What Is Relapse?

The road to sobriety is rarely a straight one, as most addicts will relapse once, if not multiple times, along the way. During the recovery process addicts will inevitably face stressors from work or family, which compels them to start using again. The cravings for drugs never completely vanish, and they’ll return in full force during periods of stress. Relapses are common among recovering addicts, but they’re not inevitable. Knowing the warning signs and your loved one’s “triggers” is helpful in preventing relapses, or at least minimizing their intensity. Most relapses do not occur suddenly, so if you notice a loved one acting suspiciously during their recovery, you might be able to help before they do something they regret.

What Is Relapse?


Like any other chronic condition, a relapse refers to the recurrence of any disease that has already gone into recovery. And just like in a recurring heart or lung condition, not all drug relapses are created equal. In most cases, a relapse falls into one of two categories:

A “Slip”

Slips refer to the times recovering addicts partake in a small amount of an illicit substance, and then stop. Slips include taking a sip of wine at a wedding toast, or a drag from a joint when one is passed their way. Most people would hardly count these incidents as hard drug use, but it’s important for recovering addicts to acknowledge these slip ups and take steps to prevent them from happening again. After a period of abstinence, even just a small amount of an illicit substance can revitalize cravings for harder drug use.

Full Relapse

Relapses occur when addicts purposely seek out drug use. It can be one session or a full binge, but as long as they return to treatment, it’s considered a relapse. If they do not, it’s regarded as a relapse that triggered a return to full-blown addiction.

Why Do People Relapse?


Everyone has their own reasons for relapsing, but for most recovering addicts, relapses are prompted by uncomfortable emotions and stressful situations. These events or feelings are referred to as “triggers,” and much of rehabilitation is centered around addicts identifying their personal triggers and devising strategies of how to avoid and/or manage them.

For many patients, common triggers include:

  • Encountering people they used to use drugs with
  • Going to places where they used to get high
  • Watching people on TV or in a movie abuse drugs
  • Hearing someone discuss drug use explicitly or in positive terms
  • Experiencing a difficult event (breakup, job loss, bereavement, arguments)
  • Experiencing extreme emotions (stress, anger, fear, frustration)

Since it’s impossible to avoid most triggers completely, it’s crucial that addicts learn how to cope with inevitable stressors while in their treatment program.

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Relapse Warning Signs


While the red flags differ from person to person, knowing the general warning signs of drug relapse can help you prevent a loved one from falling down the path of self-destruction. Warning signs of relapse can include:

  • Fantasizing about drugs. Touting the so-called positive effects of drugs can be a red flag that the person is not serious about recovery.
  • Romanticizing past drug use. Glorifying the times spent in active addiction may indicate that the person is bored in recovery and desires the lifestyle of addiction as much as, if not more so than, the drug abuse itself.
  • Spending time around poor influences. Social support can make or break a person’s recovery. Recovering addicts that spend significant time around people that use drugs are nearly guaranteed to fall into temptation and relapse.
  • Missing treatment or therapy sessions. Missed treatment sessions may indicate that an addict’s priorities are shifting away from recovery.
  • Justification of moderate drug use. When a person starts to explore whether or not they can use drugs in moderation, or justifies the use of a substance by saying that it wasn’t their “drug of choice,” it’s a big red flag that they’re falling off the wagon.
  • Aggressively pushing others to choose sobriety. Conversely, targeting those who use moderately, to convince them they need to live an abstinent life, can also be a sign of potential relapse.
  • Engaging in compulsive behavior. Rather than sticking to a balanced schedule of positive activities, a person on the brink of relapse may just focus intensely on one area of their life, to the exclusion of everything else.
  • Spending large amounts of time in isolation. Being alone makes it even more difficult for an addict to make positive connections in recovery. It also increases the chances that they’ll justify using drugs again, and decreases the accountability for their choices.
  • Increases in mental health symptoms. Exhibiting higher amounts of depression, anger, anxiety, loneliness, lethargy, or general dissatisfaction may indicate that the person’s sobriety is at risk.

Hindsight is 20/20. When it comes to identifying how a relapse occurred, that’s certainly the case. Addicts can benefit by working backward with a therapist to understand how they went from making progress in recovery to finding themselves with a drug in their hand again.

Helping a Loved One Avoid a Relapse


Family members can play a dynamic role in helping their loved one avoid relapse during recovery. Intervening as signs of potential relapse crop up can help them get back on track before they partake in their drug of choice. Some recommendations for family members hoping to help their loved one ward off relapse include:

  • Checking in regularly. If you don’t live with your loved one in recovery, make an effort to check in with them regularly face to face.
  • Speaking up. If you notice any of red flags, don’t be afraid to speak up. Address the particular signs rather than the overall fear of relapse, and ask if they need any help.
  • Avoiding nagging. If your loved one refuses help or seems to be moving closer to relapse rather than farther away, don’t nag. Instead, keep in touch and be ready to assist if asked.
  • Remaining encouraging. Stay positive. Even if your concerns continue to grow, don’t grow too anxious, angry, or scared. Focus on the positive and help your loved one move through the difficulty naturally.
  • Offering different recovery or treatment options. If your loved one is spending less time in treatment or struggling despite a full recovery schedule, suggest a new type of therapy or a change to their program that might interest them.
  • Attending family therapy sessions together. Family therapy sessions give you both a place to talk about your concerns, work on your relationship, and work on your ability to communicate. You may be able to discuss your concerns about relapse in this safe environment more effectively due to the professional guidance of the therapist.

As hard as it can be, putting frustrations aside to focus on your loved one’s recovery is the best thing a friend or family member can do to help someone struggling with relapse. The relapse shouldn’t be treated as a moral failing, but an opportunity to reinforce treatment.

After a relapse, a change in treatment may be beneficial. Residential addiction treatment programs can provide greater intensity, helping reduce relapse. Reach out to us today to learn more about how you can help your loved one strengthen their recovery.