Recovery is a challenging process and sometimes relapse can be a part of that journey. Relapse doesn’t need to end in resuming use of substances. People can and do bounce back after relapse.

Recovery from substance use disorder is a challenging journey. Sometimes the stressors of life can mount up and the end result can be a relapse. We’ve all heard a variation on the saying that “relapse is a part of recovery,” and there is true wisdom in these words. The important part of a relapse during recovery is what one is able to learn from it.

Seek Support

Often relapse means that there are unmet needs that require attention.  It can be difficult to clearly see one’s own challenges, and sometimes the best solution is turning to external sources to talk through one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

  • Support Groups. The camaraderie and support in a group of people with similar challenges is priceless. Often as people share their difficulties in support groups, their peers are familiar with the struggle and have been there themselves. Being among people who have lived the experience of addiction is one of the most important things people in recovery can do to maintain sobriety and bounce back after a relapse. Support groups can offer empathy, honesty, and suggestions for coping strategies during difficult moments.
  • Friends, Family & Loved Ones. It may be tempting to hide a relapse from your loved ones. Living with this secret only reinforces the addiction mindset and creates shame and guilt. Coming clean about behaviors is an important part of the recovery process. Tell on yourself. Even if your friends and family are disappointed and sad, the support you will receive for getting back on track will feel like a lifeline when you need it most.

Emotional Self-Regulation

Is relapse a necessary part of recovery? During the process of recovery, relapse is common. An important part of recovering from (and avoiding) relapse is to take an emotional inventory. Facing feelings of anger, depression, sadness, shame, and stress is a necessary step in coming to terms with feelings and releasing them. Emotions that are avoided don’t just disappear. When people stuff their feelings they often manifest them in other ways; sometimes this can mean using substances to mask the pain.

Consider Further Treatment

Relapse is a normal part of recovery. Relapse is also a signal that additional treatment may be needed. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as part of a recovery program can be a valuable way to sort through thoughts and feelings that have contributed to relapse. Friends, family and support groups are healthy parts of a recovery plan, but the professional support of an individual therapist can take healing to a new level. The non-judgmental and confidential support of a counselor can help in identifying areas of need as well as strengths that can help sustain you during difficult moments.

Remember, Relapse is Part of Recovery

Though it is a difficult fact to accept, relapse is part of recovery. After relapse it is crucial to seek support, practice emotional regulation skills and consider obtaining the support of a professional. It is also important to make a plan for avoiding future pitfalls for your sobriety. Working through the underlying issues that contribute to relapse can help prevent it from becoming an ongoing pattern of behavior.

Learn to Recognize Triggers

Even though relapse is a part of the recovery process, you can learn to recognize the aspects of life that trigger urges to use. Do particular people cause undue stress in your life or remind you of times when you used substances regularly? Figuring out your triggers can help you formulate a plan of action to reduce your chances for relapse.

Avoid Risky Situations

Once you understand your emotional triggers and triggers for use, it will be easier to avoid risky situations. It may mean that you spend less time with certain friends, or need to change your work habits if that involves after-shift drinks with co-workers. As time in recovery increases, it will become more clear the types of scenarios put you at risk, and easier to avoid those situations for your own health and wellness.

Use Your Relapse as an Opportunity for Growth

Relapse can be educational. What leads to your relapse? What unmet needs contributed to that slip? Often relapse occurs when we aren’t listening to our internal cues and needs and resort to old habits that no longer serve us. To avoid going into autopilot and relapse mode, stay aware of your needs and pay attention to what is driving your behaviors. Ask yourself that crucial question, “What do I really need right now?” Sometimes exploring those underlying needs can help avoid relapse. One recommended strategy is to use the well-known acronym H.A.L.T. (Hungry Angry Lonely Tired) to check in with your feelings and bodily sensations.

Reinforce What You Learn in Treatment

Relapse is a part of recovery, and treatment is an important part of healing. As you explore thoughts and feelings related to substance use, practice some of the self-care and coping strategies in your daily life. Most importantly, sit honestly with your emotions and commit yourself to self-compassion and healthy management of those feelings. You aren’t alone; reach out to support groups, family, friends, and professionals and let people help.

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Editor – Daron Christopher
Daron Christopher is an experienced speechwriter, copywriter and communications consultant based in Washington, DC. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Paula Holmes, LCSW
Paula Holmes is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist and freelance writer who lives and works in midcoast Maine. She received her master's degree in Social Work in 2008 from the University of Maine. Read more

Melemis, Steven, M. “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.”  National Institute of Health. September 3, 2015. Accessed August 22, 2019.

Green, Kate. “5 Tips for Managing Triggers during Addiction Recovery.” Last updated July 8, 2018. Accessed August 22, 2019.

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.