For people going through rehab or those recovering from something, a relapse might stray them away from their goals. Hence, it is important to know what is a relapse and why it happens. Read on to find all such details in this all-in-one relapse guide.

Recovery is hard. As people try to stay clean, they may start to justify reasons for using a little bit of substance or doing any other thing they’re recovering from. One last time won’t hurt much; such thoughts can quickly overcome an individual recovering from an addiction of any sort, especially if they are living a stressful life full of physical or emotional pain. This is where relapse kicks in.

Wondering what is a relapse? It might just be a momentary behavioral slip or you might just be drowning in the same sea of addiction from where you drove yourself to the shore before. If the latter is the case with you or any of your loved ones, you need to be wary of even the smallest signs indicating a relapse. While relapse in itself is an escape from medication or treatment, it doesn’t mean that getting back on track is impossible. Timely identification and the right steps can treat relapse and break the cycle.

When a relapse happens, you might feel like it is your destiny, you have tried but you have failed, and you have let your loved ones down. You might feel hopeless and you might struggle to get back on track just because you aren’t able to forgive yourself for making that single mistake on your road to recovery. Such feelings of shame and self-blame are not helpful and can hinder your relapse recovery.

Because rehabilitation or recovery is a difficult process, a relapse might happen because you’re feeling like no one understands what you are going through. Whatever might be the reason, you need to be fully aware of relapse in order to avoid it. This article is an all-in-one guide to knowing what is a relapse, how it can be prevented, and what are its different stages. Read on to have detailed insights on such topics.

What is a relapse?

A relapse is defined as the recurrence or worsening of a medical condition that had previously improved and recovered. Although it might happen in the recovery of any disease or condition, relapse is most common in drug or substance addiction. In such cases, relapse refers to the resumption of substance use after attempting to not use it for a certain period which is known as abstinence.

For instance, someone returning to drug use after spending some days, or even months, in rehab would be experiencing a relapse. Similarly, if someone starts drinking regularly after a long time, he might be having a relapse. Having one drink might be considered just a “slip” rather than a relapse.

For someone who is trying to control their behavior rather than trying to quit entirely, a relapse happens when the individual had gotten control over the behavior in the past but is re-experiencing a period of uncontrolled behavior. Similarly, a shopaholic who is trying to follow a spending plan might relapse by going on a shopping spree.

Put simply, relapse is when one returns to the same addictive behavior and picks up their past addiction again after a clean period. However, there are different perspectives as to when a relapse actually begins. Some people believe that it begins right away when someone breaks abstinence. On the other hand, some define relapse as going back to the same excessive and regular pattern as in the past.

It is important to know that a relapse is not something out of the box. During the recovery process, relapse is possible and is often a very normal part. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), almost 40 to 60 percent of drug addicts relapse during their rehab process. It is very probable that anyone who has used substances frequently in the past is vulnerable to relapse.

Even after a full treatment cycle, relapse is common in all chronic illnesses, especially for people who stop following their ongoing care plans. Substance use relapses should be given significant treatment like any other chronic illnesses since addiction relapse rates are highly comparable to those of other chronic diseases, such as asthma and hypertension, almost 50 to 70 percent.

Relapse commonly occurs while recovering from some drugs. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked as it can also be very dangerous and lead to overdose. When someone returns to substance use after an extended period of sobriety, they usually have a reduced tolerance to the substance. This is because their body is not as dependent on the drug as it was before, and hence need less of the drug to feel its effects. This is something that people often don’t get. They end up taking as much of the drug as they did before quitting and starting rehab, resulting in an overdose. An overdose happens when someone so much of a substance or drug that they end up experiencing uncomfortable feelings, life-threatening symptoms, or even death.

So when relapse happens, it needs to be addressed right away. The relapsing person should immediately seek a doctor’s help or clinical treatment to understand what happened and how they can prevent it from happening again. According to the professionals’ advice, you might return to treatment, start it all over again, or try a different treatment approach.

Why does relapse occur?

Every day that a former drug user beats his addiction by not using drugs, they are beating their most powerful opponent, which is their mind. When you are addicted, your brain wants more and more of that substance, making the recovery process a hard one. While trying to stay clean, your mind can play tricks on you and you might start to justify that a little bit of substance might be fine. Maybe if your life is stressful and full of physical and emotional pain, you might start thinking of going back to your old addiction habits to get a temporary moment of peace.

There is no one particular reason why people relapse. Instead, there are various reasons, with each reason personal to each individual who experiences this gradual return to substance use.

Another important thing to note here is that a relapse does not occur suddenly. If you are mindful enough, you may start to notice clues early enough. A change in your behavior or thinking, loss of desire to recover, and skipping your recovery support meetings are some of the early clues indicating a relapse.

Relapse is not a failure

Despite how you may feel during your relapse; sad, angry, disappointed, or discouraged, it is important to know that relapse is not a failure. Neither does it mean that a person has failed at recovery, or that their drug treatment is at risk. Relapse is not the end, and it certainly doesn’t mean that recovery isn’t possible.

