Coping with Relapse After Addiction Treatment: A Path to Deeper Healing

Experiencing relapse after addiction treatment can be profoundly painful and disheartening, and may cause you to question yourself and the efficacy of treatment. But by understanding addiction as a chronic illness and learning how to cope with relapse in healthy ways, you can turn relapse into an opportunity for re-commitment to recovery. This may mean returning to treatment in order to create sustainable healing and minimize future relapse risk.

Recovery involves a lot of forgiveness—both asking for forgiveness from others and learning how to forgive yourself. Often, one of the hardest things to forgive yourself for is the reappearance of active addition once you have already begun the recovery process.

Relapse can be a devastating event, both for you and for those you love. After the time and energy you’ve put into recovery, returning to drugs and alcohol can feel like a personal failure and may make you lose faith in the treatment process. But relapse doesn’t mean an end to your recovery journey. By coping with relapse in healthy ways, you can use your temporary setback as an opportunity for learning and a jumping-off point for deeper healing.

Addiction as a Chronic Illness

Thanks to modern neuroimaging technologies, addiction is now widely recognized as a chronic brain disease that causes long-lasting changes in neurological structures and behaviors. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “Brain-imaging studies from people addicted to drugs show physical changes in areas of the brain that are critical for judgment, decision-making, learning, memory, and behavior control.” These changes, when combined with the neurochemical effects of drug use, compromise your ability to partake in the behavioral regulations necessary to stay in remission, even in the presence of an overwhelming desire to do so.

Because there is currently no cure for addiction, anyone with the disease experiences some level of relapse risk. The exact rate of relapse depends largely on the substance abuse, with an estimated overall rate of 40-60%. Users of certain drugs have far higher relapse rates, however; 85% of opioid users relapse within one year of treatment, while some estimates of 1-year relapse rates for those with alcohol addiction are as high as 70%. For people with co-occurring mental health disorders, relapse rates are even higher.

While these numbers may seem disheartening, NIDA points out that addiction relapse rates tend to be similar to those of other chronic medical conditions such as hypertension, asthma, and diabetes, all of which include “both physiological and behavioral components.” Furthermore, research reveals that with the right treatments, the brain can begin to repair the damage caused by addiction, re-orienting your mind toward healthy behaviors and reducing the risk of future relapses.

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Coping with Relapse to Promote Healing

Experiencing a relapse can be a profoundly painful and even surprising experience, and it is common to believe that relapse points to a personal failing or weakness. It can be easy to give up hope and resign yourself to active addiction once again. But in the end, relapse is just another phase of addiction—one that could point to something lacking in your recovery process. The best thing you can do is to care for yourself during this difficult time and get back on track as soon as possible.

Identify the Cause of Your Relapse

Relapse doesn’t happen out of nowhere. “Typically, addicts who return to drugs nearly always do so in response to drug-related cues such as seeing drug paraphernalia or visiting places where they’ve scored drugs,” explains Dr. David Sack, an addiction medicine specialist. People, places, and objects that remind you of your drug use can push you back into deeply-ingrained behaviors due to the very brain changes that drug use has produced. Psychological distress can also cause you to seek out drugs as a disordered coping mechanism for difficult feelings. Figuring out what caused your relapse and determining how to avoid it is an important first step in preventing future relapses.

Use Your Coping Strategies

While in treatment, you likely developed a solid set of coping skills to use to reduce cravings and deal with emotional upheaval. Now is the time to put those skills to the test; you may need to practice mindfulness, exercise, journal, or engage in a creative process in order to direct your energy in a healthy, productive way.

Use Your Support System

You may feel ashamed of your relapse and want to hide it from your loved ones, but this is precisely when you need them more than ever. Be honest and tell them that you have relapsed and that you need support in order to continue your recovery. This is also an ideal time to turn to 12-step groups in order to re-commit to recovery. These groups are safe places for you to share and learn from others who understand what you are going through and can offer meaningful support. Such groups can also create positive triggers that fuel sobriety. “Repeated attendance in […] 12-step meetings results in cue-induced learning related to recovery,” Dr. Sacks says. “For instance, when an addict hears in a group setting that when they experience a craving to use they immediately call another sober person to hold, that individual eventually starts to visualize performing the same action in response to a craving.” This creates a “trigger for recovery” that can counteract destructive triggers and eventually replace them.

Stay Balanced

If you’ve been in the recovery community for any length of time, you probably know about HALT, an acronym describing four common causes of relapse: hungry, angry, lonely, tired. By getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, connecting with social supports, and using your coping strategies, you can successfully avoid HALT triggers and minimize your risk of further relapse. Remember to listen to your body and your heart during this time and be gentle with yourself; now is not the time to put yourself in stressful situations or demand too much of yourself emotionally or physically.

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Moving Forward by Returning to Treatment

Relapsing after addiction treatment can cause you to doubt the efficacy of treatment altogether. However, relapse doesn’t mean that treatment has failed; rather, it means that your treatment may be incomplete. Perhaps you did not attend the right program, you didn’t have the right continuing care, or you simply weren’t ready to truly engage in the treatment process the first time around.

While some people can get through a relapse on their own, the best way to process, learn from, and move beyond your relapse is to connect to a comprehensive treatment program that will provide the kind and quality of care you need to make lasting changes. For some, this means a residential treatment environment in which you are fully removed from everyday stresses in order to fully focus on recovery. For others, it means attending an intensive outpatient program that gives you the structure and support you need to continue your recovery journey while staying in your everyday environment.

Regardless of the type of program you choose to attend, it is vital that you receive care tailored to your unique needs. This includes complete psychological assessment to identify any co-occurring mental health disorders, judicious use of relapse prevention medications, and a comprehensive array of therapeutic modalities aimed at holistic healing. Through a personalized program of individual, group-based, and experiential therapies, you can come to understand the roots of your addiction and identify the obstacles standing in the way of your recovery. With the support of compassionate clinicians and peers, you can then develop the insight and skills necessary to cope with emotional and behavioral challenges in positive ways. It is also vital that you establish a concrete continuing care plan to minimize the risk of future relapse.

With the right care, you can fill in the gaps left by previous treatment attempts to begin coping with relapse and truly moving forward with confidence, dignity, and newfound joy.

Alta Mira offers a comprehensive suite of treatment programs for people struggling with addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned programs and how we can help you or your loved one achieve lasting wellness.