Understanding Relapse

Return to use (commonly known as relapse) is often part of the recovery process. Learn how you can navigate it and return to your recovery journey

November 16, 2021
Older couple walking down a street

Repeated alcohol or drug use can create emotional, psychological and physical associations tied to substance use. Part of the recovery process involves creating new associations and forming new goals and behaviors. But these changes take time. While a person is in the early stages of forming new habits and associations, recurrences of use or returns to use may happen. These are more commonly known as relapses. Viewing relapse as a learning opportunity instead of failure or setback can help an individual in developing alternative and healthier coping mechanisms.

While an individual may experience the positive benefits of reducing or eliminating substances, it’s common for forward motion to be interrupted by a temporary or large-scale relapse. There are several factors that can precipitate a return to substance use. Some of those triggers include

  • A return to areas or places formerly associated with substance use
  • Stressful living circumstances such as housing instability, personal or professional setbacks, or societal pressures
  • Mental health or physical health challenges
  • Guilt, stigma or shame associated with minor lapses can create an emotional loop of perceived failure, leading to a cycle of use and guilt

How Common Is Substance Use Relapse?

Up to 40 to 60% of people with substance use disorders experience relapse or multiple lapses during the treatment and the recovery process. It is vitally important to immediately address acute physical distress, especially in the case of return to opiate use after a period of non-use. It is also important to let the individual know that relapse can be a common experience and should not be viewed as a failure of treatment or a roadblock to successful recovery.

What To Do if a Relapse Occurs

When relapse occurs, it is an opportunity to reassess and recalibrate daily routines. A good strategy is to find ways to reduce triggers while supporting the formation of alternative coping strategies. Examining what factors contributed to the relapse may yield information that points to a need for additional psychological or inpatient treatment. Incorporating items that worked well in original recovery activities, while identifying additional cues, will help create an effective relapse prevention plan.

Addiction grows and progresses over time to morph from innocent to destructive patterns of relief. Recovery, too, is progressive, and each success and perceived setback is a learning opportunity for growth and enrichment along the journey of recovery.

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