James Haggerty Recovery
Relapse Prevention

Preventing a Relapse

July 25, 2022
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The path toward recovery isn’t always linear

Drug and alcohol addiction is one of the most difficult struggles we can face, and the path toward recovery isn’t always linear. Addiction breaks us down piece by piece. During the recovery process, we try our hardest to reconstruct our lives to get back to normal. As with any major shift in routine, especially one tied to a substance dependency, roadblocks can and do happen. One of the most common roadblocks on the road to recovery, relapses, can occur at any part of the recovery process. Learning how to recognize the causes of relapses and deal with them effectively can help you stay sober for greater periods of time.

What Is Relapsing?

When it comes to getting clean and staying sober, the road towards complete sobriety can be long, hard, and difficult to maintain. Many people encounter roadblocks that can lead them to temporarily leave that road and return to using an addictive substance. When this happens, we refer to it as a relapse, or a temporary lapse in sobriety.

A relapse can occur for many reasons, including a variety of stressors re-entering our lives. For example, during the withdrawal period, substance cravings can become very hard to manage, and using feels like the best option for soothing these cravings. For others, stressful events or traumatic experiences can pull us from sobriety, causing a relapse in an attempt to cope. [1]Breslin, F. C., Zack, M., McMain, S. (2002). An information-processing analysis of mindfulness: Implications for relapse prevention in the treatment of substance abuse. Clinical psychology: Science … Continue reading

Relapses Are a Normal Part of Recovery

During your recovery journey, relapses can seem like a devastating blow to your progress, making you feel like you’ve taken a major backstep that completely derails your sobriety for good. Fortunately, this isn’t true. The progress you’ve made isn’t completely erased with a relapse. Quite the contrary–relapses aren’t just a normal part of recovery, they’re practically inevitable.

One of the most important things I’ve had to realize is the importance of recognizing my humanity, and as humans, we are imperfect by nature. Any major change in your behavior, mindset, and overall mental well-being is extremely hard to follow flawlessly for the rest of your life. This is especially true for maintaining your sobriety during addiction recovery, and a few bumps in the road shouldn’t discourage you from your progress ahead. Simply keep working on your recovery and keep learning more about how to stay on the right track, including this information about relapse prevention.

How Do Relapses Happen?

As you know, substance abuse is a very hard battle to overcome. Those familiar cravings and temptations can be brought on by a number of different factors or triggers, even if you’ve been sober for some time. That’s why relapses are to be expected during recovery, especially as stressors present themselves along the way.

Recognizing these stressors and triggers is key to forming a strong defense against addiction cravings, helping you to avoid a relapse as effectively as possible. So, what are the three most common triggers for relapse for substance abuse?

The three most common triggers that can lead to a relapse include:

Traumatic Experiences

As previously mentioned, going through a traumatic event, or being triggered by the memories of a traumatic event, is a common cause of addiction relapses. The comfort and control you felt while using your substance of choice can seem like a simple way to distract from these thoughts and feelings. Trauma can lead even the most staunch person in recovery to relapse in an attempt to cope. With the right coping mechanisms, you can create a healthy way to deal with these thoughts and events and avoid a future relapse.

Reminders of Use From Active Addiction

Our brains are designed to associate people, places, and things with significant or memorable activities and events, helping create an overall picture of what life with those experiences is really like. For those in addiction recovery, visiting people or places that remind you of your past substance use can be enough to bring you back into a mindset that’s ready to use again. Certainly, avoiding these things can be hard, especially when it means no longer seeing friends or family that encourage substance use. In the long run, recognizing how these things, people, and situations encourage you to use and then actively avoiding them can help prevent you from relapsing.

Mental Health

First and foremost, any addiction or substance dependency is a chronic disease, and no one consciously chooses to develop an addiction. After your body and brain have become dependent on a substance to function, it can be very difficult to permanently eliminate that substance. For many, the strain of withdrawal during the early stages of detox and recovery can make relapse a certainty.

