There is a great deal of confusion concerning lapses, relapses, and the role of relapsing in recovery, so what does relapse mean?
Well, counter to the common understanding, relapse is not just a brief and isolated occurrence.
Instead, there are three stages of addiction relapse:
- Emotional relapse
- Mental relapse
- Physical relapse
Just like addiction recovery is a lifelong process – and not always a linear process – so relapsing is more than a time-limited event.
Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain condition with anywhere from 40% to 60% of those in recovery relapsing at least once. As such, the relapse rate for addiction mirrors that of other chronic diseases. How you handle any roadblocks on your recovery journey could be the difference between ongoing sober living and repeated relapse.
What does relapsing mean in the context of addiction recovery?
What Does it Mean to Relapse?
To understand the nature of relapse, it’s essential to define relapse.
Broadly, relapse means “to slip or fall back into a former practice or state”.
What’s a relapse in terms of addiction, though? Per NDA (the National Institute on Drug Abuse) relapsing expresses a return to substance use.
What does relapsed mean, though, and does relapsing mean that your treatment program was a failure?
Well, relapse unfolds gradually as follows:
1) Emotional relapse
You might not be actively thinking of substance use during the first stage of relapse, emotional relapse.
Even if thoughts of returning to alcohol are not dominant, you may still find your emotions and your behaviors are pushing you to a point where relapsing becomes a possibility.
All of the following red flags indicate emotional relapse:
- Bottling up emotions
- Not enjoying sober living
- Withdrawing socially
- Mood swings
- Failure to attend peer-support meetings
If all of these stressors continue simmering, you could easily find yourself moving into the second phase of addiction relapse, mental relapse.
2) Mental relapse
Refusing to acknowledge the above markers for emotional relapse can easily lead to mental relapse occurring. This phase of relapsing sees you engaged with an inner battle. You find that one part of you wants to stick to your recovery plan and stay sober. Another nagging part, though, wants to use substances again.
If you notice you are fantasizing about substance use, glorifying drinking rather than focusing on the negative outcomes, you could find yourself deeper into the mental relapse phase. As this phase progresses, your resistance is likely to weaken.
These are the most common signs and symptoms of mental relapse:
- Fantasizing about using alcohol or drugs
- Powerful cravings
- Downplaying past consequences of substance abuse
- Thinking more about substance use
- Imagining a return to controlled substance use
- Spending more time with people who use substances
- Planning your relapse
If you find yourself barraged by intense cravings for substances during the early phase of recovery, relaxation techniques like mindfulness and meditation can help you to overcome these cravings.
If you feel determined to use substances, try one last trick to help you avoid relapsing: wait for thirty minutes before taking action. Taking this brief window of time to double down on your recovery goals with renewed vigor can help prevent mental relapse becoming physical relapse.
3) Physical relapse
If you encounter the above symptoms of the early phases of relapsing and you do not take preventive action, it is almost inevitable you will physically relapse.
What happens to your body when you relapse, then?
Well, the reduced tolerance you have for alcohol after detoxing means you could get more intoxicated more rapidly.
Beyond this, the only remaining question is whether you can arrest and reverse this slip-up, or whether you will tailspin into a full-bore relapse.
What Does Relapse Feel Like?
The most effective way to get back on track after relapsing is to accept that this is a routine setback on your journey, a journey which never promises to unfold in a set manner.
Dismiss any thoughts that relapse means failure. You may feel you have let yourself and your loved ones down, but you can fix that by segueing right back into recovery.
Keep this uppermost in mind – relapse is a normal part of recovery, affecting at least half of those engaging with treatment. Long-term sobriety is not an end goal, but rather a process. You can expect setbacks in any long-term process, but what counts is how you tackle those setbacks.
So, go easy on yourself even if you are feeling hopeless or helpless. Reach out to your treatment team and support network and implement your relapse management plan.
Can You Feel a Relapse Coming?
If you are in the early stages of addiction recovery and you start feeling angry, moody, or anxious, these can all be precursors to emotional relapse. Be watchful of these feelings developing.
For anyone involved in an ongoing internal tug-of-war between recovery and relapsing, acting on these warning signs can help you stay sober. If you fail to curtail these negative feelings, you could enter into the mental relapse phase, which often leads swiftly to physical relapse.
The more aware you become of all the most common red flags for relapse, the more effectively you can prevent relapsing from derailing your recovery.
When is Relapse Most Likely to Occur?
All of the following can lead to a relapse into active alcoholism:
- Peer pressure
- Troubling emotions
- Withdrawal symptoms
- Testing limits and self-control
Most people in the early phase of recovery find social situations revolving around alcohol extremely challenging.
Failing to replace your drinking friends with a new sober network can easily lead you to feel socially isolated.
The soundest strategy is to steer clear of these environments until you are completely confident in your ability to abstain from alcohol.
If you previously used alcohol to self-medicate the stress of everyday life, you need to develop and implement healthier coping mechanisms to keep you from relapsing when things get tough.
During alcohol detox and withdrawal, you could experience any or all of the following symptoms:
- Extreme fatigue
Some of these withdrawal symptoms can be so intense and debilitating, people detoxing are tempted to relapse to soothe those symptoms.
Getting Help from The District Recovery Community
If you have been drinking alcohol to the extent you are concerned about developing alcohol use disorder, we can help you get back on track here at TDRC. The best thing? You won’t need to pack your bags and head to residential rehab.
We specialize in the gender-specific outpatient treatment of addiction. Our personalized and evidence-based treatment programs allow you to focus fully on your recovery without any distractions.
Choose from the following programs to suit the scope and severity of your alcoholism:
- OP (outpatient program)
- IOP (intensive outpatient program)
- PHP (partial hospitalization program)
- Dual diagnosis program (for alcoholism with co-occurring mental health disorders)
Your treatment team can prescribe an array of FDA-approved medications to mitigate cravings and withdrawal symptoms, minimizing your chances of relapse during the challenging early phase of recovery.
Medication-assisted treatment will be delivered alongside psychotherapy and counseling, enabling you to address the psychological component of alcoholism.
Crucially, when you complete your treatment program, you will have a robust aftercare plan and relapse management strategy in place. We’re here to help you every step of the way on your journey to sobriety. Make it happen today by calling 844.287.8506.