For anyone in recovery from alcohol abuse, relapse is always an option. Working to establish a relapse prevention plan is a must to protect your sobriety.

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.

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:

  • Fear
  • Anger and frustration
  • Loneliness
  • Anxiety and worry
  • Denial
  • 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:
    • Anxiety
    • 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:

    • Isolation
    • 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 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
    • Boredom

    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.

    Helping a Loved One Avoid Relapse

    As the loved one of someone in recovery, there are ways you can help preserve their recovery and prevent a relapse.

    • Keep communication open. Without a solid foundation of communication, your loved one may not feel comfortable telling you when cravings and unwanted thoughts start. Make sure the person knows that you are available day and night to aid the process.
    • Offer love and support. Employing anger, guilt and shame will not encourage your loved one in their recovery. You cannot force someone into recovery. Your loved one needs to know that you will provide love and support without judgment to assist their recovery.
    • Reinforce the prevention plan. Ideally, you should have a copy of your loved one’s relapse prevention plan. When you see the signs that a relapse is coming, you can take action or encourage them to use their recovery skills.
    • Know your limitations. Some people become so focused on maintaining their loved one’s recovery that they take too much responsibility. No one can stop your loved one from a relapse. If they relapse, it is not because of something you did or did not. Only they are responsible for their actions.

    Remember, you are an important part of the treatment team with enormous power to do good for your loved one. Taking these steps can help make their long-term recovery a reality.

    If you or someone you love is struggling with alcohol or alcohol relapse, call The Recovery Village. Additional treatment or more intense aftercare, like sober living, may be needed to find sobriety after a relapse. An intake coordinator can speak to you about your specific needs and a plan to meet them.

    Renee Deveney
    Editor – Renee Deveney
    As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
    Eric Patterson
    Medically Reviewed By – Eric Patterson, LPC
    Eric Patterson is a licensed professional counselor in the Pittsburgh area who is dedicated to helping children, adults, and families meet their treatment goals. Read more
    Medical Disclaimer

    The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.