What Is Relapse?

Recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction can be a very challenging ordeal. There are many setbacks that people must overcome and endure during the process. However, rehabilitation and recovery from a substance use disorder is possible with proper treatment and resources, along with a supportive network of friends and family that understands the daily struggles that people managing addiction must endure.

During the recovery process, a relapse is possible. The medical definition of drug relapse is a recurring misuse of a substance after stopping use and going through rehabilitation. When a person begins their recovery, they may face numerous challenges and unfortunately the possibility of experiencing a setback is one such challenge.

However, experiencing a setback doesn’t equate to failure, it’s instead an opportunity to find lasting healing and restart the recovery process. With that said, experiencing a relapse is not a certainty for every person suffering from an addiction. Each person’s recovery is different and while one person might experience multiple instances of recurring misuse, another person with a similar addiction might not experience a single relapse. This does not make one individual more successful or less successful, nor does it reveal that someone’s recovery process more or less flawed.

Learning more about the recovery process and the potential for recurring misuse of substances will better prepare people who are suffering from symptoms of addiction and are seeking proper treatment.

Many people ask, “What is relapse?” The answer is complicated because it’s important to avoid labeling someone who has experienced a relapse as flawed or at fault. A relapse occurs any time someone resumes the misuse of substances that are at the center of their addiction. Continuing to misuse of drugs or alcohol happens to some people in recovery because a substance use disorder is a lifelong illness that does not have a permanent cure. Experiencing a relapse does not mean that rehabilitation did not work or that it can’t work. Recovery is possible for everyone, regardless of their past experiences. The most important thing for people who have resumed misusing drugs or alcohol to do is immediately seek treatment and restart rehabilitation. This could include a full medical detoxification from the substances or, if the level of misuse is less severe, enrolling into an inpatient or outpatient rehab program to begin therapy and treatment sessions.
A relapse can involve different experiences for different individuals. One person could suffer from cravings of a substance and re-admit themselves into a rehab program. Another person could resume misuse once and then return to a medical facility. Someone else could attempt to casually take a substance, whether it is drugs or alcohol, and think that they can safely consume it without suffering from an addiction. Each case is as unique as every person’s situation. Regardless of the reason for a relapse, acknowledging the dangers is important. Being aware of the potential for resuming misuse can galvanize people to establish a proper support network to help them overcome these setbacks and challenges during their recovery. Additionally, people who are friends with or family to someone in recovery also should know about the potential for setbacks and the many ways in which they can occur. This knowledge can help people identify when someone has resumed taking a drug or consuming alcohol and how to get them proper medical help.
There are many warning signs of relapse of which people who suffer from addiction, or a friend or family member of someone in recovery, can look out for. This awareness can possibly prevent a more severe addiction from forming and avoid the potential for a life-threatening dependence to take shape. Since relapse is a reality for some individuals, it’s important for that person’s support network to not come off as accusatory when bringing up the subject. Some of the most common relapse signs and triggers that can be identified include:
  • Sudden mood changes
  • Denial of events or behaviors
  • Being secretive
  • Showing irritability
  • Returning to previous habits, routines or social groups, including going to a bar or club where substance misuse could occur
  • Making impulsive decisions
There are some settings or experiences that can also make people prone to resuming misuse of harmful substances. However, it’s important to know that experiencing a relapse is not a certainty for someone in recovery, and by avoiding specific social settings and finding coping strategies to handle cravings can help people avoid pitfalls.
When someone experiences a relapse, whether it’s resuming misuse of drugs or alcohol, this can be an extremely sensitive time in their life. It’s important for their friends and family to show love, support and understanding rather than making accusations or expressing disappointment in their continued struggle. However, there are often causes for a relapse from drugs or alcohol. While a substance use disorder is a lifelong, incurable disease, there are numerous triggers that can cause people to succumb to old habits or their cravings. Some of the most common triggers for drug- and alcohol-related setbacks include:
  • Going to a bar or club
  • Spending time with friends or family members who also misuse drugs or alcohol
  • Returning to places where substance misuse often occurred
  • Experiencing problems in a relationship, whether romantic or plutonic
  • Feeling boredom or a lack of a social life
  • Celebrating a happy occasion, including a birthday or another milestone, at an event where other people are drinking alcohol or misusing drugs
  • Experiencing stressful life situations, whether it be financial burdens or issues at a place of employment
How often do people in recovery relapse? While not every person experiences a setback in recovery, resuming misuse of harmful substances is a challenge that some individuals struggle with.
Close to half of people who suffer from addiction experience a relapse during their recovery. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s “Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide” released in January of 2018, between 40 and 60 percent of people who suffer from drug addiction will experience a setback. Also, a person’s overall length of sobriety affects their chances of relapsing. This can be credited to their physical and psychological strength as they progress in their recovery. As people move beyond addiction, their bodies become less dependent on the substance(s) to which they were addicted before they began detoxification. The longer people go without the drugs or alcohol, the less likely they are to experience intense cravings or suffer from withdrawal symptoms. From the psychological standpoint, people who go through rehabilitation learn coping mechanisms to handle the stresses associated with recovery. During individual therapy sessions, patients find ways to deal with any co-occurring disorders or major negative life events, including professional problems or issues stemming from their childhood or home life. As more time passes since the last misuse of drugs or alcohol, the more empowered a person often feels to continue their recovery. As people reach milestones — whether it be one, five or 10 years sober — they often take pride in their accomplishment, which can make continuing the recovery a little easier.
There is no perfect way to prevent a relapse, just as there is no one method of rehabilitation for everyone, or single way to cure a substance use disorder. However, there are some ways for people in recovery to avoid specific, triggering situations. Friends or family members of people in recovery also should be aware of these prevention strategies to help their loved one avoid a recurring misuse of drugs or alcohol. These methods for preventing relapse include:
  • Changing a person’s social network to avoid being around people who also misuse substances
  • Avoiding specific settings such as bars or nightclubs
  • Consistently attending outpatient programs and 12-step recovery meetings to build a solid support group and find an outlet to discuss potential challenges faced during recovery
  • Remaining active with sober social activities in order to avoid boredom
  • Attending individual therapy sessions
  • Being honest with friends and family about the lifestyle changes and making decisions to avoid being in risky situations
People in recovery may still have to endure challenges and fend off their potential for relapse. There are some substances that have more frequently led to resuming misuse, and knowing which substances have higher setback rates can be helpful for preventing setbacks.
A 2010 study by the Irish Health Repository measured the rate of relapse in 109 people and found specific patterns that led to resuming misuse of substances. The study states that there is a period of time after completing inpatient rehabilitation when people are most susceptible to misusing opiates, a drug classification that includes heroin and methamphetamine. Opiates are not the only drugs that can lead to a recurring misuse. Anyone with an addiction to drugs or alcohol is susceptible to experiencing a relapse. Other common drugs that could lead to relapse include: The Recovery Village understands the challenges that people with a substance use disorder face each day. The possibility for a relapse is often part of the constant struggle, and there is no scientific cure to take away all potential of this occurring. However, there are methods to consider that can make coping with an addiction a little easier. Having a support group in place can help prevent a relapse or take the necessary steps in case one occurs. No matter what level of relapse someone experiences, restarting the rehabilitation process is the healthiest step to continuing recovery. Just because a relapse occurred does not mean the recovery process failed; it just allows an opportunity to build on the setback and create a stronger foundation in the future.
What Is Relapse? | Drug Relapse Definition
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