If you’ve successfully worked through the recovery process, you’ve achieved an incredible milestone. You’ve put in time, energy, and effort to heal and start a new life for yourself.
That’s why it can feel so defeating when you experience a relapse or return to your old behaviors. Although this is a step backward in your journey toward recovery, relapse is common for people recovering from a substance use disorder (SUD).
Approximately 40 to 60% of people in recovery will experience a relapse at some point. It’s so common that many mental health professionals consider it a standard part of the recovery process. If you’ve relapsed, you have no reason to be ashamed. It’s possible to put your relapse behind you and continue the recovery process.
What Does It Mean to Relapse?
A relapse occurs when someone in recovery stops pursuing their goal of sobriety and returns to their substance use.
To count as a relapse, you must resume your substance use at the same level as before recovery. Relapse is different from a lapse. For example, if you drink one glass of wine at a party and then return to your sobriety right after, that’s known as a lapse.
Relapses are often extended periods of substance use, whereas lapses are only brief periods followed by an immediate return to your recovery goals.
What Causes Relapse?
Relapsing is normal and can result from many causes, including:
- Triggers – Stressful situations can trigger a relapse, as can people or places you might associate with your previous habits.
- Tempting circumstances – You might be exposed to substances at a party or in a social situation, putting you at a higher risk of relapsing.
- Mental health issues – If you’re dealing with other mental health issues, they may make it more likely for you to relapse.
- Physical health – Some physical health issues or conditions can make you more likely to relapse. For example, if you’re in physical pain, you might turn to a substance for relief.
Understanding the causes of relapse can help you prepare for when you encounter them—plan how you might cope with triggers healthily.
Types and Stages of Relapse
There are two main types of relapse: traditional relapse and what’s known as a “freelapse.”
A traditional relapse occurs when a person in recovery consciously decides to use the substances they’ve been avoiding.
A “freelapse” is the nickname for what happens when you relapse unintentionally. Freelapsing can occur if you accidentally drink an alcoholic beverage when you thought it was non-alcoholic.
Sometimes relapses happen suddenly, but often they take place over the course of weeks or months. The three stages of a traditional relapse are:
- Emotional Relapse – This stage involves deteriorating your emotionally healthy coping mechanisms. You may not consciously consider returning to substance use, but this stage is the foundation for the rest of the relapse.
- Mental Relapse – You start to consider returning to your substance use actively. You may even fantasize about doing it. You may understate your SUD's negative impact on you and convince yourself it’s not a big deal to break your sobriety.
- Physical Relapse - You finally return to your previous substance use. You may tell yourself you’ll only do it once, but this stage frequently snowballs into prolonged substance use.
You may not go through all of these stages recognizably, but they are a common cadence in a traditional relapse.
What to Do After a Relapse
It’s vital to take specific steps as soon as you realize you’ve relapsed. The sooner you take action, the faster you’ll recover, and the less likely you’ll relapse again in the future.
Follow these steps immediately after a relapse:
- Reach out for help. You don’t have to go through this alone. Reach out to your sponsor, a loved one, or a therapist and tell them what happened. They will offer you compassionate support to get through this.
- Attend a support group. Go to a self-help group meeting as soon as you can. If you don’t already have a group from your recovery program, you can find a 12-step program to attend. You’ll be able to speak with people who have been through the same thing and get their advice.
- Avoid triggers. Don’t enter into situations that you know could prolong your relapse. Avoid seeing people or going places that you associate with your substance use or that might pressure you into using further.
- Talk it out. Make an appointment to see your doctor or counselor. They can offer guidance on how to come back from a relapse and prevent another in the future.
- Take care of yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself if a relapse happens. It’s a normal part of the process and doesn’t mean you are weak or incapable of recovery. Self-care is essential to staying in the best shape, emotionally and physically, and resume recovery.
- Make a plan for the future. Relapses can happen multiple times, but they don’t have to. Create a robust strategy for dealing with future triggers, taking care not to repeat what happened this time. Reflect on how you got to this point and recruit all your sources of support to prevent it from recurring.
It’s never too late to recover from a relapse, but the sooner you take action, the better.
Seeking Treatment After a Relapse
Relapsing is not a sign that your treatment has failed. You may be able to get right back on track with your recovery after a short relapse. However, if ending your relapse proves challenging, you can always seek treatment again.
Whether or not you need to return to treatment depends on several factors, including:
- Type of substance used
- How much social support you have
- Where you live
- What your previous treatment was like
- Your current mental and physical health
If you are at high risk for continued or future relapse, you may find it beneficial to return to an in-patient treatment program.
Otherwise, you may be able to continue outpatient treatment. If you find yourself in need of bolstered support during or directly after a relapse, you have options:
- See your therapist more frequently – Staying accountable to your counselor and processing everything you’re going through can help stave off relapse.
- Attend a relapse-focused support group – Connecting with others who’ve been through this relatable human experience will reduce your shame and increase your ability to prevent relapse.
- Redouble your self-care efforts – Focusing on taking care of yourself can help you avoid relapse. Make sure you’re eating a healthy diet, exercising, and engaging in positive activities or hobbies that bring you joy.
Get Support for Your Relapse
If you’re going through a relapse right now, know that it’s a normal part of recovery. You have nothing to be ashamed of. It’s absolutely possible to get back on track.
If you need assistance with putting yourself back on the path to recovery, Jackson House Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers can help. Reach out to find out more about our treatment options today.