Article at a Glance:

  • Alcohol relapse occurs in almost one-third of recovering alcoholics during their first year of sobriety.
  • Different types of relapses exist, including short-term slips, lapses and longer-term relapses.
  • Relapse is a common stumbling block during the recovery process and does not mean that you should give up on becoming sober.

Alcohol Relapse Statistics

Having a substance abuse disorder like alcohol use disorder or alcoholism means that you have a chronic health condition, much like diabetes or high blood pressure. As such, alcoholism is never truly cured but is instead managed. It usually requires professional treatment for people to become sober. People then must maintain their sobriety over the years by participating in aftercare and supportive programs, such as 12-step groups.

When you are an alcoholic and have achieved sobriety, you are in recovery. However, it takes work to stay in recovery, and even the hardest-working person can experience slips, lapses and relapses during the alcohol recovery process.

What Percentage of Alcoholics Relapse?

Over 30% of people who attempt to stop drinking relapse in their first year of sobriety. However, while the first years can be the hardest, the relapse rate does go down over time: in one study, 21.4% of recovering alcoholics relapsed in their second year in recovery, but only 9.6% relapsed in years three through five, and only 7.2% relapsed after five years in recovery. This means, more than 70% of people struggling with alcohol abuse will relapse at some point.

What Percentage of Alcoholics Stay Sober?

The longer an alcoholic stays sober, the better their chances are for long-term sobriety. Overall, among people sober for five years, the chances of relapsing are less than 15%, according to Psychology Today.

However, it is important to realize that the threat of relapse is always present. For this reason, a recovering alcoholic should stay involved in aftercare options like Alcoholics Anonymous to stay focused on sobriety.

RELATED: Demystifying the Truth about Alcohol and Drug Rehab Success Rates

How Can Thoughts & Cravings for Alcohol Lead to a Relapse?

Nobody intends for a relapse to occur. They happen accidentally and often result from situations that snowball. A single thought can trigger a cascade of events that eventually lead to a relapse:

  • The trigger: People who struggle with drinking often have triggers that they associated with drinking in the past. For some people, it might be a location, such as a certain bar, where they used to drink or a group of people with whom they used to drink. Being around past triggers can make a person start thinking about drinking again.
  • The thought: The way you think about a trigger can determine whether you continue on to a relapse. For example, it is common for people to mentally justify having a drink by allowing themselves to have thoughts like, “I’m around my old friends, and I’ll only have one drink; I can control it.” These thoughts are red flags that can make a person more likely to relapse when they struggle with alcohol.
  • The craving: Once you have given yourself mental permission to exit sobriety, it can be very difficult to control your drinking. You may find yourself drinking for longer than you intended or drinking more than you intended.
  • The relapse: Guilt and hopelessness are common feelings after a person in recovery has had a drink. They may think they are a failure and are unable to maintain sobriety. These negative thoughts reinforce the slip-up. Further, they feed a sense of hopelessness that can lead to the person continuing to drink, possibly convinced that they are now unable to stop.

What’s the Difference Between the Types of Relapses (Slips, Lapses & Relapses)?

Several types of relapses exist. Knowing which one you are facing can help you prepare yourself to overcome the situation and reenter sobriety:

  • Slip: A slip is a single instance of drinking after you have been abstinent. It is a one-time situation.
  • Lapse: A lapse is several instances of drinking after you have achieved abstinence. It means that you have drunk more than one alcoholic beverage, but you have not returned to your previous alcohol abuse patterns.
  • Relapse: A relapse occurs when you not only start drinking again but also return to a pattern of alcohol abuse.

What are the 3 Stages of a Relapse?

Even if you relapse, returning to a problematic pattern of drinking, the relapse itself does not occur all at once. Instead, alcohol relapses tend to occur in three distinct stages:

  1. Emotional relapse: A person is not actively drinking or thinking about drinking when they are in emotional relapse. However, they have thought patterns and actions that may be setting them up for a future relapse. For example, a person might start feeling hopeless. They might start breaking their sobriety routines, such as missing their group therapy meetings.
  2. Mental relapse: Someone in a mental relapse is waging an internal struggle where part of themselves wants to remain sober, and the other part wants to use alcohol. When a person is in a mental relapse, they may start drinking again at any time. Those involved in 12-step programs are encouraged to call their sponsors during a mental relapse to help them avoid drinking.
  3. Physical relapse: In a physical relapse, a person starts actively drinking alcohol again, resuming previous patterns of alcohol abuse.