In addition, anxiety, depression, and stress, whether due to the withdrawal process or as co-occurring mental health issues, are very hard to overcome. Learning about these conditions and arming yourself with tools to mitigate them can help you avoid relapse. [2] ADF, (2021). Relapse. Alcohol and Drug Foundation. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://adf.org.au/reducing-risk/relapse/

The reasoning behind relapses differs from person to person and may be caused by internal or external factors. External stimuli reminding us of active addiction or throwing us into a state of instability can make the comforts of using feel necessary for relief. Internal stimuli, ranging from PTSD flashbacks to increased depression or anxiety, are common mental factors that can derail you from your sobriety.

Regardless of the triggers behind your relapse, it’s important to remember the hard work you’ve put in to get this far. Relapse should not be looked at as the only reflection of your overall progress. I know it’s hard to pick up the pieces and get back on track, but learning from your relapse is one of the most important moves you can make while in recovery. Giving yourself the proper time and energy towards healing, especially after a relapse, helps you prevent experiencing another.

What Does Relapse Look Like?

What Does Relapse Look Like

Relapses can come in different forms, and looks different for every individual in recovery. From slight emotional changes to full-blown benders, remember that relapsing is an extremely common part of the recovery process. Just like learning what routes to avoid when you’re trying to arrive at work on time, learning from relapse and preventing a future relapse relies on your understanding of your own brain.

It is also incredibly beneficial to know which coping mechanisms are helpful for you as well as what stimuli are harmful. That way, if you do relapse, you can use the experience as a progress checkpoint to see what you need to reevaluate. By treating these lapses as key stops along the way to recovery instead of a permanent detour, you can create a better understanding of yourself–and when you’re on the verge of relapsing. Doing so will help you get to know your body and its limitations. [3]Menon, J. Kandasamy, A. (2018). Relapse prevention. Indian journal of psychiatry, 60 (Suppl 4), S473–S478. https://doi.org/10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_36_18

For example, say you’re newly sober and at a point where drugs or alcohol aren’t your go-to coping mechanism for stress. However, you’ve recently been reprimanded at work and given a very stern talking to about your performance. Besides feeling belittled by your boss, you’re inevitably reminded that your reaction to these feelings in the past has been to use.

This type of situation is where a great many individuals wind up relapsing. Despite not being in active addiction, your reaction to the harsh feedback is one form of external stimuli that may temporarily place you right back in the mindset you had before recovery. The possibility of relapsing from this incident is high for most people in recovery.

Signs of an Impending Relapse

For some, the emotional changes that accompany addiction overtake the physical aspects, and vice versa. Creating an individualized strategy for combating any relapse-related changes is the best way to help prevent you from succumbing to these thoughts and feelings.

For those with a friend or partner on track towards recovery, taking note of any of these changes can be a good way to check in or promote more healthy behavior. This is especially the case if your loved one confides in you about their potential for relapse.

The most obvious shifts that can indicate a relapse occur in three phases:

Changes in Emotional Behavior

Any sudden shifts in mood or any outwardly adverse feelings of anger, sadness, isolation, or defensiveness can be some of the biggest signs of a potential relapse. At this stage in the relapse process, you’re thinking about using again, and that familiar urge to use can manifest through your outward feelings. Trying to control your emotions, in any capacity, becomes especially challenging, especially when attached to something as personal as addiction.

Increases in Addiction-related Cravings and Thoughts

Once your emotions develop past their initial onset, these mental images tend to morph into romanticized versions of your time in active addiction. You may have thoughts highlighting how good you felt or reminiscing about the stimuli that you associate with using. Oftentimes, this stage is the biggest indicator of an upcoming relapse, especially in terms of looking back on your past behaviors in active addiction. At any point in your sobriety, thoughts about how you felt during your active addiction can manifest, but the process of shutting them down and properly dealing with them is key to preventing relapse.

Begins Actively Using Again

In both the emotional and mental stages of relapsing,it is certainly possible to go back to a state of avoiding substance abuse. With the right coping skills, staying sober is achievable. However, I’ve said multiple times that recovery is not a “one size fits all” deal. Though relapse is common, the coping mechanisms developed to try and prevent you from relapsing are not a cure-all. Physical urges and cravings are extremely hard to overcome, especially in the early stages of recovery when coupled with withdrawal symptoms. [4]Miller, L. (1991). Predicting relapse and recovery in alcoholism and addiction: neuropsychology, personality, and cognitive style. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 8 (4), 277-291. … Continue reading

Although relapses can be scary, they are a natural part of getting clean and sober. Between the discovery process of finding what methods and coping mechanisms work for you to make it out of withdrawal, the long-term process towards recovery can be tricky. Overall, making sure to not beat yourself up over a slip-up here and there is key to moving forward, and with the right help, attitude, and mindset, you can maintain your progress on the path of recovery.

