Relapse does not mean treatment was a failure. It indicates that a person needs supportive services and a modified treatment plan.

Relapse may seem like a failure, but it is actually a part of the recovery process. If you are in treatment for addiction, it is important to know that relapse and recovery can occur together as part of an ongoing journey. Here are five reasons why a relapse doesn’t mean you’ve failed.

Addiction is a Disease

One reason that relapse is not indicative of failure is that drug or alcohol addiction is a chronic relapsing illness. As experts have reported, the research supports that addiction is a brain disease because it weakens the brain’s ability to experience pleasure and motivation, increases a person’s response to stress, creates cravings and unpleasant emotions when cravings go unsatisfied, and impairs functioning of brain regions associated with controlling inhibitions, making decisions, and regulating behavior. 

Because addiction is a disease that affects the way your brain works, relapse is also part of the disease.

Relapse is Common

Relapse is a common part of the recovery process. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), relapse statistics show that 40-60% of people relapse after completing treatment. This relapse rate is comparable to that seen with physical illnesses, such as asthma and high blood pressure, for which the rate of relapse is between 50-70%. 

The chances of relapse after rehab are moderately high, indicating that relapse is a normal part of recovery and not an individual failure. 

The Recovery Village recently surveyed 2,136 American adults who either wanted to stop drinking alcohol or had already tried to (successfully or not). Of those, only 29.4% reported not relapsing at all. The largest group (32.3%) relapsed back to alcohol use within the first year after stopping. With perseverance, your chances of relapsing decrease the longer you stay sober: 21.4% relapsed in their second year in recovery, but only 9.6% relapsed in years three through five, and only 7.2% did so after their fifth year in recovery.

Recovery is a Lifelong Journey

It’s important to remember that recovery is a lifelong journey. One expert explains that recovery is more like a form of remission, where relapse is still possible. Recovery can mean that someone is making progress but is not cured. 

Your recovery journey is an ongoing process, not a single event where you’re suddenly cured and will never experience a relapse. 

Relapse is a Sign You Need to Alter Treatment

Instead of seeing relapse as a failure, relapse can be a sign that it’s time to make some changes to your treatment plan. Per the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a relapse indicates that a person in recovery needs to have a discussion with a professional about altering their treatment or perhaps even returning to treatment. Developing a plan that includes relapse prevention strategies can be helpful and reduce the risk of future relapses. 

Researchers have found that a successful relapse prevention plan should help people to identify the early signs of relapse as well as develop coping skills for dealing with stressors, cravings, and thoughts of using drugs. Cognitive therapy and relaxation techniques can be helpful interventions for preventing relapse. 

Recovery Involves Building a New Life

Recovery involves creating a sober lifestyle and completely changing past habits, and it is understandable that there may be relapses during the course of building a new life. Addiction experts explain that changing your life is the first step in the recovery process, and this involves avoiding people you used drugs with as well as the places you went to use drugs. Building a new life also requires changing unhealthy thought processes associated with substance abuse. 

Change can be difficult, and there may be relapses along the way, but it is possible to lead a sober life with recovery support. People in recovery may benefit from working with a peer support specialist to assist them in building their new sober life. 

If you are struggling from an addiction to drugs or alcohol and are ready to create a sober lifestyle, The Recovery Village offers comprehensive treatment services, including aftercare and relapse prevention planning, to meet your needs. Contact our admissions department today to begin your journey toward recovery. 

Overcome addiction with evidence-based, expert care.

We are dedicated to your recovery. Let us build a treatment plan that is tailored to your needs today.

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Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more
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Editor – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more

Volkow, Nora et al. “Neurobiologic advances from the brain di[…]e model of addiction.” The New England Journal of Medicine, January 28, 2016. Accessed August 20, 2019.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment and Recovery.” July 2018. Accessed August 20, 2019.

Melemis, Steven. “Relapse prevention and the five rules of recovery.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, September 2015. Accessed August 20, 2019.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Peers.” August 12, 2019. Accessed August 20, 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.