Recovery from a substance use disorder is a lifelong journey, and sometimes setbacks are simply part of the process. Relapse can feel devastating, especially if you’ve worked hard to achieve a long period of sobriety.
But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’ve failed or that relapse somehow deletes your progress in treatment and recovery. Relapse is a normal part of recovery, and you can return to sobriety with support and self-compassion.
Addiction Is a Disease
Addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease that can be extremely difficult to break free from on your own. Using drugs or alcohol repeatedly actually alters the neural pathways associated with reward.
Over time, addiction makes it harder to enjoy activities outside of substance use and get sober on your own. Alterations in the reward pathway can last for months or years after a person achieves abstinence, increasing the likelihood of continued use and relapse, even after a period of abstinence.
The brain does have a remarkable ability to heal, but it takes time. We can look at cravings and relapse as the brain replaying a loop it’s been conditioned to rely on over time.
While all addiction recovery models aim to help you resist the urge to return to drinking or using drugs, it’s virtually impossible to prepare for any and every situation, and sometimes relapse happens. Removing the stigma, shame, and ego from a relapse can help you understand your needs and move forward in recovery.
Relapse Is a Part of Recovery
While most people can achieve lasting recovery with the help of addiction treatment services, relapse is often part of that process. Some people will relapse multiple times before finding permanent recovery.
Many people who relapse fall victim to the abstinence violation effect: negative thoughts, emotions, and responses immediately following a relapse. People who feel this effect often report feeling guilty for their relapse, ashamed of themselves for being unable to maintain abstinence, and hopeless in their recovery.
But the truth is that sometimes relapse is out of our control; specific situations, emotions, or unexpected events can trigger the mental, emotional, and physical stages of relapse.
Feelings of guilt, shame, and hopelessness can actually set people up for further drug or alcohol use; they feel as though their relapse is an indication of their self-worth or efficacy, and they interpret a single episode as an indication that they will continue to fail.
Investigating what led to your relapse and focusing on what you can change can stop the cycle. Instead, try a more adaptive strategy and find new supports that protect you mentally, emotionally, and physically.
If you can break free from the notion that relapse is a failure and begin to see it as part of the recovery process, you can build a strong foundation for sustained abstinence.
A Lapse Doesn’t Have to Be a Return to Addiction
Another essential point to recognize is that a relapse doesn’t have to be a return to active addiction. It is entirely possible to have a lapse in your sobriety and quickly return to an active and healthy life in recovery. A relapse isn’t a hard reset; it can just be a momentary slip.
You can take a few steps to get back on track, recalibrate, prepare for the future, and get back to living a healthy life in sobriety.
Three Steps to Getting Back on Track After Relapse
After a relapse, you must take action to ensure you don’t return to active addiction. Take the relapse as a warning sign that some piece of your recovery was missing and work towards identifying the problem to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
1. Assess What Led to Your Relapse
Diagnosing the problem is the first key to getting back on track. Take an honest account of what happened before and during your relapse – remember, relapse happens before you pick up. Trace your steps and consider what you can change and prevent in the future.
For example, many people will put off essential prevention techniques in the weeks and days leading up to a relapse episode. They get comfortable, allow the ego to convince them that their addiction is over for good, and cut back on practices like:
- Engaging in self-care
- Speaking with a therapist or counselor
- Attending self-help or support groups
- Participating in healthy sober activities, such as exercise, journaling, or meditation
- Taking on too much at work or in their personal life, sacrificing sleep and rest
Recovery routines and techniques help people feel comfortable in their sobriety and offer constructive outlets for excess energy. When we get too complacent or allow the ego to get too loud, we cut back on those protective layers. Soon after, the boredom, anxiety, restlessness, and other negative feelings set in, putting you at risk of relapse.
Perhaps a specific scenario led you to relapse. Situations like going to a party with alcohol, going on vacation, spending extended time with family out of your routine, or meeting up with friends you used to use with are all common relapse triggers.
If a specific scenario acted as the catalyst for relapse, determine what you could have done differently and apply that knowledge next time. For example, you can skip the party, bring a sober friend along, or reach out for support before attending to ensure you’re in a good place.
Whatever the cause, focus on what you can do differently next time. Let your relapse be a learning experience for the future, and use it to plan for potential triggers you might encounter. In this way, your relapse becomes a source of strength and motivation that moves you forward in your recovery journey.
2. Recognize Your Progress
One way to stop a shame spiral is to recognize the progress you’ve made in your recovery. Too often, people who relapse beat themselves up and treat the relapse as a total reset of their sobriety. But by looking at your progress as a whole, you can see that you’re still on an upward trend.
The fact is that a relapse doesn’t delete your progress. If you’ve gone through addiction treatment, you still have the knowledge and tools to help you deal with triggers, cravings, and risky situations.
You likely still have resources that are available to help. And you still have a greater understanding of the nature of addiction and know the steps you need to take to sustain your recovery from here on out.
Recognize that you have been able to stay abstinent for some time. In active addiction, many people use every day for months or even years. Being able to stop for an extended period is progress, and it shows that you can recover.
Looking at your progress over time rather than focusing on the relapse episode in isolation can show you how far you’ve come and provide hope that you’ll be able to do even better in the future.
3. Don’t Be Afraid to Reach Out for Help
Lastly, if you’ve diagnosed the cause of your relapse and looked at your progress but still don’t feel you’ll be able to maintain your sobriety in the future, don’t be afraid to reach back out for help. You can return to a treatment center for a tune-up, and more therapies, treatments, and education can help you to sort through the stages of relapse, develop a plan for the future, and help you get back on track.
Getting an outside perspective can help you to put your relapse episode in context and reframe relapse with a professional perspective on what happened and how you can do better. Therapists and counselors are acutely aware of relapse’s effects on the body and mind. They have specialized training to help people recover from these episodes and return to recovery.
Be honest about your feelings. As APN Lead Therapist, Dustin Straight said, “The fastest way to resolve a craving is to tell someone about it.” One of the worst things you could do is to hide a craving or relapse from the people who care. Harboring a secret can build feelings of shame and guilt, and it only increases the likelihood of relapsing again in the future.
Be accountable for your actions and acknowledge that you may need assistance with the next steps. Humility can take you far and help you get the support you need.
Finding More Support After Relapse
At All Points North, our in-person and virtual programs emphasize connection, both with caring therapists and supportive peer groups. Scheduled check-ins, therapy appointments, mental health resources, and a network of support help increase accountability and spot relapse behaviors before things spiral out of control.
When you work with a team of professionals and find support from people with shared experiences, you’re more likely to find success with sustained long-term recovery. A return trip to a residential program is not a sign of failure – it could be just what you need to get back on track.
Wherever you are, know that there is support for you. Cravings and relapse aren’t a failure – they’re a sign that you need help. Everyone deserves support. If you’d like to learn more about how All Points North helps people struggling with relapse, reach out to our team at 855.235.9792 or fill out our online form.
- Koob, G., Volkow, N. Neurocircuitry of Addiction. Neuropsychopharmacol 35, 217–238 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2009.110
- Curry, S., Marlatt, G. A., & Gordon, J. R. (1987). Abstinence violation effect: Validation of an attributional construct with smoking cessation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 145–149.