For someone who is recovering from alcohol use, as well as for their family and loved ones, the possibility of a relapse is a constant fear. The idea of an alcohol relapse occurring can be frightening, but that’s why it’s important to learn about alcohol relapse rates, the signs of a relapse, common triggers and what you can do to prevent a relapse.
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What Is an Alcohol Relapse?
Alcoholism is defined as a chronic condition that is the most severe version of alcohol abuse. When someone has an alcohol use disorder, they can’t control their drinking and they continue to drink even when there are negative side effects. Alcohol use disorder can be classified based on severity, including mild, moderate and severe. It’s treatable, but if it goes untreated, it can lead to serious destruction and even death.
A person who abuses alcohol will feel like they are not able to function in their daily life without the use of alcohol. This is due to the changes in their brain chemistry as a result of their drinking. As with other chronic diseases, alcoholism does have treatment options, and it can be managed.
People will often go through treatment and have a period of sobriety. But what happens if after being sober, someone starts drinking again? This is an alcohol relapse. An alcohol relapse means that you go back to drinking after having a period of sobriety without the use of alcohol.
Stages of Alcoholic Relapse
The progression towards relapse is a unique experience for each person in the situation. Perhaps, someone is triggered by a person, place or thing linked to addiction that spontaneously restarts use, or maybe the relapse has been building under the surface for days, weeks or months. One way to think about restarted alcohol use is through the stages of relapse.
- Stage One - Emotional Relapse
This three step process begins with an emotional relapse. Here, the strong emotions connected to former alcohol use start to reemerge. Unwanted feelings connected to emotional relapse include:
- Anger and frustration
- Anxiety and worry
Some wanted feelings may trigger an emotional relapse. People who regularly drank when they were in good moods may relapse when feeling happy, proud or excited.
- Stage Two - Mental Relapse
When the feelings of an emotional relapse emerge, they can create a mental relapse. During this second stage, the person will be battling with the internal conflict of relapse. On the one hand, they will see the negatives associated with relapse while also seeing the perceived positives that come with alcohol use.
During a mental relapse, a person can start planning and preparing for the relapse.
- Stage Three - Physical Relapse
With the emotional and mental relapses in place, a person is at risk for the third stage of relapse – physical relapse. This stage is when the person actually consumes alcohol. Their relapse could be one drink, or it could be a four-day binge that ends with very serious outcomes.
If you are in recovery and can see the stages of relapse progressing, invest some time and energy towards relapse prevention to lower the risks.
Signs of an Alcohol Relapse
It’s important to learn to spot alcohol relapse symptoms because the earlier these are recognized, the sooner action can be taken and the better the chances of preserving long-term recovery. This is true for the person in recovery as well as their loved ones.
- Some of the warning signs of alcohol relapse include:
- Feeling a lack of pleasure from everyday life
- High stress
- Not engaging in aftercare programs such as 12-step groups following treatment
Other alcohol relapse warning signs can include:
- Feeling angry or resentful
- Starting to deny a problem exists
- Having overconfidence of complacency
In some cases, there’s also something called “dry drunk” behavior that can occur. This means that even though a person hasn’t yet relapsed, they begin acting in many of the same ways they did when they were drinking.
The signs of an alcohol relapse will vary from person to person, so be sure to observe behavior changes along the way. Over time, patterns will develop to show a relapse is coming.
Common Alcohol Triggers
For recovering alcoholics and even their families and loved ones, understanding and identifying their triggers for alcohol use is important as well. If the person has easily identified triggers, it can be easier to avoid a relapse.
- Most common alcohol relapse triggers
- Being with friends who you used to drink with
- Certain times of year, like holidays or anniversaries
- Visiting places you drank
- Having unwanted emotions related to any number of situations
- Being exposed to alcohol
- Changes in finances
- Relationship problems
If the person in recovery encounters these triggers, they may be more tempted than normal to drink again. A solid prevention plan will take triggers into account and identify strategies to address them.
Mitch’s Story of Overcoming Chronic Relapses
While relapsing can bring about shame and feelings of failure, a relapse is generally accepted as an expected part of the recovery process for most people. It doesn’t mean that you’ve failed in your recovery. It can be compared to someone having a flare-up of their diabetes or hypertension symptoms.
It can be important to make a distinction between a full-blown relapse and a slip-up. With a relapse, you fully go back into old patterns of out-of-control drinking, and it can require going back into treatment and other steps to get back to sobriety.
With a slip-up, you might have a drink, but you quickly realize it’s the wrong path for you, and it doesn’t go further than that. With a relapse, because of the shame and guilt, the situation can become dire, particularly if it’s not dealt with early on.
Alcohol Relapse Prevention
Is alcohol relapse prevention possible? Overall, between 40 and 60% of people with substance use disorders, including alcohol use disorder will relapse at some point in their recovery. Some people will never relapse while others will relapse multiple times.
For some people, relapse during recovery is an inevitable part of being successful over the long-term because it teaches them how to use coping strategies even when they’re triggered, but this isn’t the case for everyone. There are alcohol relapse prevention steps that can be taken, and these can be valuable because going back to sobriety after a relapse can be extremely difficult.
One way to prevent relapse is to receive specialized substance use treatment early in the recovery process. People who attend the appropriate level of professional addiction treatments tend to have better outcomes, according to The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Also, the time spent in treatment matters. The NIDA reports that the best outcomes occur with treatments lasting three months or longer. People looking for the quickest or easiest forms of treatment may be setting themselves up for a future relapse.
Another important thing to do to prevent an alcohol relapse is to participate in your aftercare treatment plan or program. At any stage of recovery, participating in support groups, like a 12-step program, can help complement the benefits of professional treatment. Support groups provide support and accountability, both of which are so essential to avoiding relapse.
12-step groups like AA and NA are widely-available and popular, but a number of other options like SMART Recovery exist online and in-person. Learn more about accessing support groups here.
Research shows that actually writing down your goals can make it more likely for you to achieve them. Commit your relapse prevention plan to paper and be as descriptive as you can when listing the steps you plan to take to achieve your goal of long-term sobriety. Not sure where to start? Start with a guide to creating a relapse prevention plan.
You should also force yourself to wait before taking a drink, and don’t try to think about how you’ll avoid relapse every day of your life. Instead, as cliché as it may sound, take it one day at a time to avoid a relapse. Think only about the present moment and day, and worry about the rest when the time comes.
For people who become overconfident in their ability to stay sober without aftercare, or who lose interest, the risk of relapse is much higher. Create your prevention plan while you’re still feeling strong and resolute in your recovery. If you are at a point where you feel like you could relapse, reach out for help or call someone who can support you. This is another advantage of a 12-step program. You’ll have a sponsor as well as other people from the group who can help you get through the urge to relapse.