The Three Stages of Drug and Alcohol Relapse

For many, relapse is part of recovery from addiction. In fact, according to, it is believed that 40 to 60 percent of addicts relapse at least once during their recovery.

However, just because someone relapses, it does not mean they failed at recovery. Many view relapse as a learning experience and take into account what not to do the next time around for their recovery.

Though relapse is often unplanned and impulsive, there are certain warning signs that can point to the danger of a potential drug or alcohol relapse.

In fact, often relapse is thought to have three separate stages – emotional, mental and physical. The following are a more in-depth explanation about the stages of relapse and include what to watch for in yourself or in others.

1. Emotional relapse

During this stage, a person is not actively thinking about using a drug or drinking alcohol. However, their behavior and actions may be setting them up to head down that road.

Emotional relapse can be detected through symptoms such as anxiety, intolerance, anger, defensiveness, mood swings, isolation, failing to attend meetings and poor sleeping and eating habits.

It is believed that this stage of relapse aligns with Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS), during which an addict experiences emotional and psychological withdrawals rather than physical ones.

Physical withdrawals only last a few weeks whereas PAWS can last up to two years after an addict stops using. PAWS episodes tend to last a few days at a time and include the symptoms listed above.

2. Mental relapse

During this stage, the mind is battling between using and not using. Part of the addict wants to use, while the other part of them wants to continue with their recovery.

Signs of mental relapse may include reminiscing about the people and places associated with your past life, glamorizing your past use, lying, spending time with people you used with, thinking about relapse and even planning relapse.

Often, recovering addicts are the only ones who can really pinpoint these symptoms of mental relapse as internal battles are harder for others to pick up on.

4 Techniques That Prevent Mental Relapse

When the process of mental relapse begins, there are some techniques an addict can use in order to regain control of their thinking and make the choice to not drink or use.

1. Call someone. Whether this be a sponsor, friend, or family member, talking your urges through with another person can help in determining why you want to use and why you shouldn’t.

Talking your thoughts through with another person makes them seem less intimidating and even less logical when it comes to reasons for wanting to use.

Being able to talk to someone about your urges may bring you some clarity as to why using will not solve any problems but only create more.

2. Make yourself wait 30 minutes. Before impulsively acting on an urge to use, wait half an hour and reevaluate your urges and your reasoning behind them. Sometimes the passing of time can help clear things up in the mind.

3. Think about what would happen if you had one drink or used once. Likely it wouldn’t stop there and you’d eventually find yourself at the same bottom you previously hit, if not a deeper one. Thinking about actions and their consequences can curb the desire to use.

4. Don’t think about every day. Think about today. Even people who have been sober for decades take their sobriety one day at a time. Thinking about it in terms of years or forever is too intimidating for anyone, and will likely result in feeling overwhelmed and wanting to use.

Instead of thinking about forever, focus on making it through one day without using. Then focus on that again the next day and repeat. Before you know it, the days will add up.

3. Physical relapse

Unfortunately, the techniques in stage two do not work for everyone and some people do resort to acting on their urges to use. This stage of relapse includes the actual physical decision to use.

When an addict hits this stage of relapse, some will continue to use for months, but others realize what they’ve done and the focus becomes recovery.

After relapsing, there are certain steps that can be taken in order to get yourself back on the right track.

10 activities to help prevent relapse

A common recovery strategy is to replace your current addiction with positive activities. There are a number of substitutions to choose from, each helping to fill what might feel like a gap in your life.

  • Useful Tasks – Cooking, doing the dishes, sweeping the floor, ironing your clothes, and cleaning your room are activities that lead to a sense of empowerment and contribute to an environment of well-being that supports sobriety.
  • Exercise – Running, lifting weights, walking, and yoga are all hobbies that release endorphins within your body and allow you to feel healthier and alive, naturally.
  • Games – Board games, card games, and video games can all serve as healthy distractions for a person in recovery and a safe activity away from harmful substances.
  • Art – Music, painting, writing, sculpting, etc. are some more artistic approaches you can challenge your brain to think in new creative ways. These types of activities are often great coping methods as they serve as outlets for self expression.
  • Crafts – Do-it-yourself projects, tie-dyeing shirts, sewing, creating jewelry, etc. also serve as self-expressive hobbies that allow people to find joy and accomplishment through a creative challenge.
  • Entertainment – Watching a movie or going out to a show are great healthy distractions for people to focus their attention away from any negativity that may be experiencing.
  • Social Activities – It’s important to be social. Though it’s more significant you’re socializing with the right people. Socializing with supporting friends and family is key while in recovery.
  • Reading – Reading is a great exercise to expand your mind and to keep your brain preoccupied and away from harmful tempting thoughts.
  • Sports – Becoming involved in a sport allows a person to commit themselves in a positive manner while gaining both the benefits of exercise and healthy socializing.
  • Volunteering – Helping others will only reinforce your passion to help yourself. There is never a wrong time for encouragement, whether that pertains to you or a peer.

We surveyed 2,136 American adults who either wanted to stop drinking alcohol or had already tried to (successfully or not). When asked which relapse prevention strategies they used to stay in recovery:

  • 49% used exercise for relapse prevention
  • 37.1% avoided triggering activities, people and places
  • 34.6% pointed to lifestyle changes they’d made
  • 34.3% used an aftercare treatment plan, including regular therapy appointments
  • 35.0% used 12-step programs or other support groups
  • 28.7% took medication to curb their dependence
  • 22.9% took to journaling
  • 24.6% cited their religion or spirituality as a factor

What To Do If You’ve Relapsed

1. Talk to and spend time with appropriate people. Rather than continuing to hang out with your friends who use, call a sponsor or a sober friend and make plans.

If you feel comfortable, talk through the reasons for your relapse and discuss what you can do differently in the future to avoid the same thing happening again.

2. Allow yourself to feel your emotions and recognize where they are coming from. Relapse often results in emotions such as guilt, shame, and frustration, which are not enjoyable emotions, but are necessary to understand.

Continuing to bury your feelings will likely result in using again so it is vital to let yourself feel and to validate those feelings. It doesn’t make you weak to cry or ask to talk to someone. It’s a smart move if you care about your recovery.

3. Don’t isolate yourself. Even though the last thing you probably want to do is spend time with friends who don’t quite understand what you’re going through, make the plans anyway. Spending time alone will result in feelings of isolation which can often lead to another relapse.

Though a relapse can be daunting, there is always a way back to sobriety and recovery. Sometimes it may seem like a long road, but that’s when one day at a time comes into play.

Written by: Beth Leipholtz

Beth is a newspaper reporter and graphic designer from Minnesota who writes about the realities of getting sober young. Follow her on Twitter.

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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