Warning Signs of Addiction Relapse

After suffering from an addiction, maintaining sobriety can be a daily challenge. Making the choice to get help and become clean can be difficult and it doesn’t get any easier.

A common misconception is that once a person completes an addiction treatment plan, they have recovered. But it is not a one-time feat. Substance sobriety is a life-long commitment, and battle.

In fact, relapses happen regularly. The NIDA estimates that 40-60% of addicts relapse.

Stages of Relapse

Relapse is not a single event, but a process. Many times, the process begins weeks before a physical event of relapse or drug use occurs. There are three stages of relapse:

  1. Emotional – Thinking about drug use. Signs may include anxiety, depression, anger, mood swings, poor sleep and eating habits, and not attending therapy. The signs of emotional relapse are similar to acute withdrawal.
  2. Mental – Mental relapse is when there is an internal dialogue and battle going on in your mind about drug use. Part of you may want to use again, but part of you doesn’t. Signs of mental relapse might be hanging out with old friends, fantasizing about using, planning your relapse, and lying about your behavior.
  3. Physical – Physical relapse is actively using substances again. After emotional and mental relapse, physical relapse is the last stage. It doesn’t always take long to go from stage to stage. Even dialing your dealer’s number counts as a physical relapse.

Triggers & Warning Signs of Relapse

Relapses can happen suddenly and are usually brought on by specific triggers. These triggers may be an event, interaction, or even relationship that causes an addict to begin using again. Triggers can be emotional, environmental, or exposure. Frequently, they are based on old memories or visuals.

Common triggers include:

  • Stress, anger, fear, loneliness – negative emotions that stimulate drug use
  • Friends, locations, or events that remind a person of a time they used substances
  • Seeing someone use illicit substances
  • Social pressures to use again
  • Using other substances – for example, a recovering opioid addict who drinks alcohol has a higher risk of relapsing.

Warning signs of relapse include:

  • Dishonesty
  • Hanging out with old friends who also use substances
  • Changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Unusual change in routine
  • Irresponsible behavior – skipping work, appointments, or therapy meetings

Preventing Relapse

Early prevention means there is recognition of emotional or mental relapse. This may ne noticed by a therapist or even individually. Remind yourself that help is there and it is okay to seek out help and treatment.

Practicing self care is one of the most important things you can do to prevent relapse. If drugs are used as an escape, create an escape in a different, safer way. A hobby, spending time in nature, or even a relaxing bath can calm you down in an effective way. Don’t let your sleep or eating patterns slip and eat a healthy, balanced diet. Avoiding feelings that trigger relapse are possible with help and early detection.

Other ways to prevent relapse include:

  • Confiding in someone. Call a therapist, support person, or a friend who is also in recovery. Share what you are going through. Sometimes just getting those feelings off your chest is enough to prevent relapse.
  • Distract yourself. WHen you have thoughts about using, do something to keep your mind off of it. Go for a walk, attend a meeting, or call a friend or family member who is supportive of your recovery process. If you don’t distract yourself from these feelings, a mental relapse can worsen.
  • Wait for 30 minutes. Most urges or thoughts about using last for 15-30 minutes. Keep yourself busy during that tie until the urge passes.
  • Be patient with yourself. Recovery does not happen in a day. Thinking about whether or not you can stay clean forever is more hurtful than helpful. Take each day in stride and be patient with yourself and the process.
  • Relax. Make relaxation and meditation part of your daily routine. Being tense and overwhelmed can trigger negative thoughts that lead to substance use. A relaxed, clear mind is more likely to stay on track.


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