How to Handle Addiction Relapse: The Importance of Prevention Strategies and Understanding Your Triggers
Addiction is a chronic illness, and that means relapsing and using again is common. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but many people do experience a slip that can feel as if the entire recovery process has come crashing to a stop. It is important in that moment to slow down, get sober, analyze what happened to lead to the relapse, and come up with a plan for avoiding another one in the future.
Relapsing is a disappointment, but it isn’t the end of recovery. For most people struggling with addiction, a relapse is a part of recovery. Don’t use it as an excuse to binge or give up on sobriety.
Instead, evaluate the situation, revisit what you learned in treatment, and consider going back to rehab or adding outpatient therapy sessions once or twice a week. A relapse is not a failure, but it is a reminder to stay focused on recovery every single day.
Relapse Does Not Make You a Failure
The first step in coping with a relapse is to recognize and accept that it does not make you a failure. You wouldn’t blame someone who has a recurrence of asthma after symptoms remained under control for a few months, right? That’s because it is a chronic illness, but so is addiction. A chronic illness is one that never truly goes away or is cured. It can and often does recur, even with treatment.
Some of the most important evidence that substance use disorders and addiction are chronic illnesses comes from relapse rate statistics. When compared to other chronic diseases, addiction stacks up with similar rates of relapse. Research shows that 50 to 70 percent of people with asthma or high blood pressure experience relapses of symptoms. Between 40 and 60 percent of people with substance use disorders relapse.
“After my relapse, I felt like giving up. I thought I had alcohol beat, but when the holidays came around and my family starting fighting I got pretty stressed out. I tried to remove myself from the situation but my mom guilted me into staying. The next thing I know I was waking up the next morning with a massive hangover. I wanted to drink again just to stop my headache, but my brother drove me to a support group instead. One year later I now know that it was an inevitable step on my journey. The few people in my life who support me were there, and it’s now been more than a year since my last relapse.” –Amy M.
Reevaluate Your Triggers
There is a reason you had a relapse, but instead of looking at it as a personal failure or even a failure of treatment, see it as a learning experience. Once you are firmly sober again, evaluate the situation. Ask yourself these important questions:
- What happened leading up to the relapse? What were you doing?
- How did you feel when the urge to use struck?
- What were your emotions leading up to that moment? Were you stressed? Anxious? Frustrated?
- Were you around certain people or a specific location that made you think of drugs or alcohol?
- What might have stopped you from relapsing in that moment if you could go back in time and change something about it?
This kind of self and situational analysis will help you figure out what triggered your relapse. It may have been a bar you passed, an old friend you ran into, a frustrating day at work, or an argument with a friend or family member. Whatever it was, you must identify it in order to guard against a future relapse.
Reduce Stress and Practice Mindfulness
Stress is an important trigger for anyone with a substance use disorder. You may have some specific triggers, certain emotions, places, or people, to which you are vulnerable, but everyone experiences an increased risk of relapse when stress goes unchecked.
Evaluate the level of stress in your life and determine if there are any ways you can reduce it. For instance, if work causes the most stress, can you work fewer hours? If home responsibilities give you a lot of stress, perhaps you could ask a friend or family member to help you with chores or childcare.
Whether you can make changes to reduce stress in your life or not, what you can certainly do is change your response to it. Studies have found that when mindfulness practices are used in rehab and aftercare services, relapse rates go down.
Mindfulness simply means practicing greater awareness of your mood, emotions, breathing, and physical sensations in each present moment. You can increase mindfulness by practicing meditation or yoga, using guided breathing exercises, reflective journaling, and getting more focused, physical activity. All of these will help you manage stress in a more healthful way.
Is It Time to Go Back to Rehab or Therapy?
One slip or mistake does not necessarily mean that you need to go to rehab again. It’s important to be honest with yourself to decide if you do need that additional treatment or a refresh. You may choose to go back for just a week or two, or if you feel as if relapse is imminent again, a longer stay may be the smart option.
An alternative is to begin regular outpatient therapy or addiction counseling. This can help you remember your strategies for avoiding relapse, coping with stress, identifying triggers, and managing and changing negative thoughts and feelings. You may also want to go to support group meetings if you don’t already do so.
“I battled addiction to pain pills for years before going to rehab. When I relapsed just a few months out of treatment I thought I could handle it and just get back to normal life. My wife tried to talk me into going back to rehab, but I refused. On the outside I seemed ok. I went back to work and I acted like dad around my kids, but on the inside I was having massive cravings. I relapsed again, and this time I could have died. I had a car accident and miraculously didn’t get seriously hurt. When my wife mentioned rehab again, I knew she was right. I went back for just a month, but it made a big difference. It’s now six months later and I’m doing much better.” –Trent H.
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Choosing a New Rehab and Treatment Program
If you already went through rehab but feel you should go back again after a relapse, consider carefully whether to go back to the same one. A relapse can happen to anyone, but if you feel as if you were not adequately prepared for a successful recovery it may be time to reconsider your options.
The best rehab facilities have a strong focus on relapse prevention. Here are some aspects of a treatment program you should look for to better support your second try at recovery and sobriety:
- Individualized treatment plans
- A thorough evaluation and diagnosis
- Treatment of any diagnosed mental illnesses
- A focus on relapse prevention
- Practice of positive coping strategies for managing triggers
- Aftercare services
These are the important factors that make treatment effective. Insist on having these in the next rehab you choose, if you feel it is a necessary step for recovering from a relapse.
Relapsing in recovery is frustrating and disappointing. You are not a failure— this incident is simply a stepping stone to a healthier future. Learn from this experience and make a strategic plan for what to do next. Rely on supportive family and friends, and if it’s necessary, go back for additional treatment.
Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.