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Relapse Prevention Techniques For Recovering Addicts and Alcoholics

Relapse refers to someone returning to substance use when they are in the process of staying sober. Repeated drug or alcohol use affects brain chemistry and important neural functions, making chances of addiction and relapse more likely. Although the rate of relapse varies depending on the substance, relapse is very common, making relapse prevention an essential part of any treatment plan. Studies show that 80% of people in recovery from opioid addiction and 90% of people in recovery from an alcohol use disorder relapse after completing a treatment program.  

What Is a Relapse in Recovery From Addiction?

A relapse is when someone in recovery from a substance use disorder uses drugs or alcohol after a period of sobriety. As is commonly shared in addiction treatment circles, relapse is considered part of the recovery process. Although this may sound counterintuitive, the recovery process is not always linear, and the goal is progress, not perfection, especially in the early stages of recovery. A relapse is an opportunity for greater healing and can provide insight into what triggered the relapse in the first place, which will be unique to the individual. With greater understanding and dedicated work with an experienced addiction therapist or counselor, future relapses can be prevented. 

drug relapse (addiction relapse picture)

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    What Are The Phases Of Addiction?

    You may be surprised to learn that addiction usually develops over time – which is why early education and intervention are often so effective. It’s important to understand the different phases of addiction and to use the correct terminology when discussing substance use, as it can help you recognize signs of a possible addiction in yourself and others. 


    1) Initial Use 

    The first phase of any addiction involves taking a substance for the first time. In the United States, millions of teens are introduced to drugs or alcohol every year by friends, peers, or family members. Some drugs, such as opiates, are highly addictive and can create a dependency after just one use. 


    2) Experimentation 

    The second phase of addiction involves only taking drugs or alcohol in certain settings, such as birthday parties and other social situations, or to unwind after a long day at work. 


    3) Regular Use

    Once someone has developed a pattern of regular substance use, there’s a good chance that they are beginning to rely on it for some form of emotional regulation. A person who binge drinks every weekend, for example, would be included in this third phase of addiction. 


    4) Abuse/Misuse

    At this phase in the addiction cycle, people begin to experience negative consequences as a result of their substance use. They may be struggling to keep up with work or family obligations, have gotten a DUI, or are overspending to maintain their drug use. 


    5) Tolerance 

    Once someone develops a tolerance for drugs or alcohol, they need to use more of the substance to achieve the same or similar high. With this tolerance comes a physical and sometimes psychological dependence in which people experience minor to severe withdrawal symptoms along with intense cravings if they stop taking a substance. 


    6) Addiction/Substance Use Disorder

    In order to be diagnosed with a substance use disorder (SUD), people must meet certain criteria in addition to having a physical or chemical dependence on drugs or alcohol. At this point in the cycle, a person is no longer in control of their substance use and is often in denial about the negative impact it’s having on their life and relationships. 


    7) Treatment 

    Professional treatment is necessary to safely recover from a SUD. Most treatment approaches and programs include medical detox, intensive therapy, and support groups including Smart Recovery meetings and 12-Step programs. 


    8) Relapse

    Relapse is the final phase in the 8 phases of addiction, and is an important threshold in which someone can decide to break the cycle of addiction before it begins again. Breaking the cycle can look like attending an in-patient treatment program and recommitting to therapeutic tools and practices before a situation spirals out of control. 

    It’s important to understand that a mental and emotional relapse always comes before the physical relapse of taking a substance. A mental relapse can manifest as falling back into disempowering thought patterns. An emotional relapse can manifest as overwhelming urges to take a substance, depression, or other symptoms of poor mental health. 

    Why Do People Relapse?

    The reasons why people relapse can be complex. Most often, there is a trigger or series of triggers that lead people to turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to medicate some kind of distress. This process of self-medicating can be deeply subconscious and the person relapsing may have difficulty understanding or pinpointing what is driving their behavior. It could be financial pressure, stress at work, family dynamics, or something else entirely. According to American Addiction Centers, addiction should be treated like any chronic illness – a medical condition similar to asthma in which relapse is likely and is an opportunity to adjust treatment protocols when and if it happens.

    What Are Ways To Prevent Relapse?

    One of the best ways to prevent relapse is to have a strong emotional support system of loving friends or family members that support your recovery. Addiction is a condition that thrives in isolation, to which healthy connection is a powerful antidote. It’s important for people in recovery to eat a nutrient-rich diet, maintain a consistent sleep schedule, and have plenty of other practices that promote well-being, including attending regular therapy sessions and support groups. 

    Early warning signs of relapse may include letting self-care practices slip to the wayside or engaging in old patterns of behavior without actually taking a substance. Another way to prevent a relapse is to create a tailored relapse prevention plan with your therapist while you’re in a treatment program. Your therapist will help you develop tools and strategies you can use when you’re triggered by life events and situations. 

    What Are The Common Questions About Relapsing?

    Is Relapse a Normal Part of Recovery?

    Yes, relapse is often part of the recovery process. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the relapse rate for addiction is 40 - 60%. 

    If You Relapse Are You A Failure?

    Although a relapse can feel discouraging, it does not mean that you are a failure in any way. Recovery is a challenging process, and a relapse is an opportunity to fine-tune your treatment plan to prevent another relapse from happening in the future. Seeing a relapse as an opportunity for growth and healing rather than a setback is a major learning process and an opportunity for greater self-love and compassion. 

    How Can You Learn From a Relapse?

    Although it may sound cliche, relapses are an opportunity for growth and self-compassion. A relapse is an opportunity to learn that it’s okay to ask for help and receive it, that you are worthy even when you make mistakes, and that you have the power to make choices that will change your life for the better. 

    What Should You Do After a Relapse? 

    Asking for support is one of the best things you can do if you relapse. Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or addiction professional that you can confide in. You may also want to consider entering another treatment program that is more tailored to your needs or offers different kinds of therapy you haven’t tried before. You are worthy of the investment of time and effort it takes to receive the best support possible that meets you where you are. 

    Learn Relapse Prevention At Magnified Health Systems

    Relapse prevention is a key component of all of our treatment programs. We understand that transitioning from full-time treatment to a regular schedule of working or studying can be very challenging, which is why we offer ongoing support to all of our alumni. The time that used to be spent in active addiction must now be occupied with meaningful relationships and sober activities, and our alumni program provides a caring network of support and resources to help make that a reality. 

    How We Can Help You

    At Magnified Health Systems, your healing is our passion. We offer several levels of care including medical detox, in-patient rehab treatment and partial hospitalization treatment programs, as well as dual diagnosis treatment and outpatient rehab. Each member of our team has direct experience with trauma, substance abuse, and mental health diagnoses, which gives them greater empathy for and understanding of what you may be going through. We believe in your ability to make a change and all of us at Magnified Health Systems are here to help you live your best life. We have multiple locations and make it easy to get started – contact us today

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    This content is verified and moderated by Dr. Brendan Bickley

    This content is verified and moderated by Dr. Brendan Bickley

    Dr. Bickley graduated from U.C. Irvine with honors: Phi Beta Kappa, Golden Key International Honor Society, Cum Laude. He has been featured on national radio and print media. He is also a frequent lecturer at National Conferences. He holds an A.S. degree in Drug & Alcohol Studies, and two B.A. degrees in Criminology & Psychology, and masters and doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology. He is a licensed California Drug & Alcohol Counselor Level II, a licensed Clinical Supervisor and is certified in treating Eating Disorders.

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