How Do I Stop Myself from Relapsing?

 How Do I Stop Myself from Relapsing?

You may be wondering- what is the best way to prevent relapse? For everyone, the recovery process is different, especially when it comes to maintaining your sobriety. Certain triggers, events, or people that were part of your life during the height of your addiction can all contribute to a relapse. There’s no shame in creating boundaries that help you avoid any of these triggers. I know how addiction impacts each person dealing with substance abuse, and one method that might work for one person could be detrimental to another. Take a look at these tips for preventing relapse, and consider those that might work best for you.

Reach Out to a Professional

If you’ve been handling your recovery on your own and feel you may be at risk of relapse, one of the best things you can do is reach out to a professional for addiction support. Completing a program can keep you safe, help you develop coping skills, and provide you with a network of resources to help you avoid relapse in the future.

Take Advantage of Aftercare

If you’ve already completed a program, be sure to take advantage of the resources and help available after the program completes. Whether that’s attending AA or another 12-step program, attending an alumni group, seeing an addiction counselor, or something else, staying in touch with your recovery can go a long way to helping you maintain sobriety.

Use Your Support Network

Many of us are fortunate to have a network of friends, family, and others who are supportive of our ongoing recovery efforts. If you’ve recently completed recovery, you may even have a sponsor or peer group to help you through tough times. However, they can only be of help if you’re willing to reach out and access the support they’re offering.

Refocus Your Energy

For some people, maintaining sobriety relies heavily on finding a focus for the time and energy formerly put into using.

Try refocusing your time and energy on useful activities like:

  • Journaling
  • Exercise
  • Developing a new hobby
  • Resuming an old hobby

refocusing your time and energy on useful activities

Relapse Prevention Plans: How to Cope With and Prevent Future Relapses

So, what is a relapse prevention plan for substance abuse? A good relapse prevention plan includes a comprehensive list of your personal triggers, as well as what to do when you’re faced with one. Write out a plan incorporating one or more of the above tips you feel may work for you. That way, in the face of adversity from these triggering stimuli, you can be sure to overcome any situations that may lead you down the path of relapsing. [5]Melemis S. M. (2015). Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.The Yale journal of biology and medicine,88 (3), 325–332. Retrieved June 8, 2022, … Continue reading

Sobriety is not a linear process, and reminding yourself of this is key to creating a successful recovery plan that works for you. After all, we’re only human, and relapse is a frequent occurrence on the path to recovery. Watching for signs of relapse, identifying your triggers, and creating a relapse prevention plan can help you learn from yourself and avoid relapse in the future.

Above all, never give up–even after a relapse. Keep plugging away and working on your recovery, and always reach out if you find yourself in need of help. Recovery is possible, and it’s extremely rewarding.

Stay Strong,



1Breslin, F. C., Zack, M., McMain, S. (2002). An information-processing analysis of mindfulness: Implications for relapse prevention in the treatment of substance abuse. Clinical psychology: Science and practice, 9 (3), 275.https://doi.org/10.1093/clipsy.9.3.275
2 ADF, (2021). Relapse. Alcohol and Drug Foundation. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://adf.org.au/reducing-risk/relapse/
3Menon, J. Kandasamy, A. (2018). Relapse prevention. Indian journal of psychiatry, 60 (Suppl 4), S473–S478. https://doi.org/10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_36_18
4Miller, L. (1991). Predicting relapse and recovery in alcoholism and addiction: neuropsychology, personality, and cognitive style. Journal of substance abuse treatment, 8 (4), 277-291. https://doi.org/10.1016/0740-5472(91)90051-B
5 Melemis S. M. (2015). Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.The Yale journal of biology and medicine,88 (3), 325–332. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/


James Haggerty

A Time to Heal: Family Interventions offers personalized SUD Interventions, Addiction Recovery Planning, Case Management, Sober Companionship and Family Support. Call 310-450-6627 to connect with us.

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