The thought of relapse can be terrifying for anyone that has been sober for a period of time, but a slip or relapse isn’t the end of your recovery.

One of the biggest obstacles and fears in recovery is the looming possibility of a relapse. In rehab, treatment staff tries to prepare people for it by walking them through the potential causes and signs to be aware of when facing what could trigger a relapse. While relapse prevention guides and modalities are extremely helpful, nothing can fully equip someone for when they face a situation full of triggers, both emotionally and mentally.

Is Relapse Part of Recovery?

Yes, the concept and reality of it are a very real concern inside the walls of recovery. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “people recovering from addiction often have one or more relapses along the way.”

Relapse is when an addict returns to alcohol or drugs after a period of sobriety. A relapse can be a detrimental and deadly affair with devastating consequences.

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. 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.

They always say that if and when you relapse, you go right back to where you left off, but usually, it’s worse. The shame and guilt of a relapse are worse than the shame and guilt of the addiction, which can cause many people to lose all hope for themselves. This can further perpetuate their relapse and sometimes hinder them from ever returning to recovery.

Difference Between a Slip and Relapse

It’s important to know the difference between a slip and a relapse, two very different situations that can occur in recovery.

A slip, also which can also be known as a lapse, is a situation where someone has a very brief “slip” where they drink or use, but they stop quickly afterward, avoiding a full relapse into addiction. Usually, this happens when a person decides to use again but instantly regrets the decision.

Some people have a simple slip up, where they use but immediately return to recovery and it often strengthens their will to stay sober. Others allow a slip to turn into a full-blown relapse or even a total downward spiral with no escape in sight.

The word relapse actually stems from the Latin meaning: to slip back. This is used as a designation for someone who has been sober and fell back into their substance abuse problem.

Their length of sobriety can vary from a week to a month or several years and has no defined timeframe. The basis of a relapse is when someone who was in recovery for any amount of time returns to their old ways and old substance abuse habits.

Typically, a slip is extremely short-lived and does not take away from someone’s motivation to stay sober and recover from their addictions. In fact, it can often fuel their decision to get back on track and stay there. Knowing that a slip is something you can quickly recover from can help an addict get back on their feet in recovery quickly.

It is important to understand that not everyone in recovery experiences a relapse. However, it is a topic that everyone should be aware of and mindful of in recovery.

Enrolling in a drug or alcohol detox center is the first step towards a better life through therapy.

“While relapse rates in recovery are high, it is not inevitable that every recovering addict will experience a relapse, and relapse is not unique to people with substance use disorders.” –Rudolph Hatfield,

What are the signs of a drug relapse?

The onset of a slip or relapse far too often comes with many warning signs.

Some of the most common concerns for a potential relapse include:

  • Extreme cravings with no outlet to disengage or distract yourself from them.
  • Thinking that you can moderate or use again without becoming addicted.
  • Romanticizing about drug use in the past.
  • Isolating or withdrawing.
  • Associating with old friends who still have bad habits.
  • Extreme stress or changes in behavior.
  • Change in social relationships or disengaging with support groups.
  • A perceived slip that leads to withdrawal symptoms.
  • Loss of interest in being active or participating in hobbies.

How To Help Someone That Has Relapsed

There are unfortunate misconceptions around relapsing, and this creates some dissonance on how to help someone who has encountered or is experiencing a relapse. There are different things to understand when it comes to dealing with a relapsing alcoholic or drug addict.

First off, it is imperative that anyone who relapses understands that they can still return to recovery, as well as be successful at it. The sooner someone can stop using again, the better chances they have at minimizing the damage.

If someone relapses, it is important to encourage him or her to get back into treatment or get help as soon as possible.

It’s equally important not to shame them or make them feel worse than they already do. Being compassionate to the fact that their substance abuse is likely not something they are proud or wanted to have happened is the best way to be there for a person who is actively relapsing.

Trying to get them to talk through what happened and how they are feeling can be helpful, but it can also cause them to be defensive.

At the end of the day, someone who has relapsed can’t really be helped, but only encouraged that recovery is still and will always be an option. It is up to them to get back on track and seek help again.

Getting Help with a Relapse

If you or someone you love is in danger of the chance that a relapse may happen, do not wait until it’s too late to take action. Contact us today to learn more about the best ways to prevent and treat relapse, including our online counseling and rehab programs. Our trained professionals can help get you back on track towards sustained long-term recovery.


What is a relapse?” Easy to Read Drug Facts: National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed August 2, 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.