Bouncing Back from Relapse: Understanding the Stages and Warning Signs

By Published On: July 13th, 2023Categories: Prevention, Relapse, Strategies

When someone relapses—especially after spending a substantial amount of time in substance use recovery—it can be hard for them to put it behind them. Because of the stigma surrounding addiction, relapse is sometimes mischaracterized as a moral failing. In reality, relapse is just a symptom of the disease of addiction.

Many people who relapse end up feeling humiliated or ashamed. To mask the guilt they feel, they use even more, perpetuating the cycle of addiction all over again. But it’s important to remember that relapsing doesn’t make someone a failure, it just makes them human.

Understanding Relapse

Sometimes called a “return to use,” the term relapse typically refers to someone using drugs or drinking alcohol after a period of abstinence. But there are other forms of relapse as well. Things like gambling, technology addiction, overworking, excessive exercise, and other potentially harmful behaviors can also be considered a relapse.

What connects these behaviors is that they arise when people veer away from their recovery plan. When people stop participating in their recovery, they lose the healthy coping mechanisms that come with it. Unable to deal with life on life’s terms, they search for something else to help them cope.

The Three Stages of Relapse

Another helpful thing to remember about relapses is that they happen in stages. The three stages of relapse are emotional, mental, and physical. When someone has an emotional relapse, it means they haven’t thought about using or drinking, but they’re also neglecting their own health and wellness needs. Things like shifting focus away from self-care, skipping meetings or groups, and isolating are common signs of emotional relapse.

A mental relapse occurs when someone is consciously debating using. They may be romanticizing past substance use experiences or fantasizing about using in the future. Even though someone in this stage hasn’t used yet, they are likely to use eventually if they don’t reach out and ask for help.

When a physical relapse occurs, it means the individual has begun using substances or alcohol again. When a relapse continues unchecked, it can become more difficult to stop using, but it’s important to remember that even if physical relapse occurs, recovery is still within reach.

Recovering from a Relapse

After a relapse, it can be overwhelming and difficult to get back on track. Someone who’s recovering from a relapse may experience withdrawal symptoms or might face other kinds of fallout such as legal consequences. It’s never a guarantee that all issues will be resolved by addressing the relapse, but by responding as promptly as possible, individuals have the best chance of reestablishing their abstinence.

Sometimes people who relapse have difficulty admitting to their family or support group that they had a slip. They may believe that they’ve let people down. But keeping feelings and actions concealed only tends to worsen the situation. It’s hard for people to get the help they need if they don’t let the people around them know they’re struggling. The sooner someone reaches out to their support system, the sooner they can get back on track.

Addiction Relapse Warning Signs

Equally as important as knowing how to respond to a relapse is knowing how to prevent one. Relapses don’t always happen for the same reasons—some people may relapse when they’re having a hard time, others might relapse when things seem to be going well—but regardless of the cause, there are often behavioral indicators preceding the relapse.

Many people seem restless or irritable leading up to a relapse. They may take attention away from themselves and focus more on criticizing others. Becoming withdrawn­—especially from meetings and other recovery activities—is also a common indicator of relapse.

Looking for these signs and being open with one’s support group when they come up can be key to preventing relapse. Creating a recovery plan can also be extremely helpful. Having steps in place to encourage self-care, healthy coping skills and mechanisms, and consistent contact with a support network can all be valuable tools for staying on track. The more safeguards someone has in place between themselves and a relapse, the greater their chances of maintaining recovery.

If you or a loved one are struggling with addiction or co-occurring disorders, call the New England Recovery Center today at 1-877-MyRehab. 

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