The Truth About Coping with Relapse

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The journey of recovering from addiction is not easy and rarely goes according to plan. Typically, by the time people have reached the stage where they seek addiction treatment at an addiction program like The Hills, they have already tried and failed to defeat their addiction to drugs and alcohol on their own or “cold turkey.” Coping with relapse is a normal but dangerous phase of recovery for many newly recovered addicts.


Long-term (and sometimes short-term) substance abuse causes changes to the brain’s operation. This causes those who live with addiction symptoms to actively and compulsively seek out substances despite the adverse consequences of using them. The time needed for your brain to restore its  “normal” function can take anywhere from a few months to several years, depending on the severity of your addiction. During that time, triggers and other everyday stressors can lead to relapse. 


What Does Relapse Mean? 

Statistics indicate between 40% and 60% of addicts in recovery will experience at least one incidence of relapse. Some may experience many before successfully achieving and maintaining sobriety. Relapse in addiction is described as the “downward spiral back into compulsive behavior and addiction.” It is important to remember that a relapse does not occur suddenly. It is not like a car accident or a broken window.


A relapse is usually a combination of multiple events or repeated trigger exposure that can cause you to reach for alcohol or drugs as a way to cope. In these cases, history has shown that your substance of choice has been an effective methodology for managing stressful or emotional times. Therefore you reach for that substance when your current situation has become too difficult to handle. 


Various indications (signs and symptoms) often occur before or during relapse. Some of the most common include mood swings, isolation, recurrence of previous mental health challenges, compulsive behaviors, mood swings, destructive thoughts, and a return to unhealthy behaviors or environments.


What are the Stages of Relapse? 

As previously mentioned, relapse is not a one-time thing but a process. It can take weeks or even months before someone “slips” for the first time after completing a treatment program in Los Angeles. There are several steps to each stage of the relapse process that one goes through before fully relapsing. Each is divided into three phases to make it easier to understand. 


Emotional Relapse

The first stage of relapse is called emotional relapse. During an emotional relapse, one has not returned to (or even considered) using or drinking. During this stage, you (likely) do not practice the coping behaviors or self-care techniques learned during treatment to help you cope with triggering events and maintain your sobriety. 

Examples of the signs of emotional relapse may include attending peer support groups but not participating, isolation from supportive friends and family, and mood swings. A lack of adequate self-care during the emotional relapse stage can lead to negative emotions, unhappiness, and increased stress levels. All of these symptoms may have caused you to use in the past. As inadequate self-care and worsening triggers continue, a progression into mental relapse occurs. 


Mental Relapse

During the mental relapse phase, people consider using alcohol or drugs to cope. Because you know using is not a positive or healthy solution, it is common to try and use the coping tools learned during therapy. However, a powerful negative mental state often overpowers your learned protective factors. 


During the second stage of relapse, triggers such as places, people, and events associated with past addictive behaviors can trigger cravings. During a mental relapse, addicts in recovery may minimize the adverse side effects of drinking or using. Also, they may start looking for opportunities to relapse or even plan to relapse.


Physical Relapse

The final stage of relapse is called physical relapse. Physical relapse begins when the person uses again or “slips.” Sometimes, people regret using or drinking immediately after a slip leading to an even more powerful passion for recovery. 

It is crucial to seek help to return to recovery after a slip to prevent a potentially dangerous spiral back into addiction. Those not seeking treatment after slipping will generally experience physical relapse (withdrawal). To avoid the symptoms associated with the stage of relapse, they often turn to obsessive or compulsive substance use. 


What are the Most Common Relapse Triggers? 

To remain successful as you continue pursuing ongoing sobriety, it is essential to know your triggers to better learn to manage them in a healthy way or take steps to avoid them entirely. Several common triggers frequently contribute to relapse. Although not all triggers will affect every person in the same way, understanding the most common risk factors can ensure you can better maintain your recovery. 