How Can I Avoid a Relapse?

The longer you abstain from alcohol, the better your chances of success. The key is to understand alcohol relapse statistics, know your triggers, and constantly work on ways to avoid a relapse. As with anything, the more you work at it and the longer you work, the better you’ll be at avoiding a potential relapse.

If you find yourself in a crisis and are scared you may relapse, there are several steps you can take to avoid a relapse:

  • Call someone: This may be a sponsor, family member or friend. A supportive listener can help talk you through your cravings and help you decide not to drink.
  • Make yourself wait for 30 minutes before drinking: By forcing yourself to wait a certain period of time before having a drink, you are allowing your thoughts to settle and your cravings to possibly lessen.
  • Think about the consequences: Taking some time to remember the reasons that drove you to seek sobriety in the first place can give you perspective and may help you choose to avoid drinking.
  • Stay sober one day at a time: By focusing on staying sober in the present moment, instead of for months or years at a time, you give yourself a manageable goal to avoid drinking in the short term.

How Should I Deal With a Relapse?

Even after being sober for years, the potential for an alcohol relapse is always possible. People who relapse may feel guilt, shame and hopelessness. However, just because a relapse occurs doesn’t mean someone has failed recovery. Relapse can be part of the recovery process, and it can strengthen someone’s dedication to long-term sobriety if it occurs and is properly handled.

If you have relapsed, steps you can take to overcome the relapse include:

  • Don’t feel guilty: Feelings of guilt and shame are not productive. The first step in overcoming the relapse is to accept that it occurred.
  • Don’t isolate yourself: Feelings of shame and embarrassment over the relapse can make a person reluctant to reach out for help. However, isolation and depression can contribute to relapses. Seek support and remember that relapses are common.
  • Look at what went wrong: Identifying what went wrong in terms of your thoughts, behaviors and actions that led to the relapse can help you avoid making the same mistake again.
  • Recommit to sobriety: By recommitting to staying sober, you recognize that sobriety is a marathon, not a sprint. As such, you realize that one relapse does not dictate your future.

How Does Stress Lead to Risk of an Alcohol Relapse?

Alcohol addiction experts have long been aware that stress increases the risk of alcohol relapse. One of the reasons for this is that stress can increase the risk of low mood and anxiety, which in turn are linked to alcohol cravings.

Experts think this occurs because the neural circuits involved in stress and mood are the same circuits involved in the brain’s reward system. For this reason, stress can trigger the same brain circuits that were triggered when you sought alcohol in the past. This means stress can lead to cravings, which can lead to a relapse.

Does a Relapse Mean That You Need to Attend Alcohol Rehab Again?

Whether your relapse means that you need to attend treatment again depends on several factors. These include how long the relapse lasted and how much you were drinking during the relapse. An extended relapse with heavy drinking can put you at risk of alcohol withdrawal symptoms, which can be dangerous. If you’ve experienced an extended relapse, you’ll likely benefit from medical detox, where any withdrawal symptoms are managed under medical supervision. Once your doctors in detox have made a full assessment of your condition, they will be able to recommend whether or not they think you would benefit from going back to rehab. Likewise, if you have not previously completed alcohol rehab after detox, you should consider this as a way to increase your chances of long-term sobriety.

Generally, at the very least, a relapse likely means that you need additional support while in recovery, also known as aftercare. Aftercare can consist of sober living houses, 12-step programs and ongoing therapy. These help keep you focused on your recovery, reducing your risk of relapse.

If you struggle with drinking or struggling to maintain your recovery from alcohol addiction, The Recovery Village Drug and Alcohol Rehab can help. Contact our alcohol addiction recovery experts today to learn more.

  • Sources

    Manejwala, Omar. “How Often Do Long-Term Sober Alcoholics and Addicts Relapse?” Psychology Today, February 13, 2014. Accessed May 8, 2021.

    University of Maryland Baltimore County. “Recovery.” Accessed May 8, 2021.

    Sinha, Rajita. “How Does Stress Lead to Risk of Alcohol Relapse?” Alcohol Research Current Reviews, 2012. Accessed May 8, 2021.

  • Medical Disclaimer

    The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a 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 provider.

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