Addiction recovery can be challenging and may involve a relapse or a slip. Learn what to do if you experience a relapse or slip and the steps you can take to get back on the road to recovery.

Saying “I relapsed” or “I had a relapse” can be extremely difficult to do, especially if you recently completed addiction treatment or were in recovery. What should a person do if they have a slip or a relapse? Are there clear ways to move forward? Experiencing a relapse can be devastating, especially if a person made many positive changes and had been in a good place mentally, physically and emotionally. Part of recovery means understanding that relapses can and do happen to many people. Understanding why relapses occur and how to move forward from them is crucial.

Slip Versus Relapse: What’s the Difference?

There is no standard definition for slips and relapses. However, some people think of slips as short lapses in recovery where an individual returns to drugs or alcohol. Slips generally last for a brief period of time, and the affected individual feels immediate regret or guilt for partaking in drug use. Generally, a person that has slipped up desires to return to treatment or to get back into recovery with great immediacy. Slips versus relapses tend to occur in early recovery, while relapses can occur at any time and after any length of sobriety.

In contrast, drug rehab relapses are generally thought about before a person decides to partake in drug or alcohol use. A relapse can be defined as a lapse of recovery that may or may not be brief and involves a conscious decision to return to drugs. Additionally, while slips may last for a few minutes to days, relapses tend to last for longer periods in general. 

Why Does Relapse Happen?

A person that has recently relapsed may think to themselves, “Why did I relapse?” or “Why do I keep relapsing?” Sometimes, it may be difficult to uncover the answer to these questions. The answers are often complex and involve a combination of life circumstances, genetics and psychological factors.

So, why does relapse happen? It is important for a person struggling with addiction and their family members to understand that relapses are not uncommon. Given that many individuals in recovery experience relapses, those receiving treatment for addiction should be prepared to handle a relapse if one occurs. Potential reasons for why relapses occur may include:

  • The drug is physically addictive 
  • Exposure to triggers 
  • Intense cravings for drugs or alcohol
  • Missing the feeling of being “high”
  • Running into an old friend that encourages a person to use 
  • Extreme stress
  • Having unrealistic expectations about recovery
  • Feeling inadequate or having low self-esteem
  • Feeling overconfident about recovery

I Relapsed, Now What?

Immediately following a relapse, a person should decide whether they want to enter or reenter addiction treatment. Alternatively, if a person has slipped up, they may decide to move forward in the recovery process. An individual may need an outside perspective to help them decide what is necessary for their particular situation. 

After a relapse, a person should:

  • Self-reflect about why the relapse occurred
  • Reassess their situation and determine their next steps 
  • Ask for increased support from loved ones and others in recovery
  • Make a new and improved relapse prevention plan

Relapse Prevention for Lifelong Recovery

Is there any way to prevent a relapse? During addiction treatment or while in recovery, individuals may be encouraged to create a relapse prevention plan before they relapse or slip. With an in-depth relapse prevention plan, an individual will have many tools and resources at their disposal that can decrease their likelihood of relapsing in the future.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Bonnie Bullock, PHD
Bonnie is a medical communications specialist at Boston Strategic Partners, a global health industry consulting firm. Her recent work in mental health includes developing conference materials for clinical studies in mood disorders and copy-editing clinical manuscripts. Read more
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.