For many, relapse is part of recovery from addiction. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it is believed that 40–60% of people struggling with addiction relapse at least once during their recovery.

However, relapse does not mean that a person has failed at recovery. It is more helpful to view relapse as a learning experience and use it as a way to know what not to do in the future.

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, experts say that relapse occurs in three separate stages — emotional, mental and physical. Understanding the stages of relapse can help you watch for signs of imminent relapse in yourself or others.

Article at a Glance:  

  • Around 40-60 percent of addicts relapse at least once during recovery.  
  • Emotional relapse involves anxiety, anger, defensiveness, and mood swings.  
  • Mental relapse is a stage where the mind is in a battle between using and not using.  
  • Physical relapse involves the actual decision to use drugs or alcohol again. 
  • Spending time with positive people and allowing yourself to feel emotions can help if you’ve relapsed.  
  • 1. Emotional Relapse

    During this stage, a person is not actively thinking about using a drug or drinking alcohol, but their feelings and behaviors are placing them at risk for using again.

    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. Someone who is experiencing emotional relapse may also begin to keep their emotions to themselves, focus on other people’s problems instead of addressing their own, and stop practicing self-care. 

    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 from alcohol and drugs only last a few weeks, whereas PAWS can last up to two years after an addicted person stops using. PAWS episodes tend to last a few days at a time and include the symptoms listed above. If a person does not find ways to cope with these psychological symptoms, they may return to using drugs or alcohol to alleviate negative emotions.

  • 2. Mental Relapse

    During this stage, the mind is battling between using and not using. Part of the addicted person wants to use, while the other part wants to continue with their recovery. A person in recovery may begin bargaining during the mental relapse stage. They may convince themselves it is okay to use drugs or alcohol on special occasions, such as on a holiday or during a vacation.

    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 substances with, thinking about relapse, and even planning relapse. A person at this stage may also begin craving drugs or alcohol and looking for opportunities to use again. 

    Often, people recovering from addiction are the only ones who can really pinpoint these symptoms of mental relapse, as internal battles are harder for others to detect.

    4 Techniques That Prevent Mental Relapse

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

    1. Call someone. Whether this is a sponsor, friend or family member, processing your urges with another person can help you determine why you want to use and why you shouldn’t. Talking about your thoughts of using with another person makes them seem less intimidating and even less logical.

    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 you clear your mind.

    3. Think about what would happen if you had one drink or used once. Likely, it wouldn’t stop with one drink or one hit of a drug, and you’d eventually find yourself back in the cycle of full-blown addiction. 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 abstinence in terms of years or the rest of your life can be intimidating, which can overwhelm you to the point of wanting to use again.

    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 long, you will look back and realize that you’ve achieved months, or even years, of sobriety.

  • 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 marks the final stage of relapse, called a physical relapse, in which a person takes a drink or uses a drug again.

    At this stage of relapse, some people will continue to use for months, but others realize what they’ve done, and their focus returns to recovery.

    After relapsing, there are certain steps that can be taken to get yourself back on the right track. Experts recommend that those in recovery think about situations where they’ll have the opportunity to use and rehearse what they will do to prevent relapse.

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 naturally feel healthier and alive.

  • 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 use to challenge your brain to think in creative new 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 healthy distractions for people to focus their attention away from any negativity they may be experiencing.

  • Social Activities:

    It’s important to be social, though it’s more significant that you’re socializing with the right people. Socializing with supportive friends and family is key while in recovery. Interacting with those you used to drink or use drugs with make relapse more likely.

  • Reading:

    Reading is a great exercise to expand your mind and 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 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, they reported the following:

  • 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 spend time 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 difficult but necessary emotions to understand.

    Continuing to bury your feelings will likely result in using again, so it is vital to let yourself feel and 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. In fact, burying feelings can be the first sign of emotional relapse.

  • 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 plans anyway. Spending time alone will result in feelings of isolation, which can often lead to another relapse.

  • 4. Consider adding to or modifying your treatment plan.

    Remember that a relapse does not mean failure. If you have relapsed, it is probably time to talk to your treatment team to try another approach or add additional treatments. Just as you might return to the doctor if symptoms of a physical illness return, a relapse during the course of addiction indicates that it is likely time for professional intervention.
    Though a relapse can be daunting, there is always a way back to sobriety and recovery. Though it may feel like a long road, it’s helpful to focus on staying sober one day at a time.

If you are looking for treatment for addiction, or additional support throughout your recovery journey, The Recovery Village has locations across the country and can treat both addiction and co-occurring mental illness. Contact us today to learn more.

  • Sources

    Melemis, Steven M. “Relapse prevention and the five rules of recovery.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, September 2015. Accessed July 17, 2021.

    National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Can addiction be treated successfully?” July 10, 2020. Accessed July 17, 2021.

    Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS).” Accessed July 17, 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.

    View our editorial policy or view our research.

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