Excess stress, chronic depression, and prolonged bouts of insomnia are internal triggers that recovering addicts can face. Whenever there’s discomfort that people don’t know how to resolve in healthful ways, the temptation to use can arise.  For addicts with co-occurring disorders, failing to stay on top of treatments or management strategies for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or any other secondary mental health issue is problematic. Failing to take prescribed medications or participate in structured stress management activities can leave those with co-occurring disorders vulnerable to relapse. Even watching movies or listening to music with drug use can be a trigger.

Symptoms of a Relapse

One of the most important things to know about relapse is that it starts long before a person uses drugs or alcohol. The warning signs of relapse are usually there. Spending increasing amounts of time in isolation is a very common symptom of relapse. In isolation, people are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. They are also more likely to fantasize about drug use or glamorize it. Self-isolation also keeps recovering addicts separated from their supports systems. Saying connected to people, organizations, and services can help prevent a physical relapse event. In the later stages of relapse, people often reflect positively on their past substance abuse. They may start bartering with themselves or rationalizing a return drug use. When relapse occurs early on, the brain is often still healing and adjusting to sobriety. Its reward center is still conditioned to associate substance use with immediate gratification. As such, when feelings like boredom, malaise, depression, or anxiety become severe, using substances can seem like a worthwhile solution.

Types of Relapses

With alcohol or drug addiction, there are three distinct types of relapse. These are:

  • Emotional relapse
  • Mental relapse
  • Physical relapse

Emotional Relapse

During emotional relapses, people aren’t actively thinking about using drugs or alcohol. In fact, most don’t realize that they’re relapsing or in real danger of doing so. Instead, they’re engaging in behaviors that cause their emotions to spiral out of control. Poor stress management due to a poorly structured life or lack of stability could be making them feel overwhelmed. During emotional relapses, many people lack good nutrition and adequate social interaction. Factors like these can contribute to deficiency-related mood balance issues, boredom, and even feelings of hopelessness.

Mental Relapse

Mental relapse follows emotional relapse. During a mental relapse, people are regularly thinking about using. They reminisce on the short-term pleasure derived from drug or alcohol use, but they rarely think about the consequences that using once caused. In this stage, people are less likely to go to sober meetings. They’re also less likely to connect with anyone who might be an integral part of their recovery plan. Mental relapse is the final step before physical use occurs.

Physical Relapse

Physical relapse is the process of using drugs or alcohol. Physical relapse can look very different from one person to the next. For instance, some people might have a single drink while out with friends. Others may drink to intoxication, blackout, or develop alcohol poisoning. Physical relapse can occur in the company of others or when a person is completely alone. Given the shame and other negative emotions tied to relapse, there’s often much secrecy involved.

Stages of a Relapse

Each type of relapse can be considered its own separate stage, with one stage gradually progressing towards the next. The symptoms of emotional relapse are subtle. In emotional relapse, people often internalize much of the angst and dissatisfaction that they feel. However, when emotional relapse becomes a mental relapse, signs such as declining self-care, mood balance issues, and general distress become increasingly noticeable. As the final stage of relapse, physical relapse can occur just once or it can span for weeks or even months. 

What to Do If You’ve Relapsed

Relapse doesn’t mean that a person’s recovery is over. In fact, relapsing is so common that it’s an expected part of the recovery process. It indicates a need for longer treatment or more post-treatment support. In rehab, people learn healthy coping strategies for dealing with temptation and outside stressors. They also learn how to identify common internal and external triggers, and how to avoid them. Relapse highlights the importance of using the skills learned in addiction treatment. It also sheds light on addiction-related challenges that weren’t properly addressed during a person’s initial rehab. At Recovery Bay, we offer a comprehensive range of addiction services and treatment programs. If you’re worried about relapse, are in the early stages of relapse, or want to proactively stave relapse off, our relapse prevention services can help. Call us today to find out more about the post-treatment services we provide. Find the right program or support options for your needs today.