People, Places, and Things

Someone who struggles with addiction usually surrounds themselves with like-minded people who share the same desires. Being around these same individuals (who no longer share the same goals) while you attempt to maintain your sobriety can easily lead to relapse. This situation also applies to family and other loved ones. If your spouse or significant other used or drank with you but has not decided to get sober, they could be a trigger. Also, avoiding old “hangouts” such as bars, casinos, and other places that remind you of using or drinking is beneficial.

The “places” such as sporting events or the local bar that remind you of using or drinking are often quite personal. Understanding your triggers and doing your best to avoid them to reduce the risk of relapse is essential. Addiction severely impacts the brain and changes how the brain communications and functions. For some, minor things (credit cards, bottles, straws, pill bottles, etc.) can trigger thoughts of using or drinking.


Mental Health Struggles

When seeking addiction treatment, addressing any underlying mental health conditions co-occurring with substance use is vital. Substance use disorders and mental health conditions are strongly intertwined. Many (as many as 50%) who experience mental health symptoms will turn to alcohol or drugs to reduce the intensity of and manage their symptoms. This practice, called self-medication, often leads to addiction. If you complete a primary addiction treatment program like ours at The Hills, but triggering mental health symptoms is still a challenge, it can eventually lead to relapse. 


Tips for Coping with Relapse

It is important to mention that experiencing a relapse does not suggest treatment has failed. It is an indicator that further help and guidance as part of treatment or as part of a peer support program may help you practice and solidify your coping strategies to avoid relapse in the future. Knowing what to do in the event of a relapse can help you take important steps as soon as you can to get back on track. If you or a loved one has experienced a relapse, consider doing the following:


  • Reach out for help: whether for the family, friends, or a member of the sober support community, reaching out for help can help you cope with relapse should one occur. During a relapse, it is vital to surround yourself with positive influences who can remind you that you are not alone and that no relapse is too big to recover from.
  • Attend self-help or peer support groups: peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or other recovery groups can provide a non-judgmental, supportive environment to talk about your relapse and learn how others have coped with similar experiences.
  • Avoid triggers: exposure to triggers shortly after or during a relapse can increase your cravings making it more challenging to avoid experiencing a total relapse. It is helpful to remove yourself from this many possible triggers as you can. If your triggers are impossible to avoid, do your best to limit your interactions with them immediately after a relapse or until you feel more confident in your ability to manage them without using or drinking.
  • Practice self-care: taking care of yourself physically and emotionally during and after relapse is essential. Self-care strategies can help you recover from relapse by reducing your anxiety and stressors. The best part about self-care is that it can be any activity that brings you relaxation and pleasure without causing harm. Common examples include exercise, journaling, yoga, and meditation.
  • Reflect on your relapse: as strange as it may sound, a vital part of coping with relapse is considering your relapse as a learning experience. Take some time to think about how it happened, what took place before, and whether you attempted to use other coping tools before turning to drugs or alcohol. Ask yourself questions about how you could have managed your relapse differently and what relapse prevention tools may have been helpful. The answers to these questions can help you learn what you could have done differently and what changes you may want to make in the event of a future relapse.
  • Consider writing a relapse prevention plan: a relapse prevention plan can help guide you towards staying sober. Write down a plan that outlines your triggers for drinking or using. Also, make a note of coping skills (relapse prevention tools) you can use to manage those triggers, as well as a list of people in your support system you could contact in the event of a future relapse.


Coping with day-to-day life after treatment is often a difficult road for many who are newly sober. Inevitably, there will be bumps and setbacks along the way. It can be difficult to start over and meet the challenges and obligations of life without the assistance of drugs and alcohol, and without the peer groups you once turned to. 


Even after detox and comprehensive treatment, cravings to use or drink may arise. Additionally, triggers to use will occur and are often impossible to avoid. To learn more about addiction treatment and relapse prevention planning as part of our aftercare programs at our luxury Los Angeles area treatment program, contact a member of our admissions team today.

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