What you need to know about relapse


This is what makes addiction so terrifying; just because someone beats it, does not mean they will forever stay sober. Overcoming an addiction is very possible, but there is a high probability of relapsing.

Addiction is a chronic brain disease that slowly appears over a long period of time. Often a substance, or an activity, that a person initially casually enjoys becomes something that they are not able to live without and the addiction appears. This turns into a constant cycle of addiction, treatment, sobriety and then relapsing and starting the cycle all over again.

What is relapse?

Because an individual struggling with addiction uses, drinks or gambles so often, their brains are chemically affected. They begin to lose a portion of their self-control when it comes to resisting the temptation of the substance or activity they are addicted to. A person in the recovery process is not only relearning how to live life without the substance they’ve abused, but also how to simply avoid the urge.

This is where relapse kicks in. Relapsing means that they have started using once again, after the partial or full completion of their treatment is over. In more instances than not, relapsing happens more than once.

Likelihood of relapse?

About two-thirds of people who have received and successfully finish addiction treatment relapse within the year they completed it. Once a year of sobriety is completed, about half will remain abstinent. The number drops to 15% of chance of relapsing once five years of sobriety is achieved.

It is important to remember that there are people who have been able to stay clean and sober for decades at a time after overcoming their addiction. Although the probability is high for relapsing, it is possible for someone to conquer his or her addiction for a lifetime.

Avoiding triggers

Relapse triggers typically fall into one of three categories: Emotional, environmental or exposure. These can be caused by a specific event, or a relationship or interaction with a person. Every trigger differs for each person.

As far as the emotional triggers, these can be that of negative thoughts and feelings towards someone close to the recovering addict, or even towards themselves. Even positive feelings can make them relapse because it reminds them of how the substance made them feel when they were using. Environmental triggers include sudden changes in routine and loss of sleep that fatigue the recovering addict.

The most influential types of triggers are those of exposure, when an addict hangs out with friends they used with, or revisits a place they used to commonly use at. Exposure also includes that of watching someone else use or just being around objects used for drugs and alcohol.

So, it’s a failure then?

Although it may feel like it, relapsing does NOT equal failure. Every single person’s brain is wired differently; there will be some who can overcome their addiction on the first try, while it will take others ten attempts. This is nothing to be ashamed of. The only thing to possibly change the cycle of addiction is to keep trying to break it. If you view relapsing as a failure, it will only make it harder to keep trying.

Spotting the signs of relapse

It is important for ones closest to recovering addicts to stay aware of the signs of relapse before they become a serious issue. With substance abuse, it is proven that there is a high risk of accidental overdose during a relapse, which is why it is so important to be aware of when someone is showing signs of relapsing.

Here are some warning signs:

Stress: Warning signs of this can be overreacting to situations that wouldn’t normally be stressful. A person going through recovery can see every day activities as overly stressful, but it only becomes a warning sign if they cannot overcome this.

Romanticising: This is when the recovering addict speaks positively about the times they were using and may even hint at the fact that they are wishing to start using again.

Reactivation of denial: When a recovering addict thinks that they could start using again without becoming addicted. It gives them a false sense of how the drugs or alcohol truly affected them.

Behaviour: Any time a recovering addict has mood swings or sudden changes in behaviour, it usually means they are on the brink of a relapse. This can happen because their bodies and minds are still adjusting to life without the substance they were abusing.

How to treat relapse

View it as a brief lapse in judgement instead of a defeat, because doing so allows people to understand that short-term failure does not mean long-term success is impossible.

Then, analyse the situation to identify what led to the relapse. When people figure out what they were feeling and thinking, what their surroundings were and which people were around them during relapse, they can then learn to identify similar situations in the future, and they can avoid or manage problems without relapsing.

Finally, develop a specific coping plan for counteracting or avoiding negative situations. These plans can include anything from using distractions to thinking about the consequences of the behaviour, but they should help people avoid further relapses.

Tabor Group

If you, or someone you love, is struggling with addiction, get help not only for yourself, but for your children as well.

Tabor Group is a leading provider of residential addiction treatment services in Ireland. We provide support and care to hundreds of clients suffering from addictions to alcohol, substances, gambling and eating disorders. For more information on Tabor Group’s services, click here.