The World Health Organisation classifies addiction as a chronic disease. This means that for some people, relapse may always be a possibility.
Luckily, relapse is both preventable and treatable; however, it should not be seen as a failure if it does happen. It can be an opportunity to learn from mistakes, develop your skills, and continue on your path to recovery. That said, it can be tough to go through, and preventing relapse before it occurs is the best option.
There are several warning signs that a relapse may be on the horizon. Recognizing these signs is crucial so you can make appropriate lifestyle changes or check into a treatment program to refocus your recovery journey and avoid relapse.
Scientific research has identified three distinct stages of relapse:
- emotional relapse
- mental relapse
- physical relapse
Noticing the signs of an emotional or physical relapse can prevent you from experiencing a full-blown physical relapse.
When you are experiencing an emotional relapse, you are not yet thinking of returning to drug or alcohol use; however, your behavior and thought patterns might be laying the foundations. Recognizing that you are at risk of relapse is incredibly important so you can take the steps needed to avoid progressing through the stages.
Social isolation is a risk factor for drug or alcohol relapse. Often, this is most noticeable in failure to attend support group meetings. Support group meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous are a chance to learn from others and offer your help in return. Research suggests that giving help to others significantly reduces the likelihood of relapse.
If you notice that you or someone you care about is isolating, it’s important to move back towards connection. Re-committing to support group meetings can stop relapse in its tracks and keep you focused on your recovery.
Practicing good self-care is key to avoiding addiction relapse. Self-care practices like healthy eating, regular sleeping patterns, and exercise help maintain good mental health and overall well-being. This, in turn, decreases stress and helps you avoid negative thought patterns that can lead you to drug or alcohol use.
If you notice signs of diminished self-care, like poor eating habits or lack of exercise, make a concerted effort to return to healthy habits. This action can improve your mental well-being and help you avoid progressing into mental relapse.
During a mental relapse, you experience an internal struggle between the desire to use drugs or alcohol and the desire to stay sober. At this stage, it is important to avoid specific situations which may trigger a relapse.
You should also remember that thoughts of relapse are a normal part of recovery and something that you can overcome. You may want to attend extra counseling or support group sessions to develop the skills further to help you through these challenges.
Research shows that repeated drug use creates strong associations in the brain’s reward pathways between the drug and places, people, and other environmental cues linked to substance use. If you are not taking steps to avoid triggers and high-risk situations, you will likely experience cravings.
Romanticizing your addiction can be a warning sign of mental relapse. If you are struggling emotionally, it can be tempting to forget about the pain of substance use disorder and remember it as a positive experience. Recalling addiction in this way can make physical relapse more likely.
The final sign that relapse is on the horizon is planning a future relapse. At this point, urgent intervention is needed to prevent this from happening – it is not too late to reach out for help. Call your sponsor, speak to a loved one, or visit a treatment center.
Other signs of mental relapse include:
- Thinking about people and places that you associate with substance use
- Lying and bargaining to attempt to justify it
- Trying to plan ways to use a substance while remaining in control
- Looking for opportunities to use
If you recognize any of the signs of emotional or mental relapse, do not panic. You can take steps to avoid a physical relapse and continue on your recovery journey. Remember that relapse is not a failure, and each challenge you face can be an opportunity to become stronger.