Instead, it is an indication that some things must be revised or revamped in the treatment plans. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), “When someone recovering from addiction relapses, it’s an indication that the person needs to speak with their doctor to resume treatment, make some changes in it, or try another treatment.”

Just as addiction takes time, sobriety does too. It is important to understand that rehab involves learning how to get sober as well as how to live sober. The process involves changing deep-rooted behaviors that were once an integral part of a person’s life. Trial and error can happen while learning anything new so mistakes are bound to happen along the way. If someone takes a step back on their road to recovery, it doesn’t mean that they have failed or are not making any progress. It’s just that they need to be placed back on the right path.

Getting back on track after an addiction relapse is difficult. However, going easy on yourself is the key. One must not forget that long-term sobriety is a process and not an end goal and that every long-term process is bound to have setbacks along the way. Remember that you have gone through the process and have faced your challenges and issues before and you can do it again, even better than before.

Also, relapse is not something to get angry or frustrated with. If your friend or a loved one has relapsed, all you need to do is stay calm and be as supportive as possible. The relapsing individual and those around him need to understand that relapse is normal in recovery and that it can be overcome if attended to. The last thing a relapsing individual needs in this moment is to feel ashamed and upset since stressful feelings and thoughts can increase their chances of going back to addictive habits again.

Relapse vs. slip

Too often, relapse is confused with a slip or vice versa, since there are only subtle differences between a slip, a lapse, and a relapse. According to treatment experts, a slip is a one-time mishap or return to substance use and a lapse refers to a brief slip while a relapse is longer in duration and more sustained than the other two. However, if not handled properly, a slip or lapse can quickly transition into a relapse.

A slip and a relapse are also often differentiated on the basis of the individual’s intention at the time. Usually, a slip is seen as single, unplanned substance use. On the other hand, relapse happens when a recovery plan is completely dismissed and the individual is on the track to going back to old addiction habits.

If someone you know or love has started taking drugs again, be it once or multiple times, it might not be a matter of differentiating between a slip or a relapse. Justifying drinking or substance use as a slip can sometimes lead to bigger problems in the future. Hence, it should be addressed in the same way as a relapse, that is, by seeking medical or therapeutic advice from your counselor or clinician. Tackling a relapse on your own is not the solution. There are recovery communities and counselors always willing to help those on the relapse route.

Avoiding or preventing relapse

Noticing some of the warning signs of relapse can help you take steps to guard against it. The first thing that you need to do is to take a close look at what situations lead you to crave substance use. Think of activities that can trigger your mind to start thinking of using drugs again, such as going to parties, clubbing, or even watching sports. You also need to think of the bigger picture by digging deep into thoughts or feelings that cause cravings, such as social anxiety or financial stress. Be as specific as possible. Write those things down.

This list will be different for everyone. Once you figure out what triggers you, start thinking about healthy alternative activities instead of substance use for each of those triggers. Maybe you can end your day with a long walk instead of a cocktail. Similar healthy activities can make a huge difference in helping you stay away from going back to substance use again.

If you wish to prevent yourself from relapsing, you will have to experiment a bit to find new approaches that work best. Instead of leaning on the drug again, you must develop new routines that are rewarding as well as healthy.

Moreover, if you are mindful of your relapse process and how it gradually transitions from one stage to another, it will be more helpful to prevent the relapse from happening or worsening.

Understanding different stages of relapse

Understanding the multiple stages of a relapse can significantly help to avoid relapse in the first place. These stages can occur either simultaneously or gradually over several weeks. Identifying the signs of the early stages of a relapse can help achieve more success in avoiding a relapse. If you or your loved one is experiencing a relapse, make sure that your plan for recovery addresses all three types or stages of relapses that you could face. Relapse can happen in recovery but that doesn’t mean you cannot avoid it. Being well aware of the different stages and signs of a relapse can help prevent relapse from happening.

Emotional relapse

This is the stage of relapse that occurs long before the craving enters your mind, meaning that there is plenty of time prior to the return to substance abuse for warning signs to be identified and for relapse to be addressed.

If you are not paying mindful attention, emotional relapse signs can be subtle. It usually happens at a time when you probably have not thought about returning to substance abuse but your thoughts and emotions are starting to fall into a pattern that could prompt you to relapse. This stage often contains denial and is marked with negative emotions as a person may fall prey to isolating themselves from others and avoid talking about their feelings or struggles. Other signs of emotional relapse include anxiety, mood swings, trouble sleeping, and poor eating habits.

Overwhelmed by these feelings, individuals suffering from an emotional relapse abandon their newfound coping mechanisms and strategies which in turn, lays the groundwork for an eventual return to drug use. They aren’t feeling themselves nor feeling comfortable in their own skin.

To prevent further relapse at this stage of emotional instability, it is important that you talk to someone and practice self-care. Make sure you are regularly attending your meetings, treatment program, and therapy. At this point of recovery, you will have to exercise self-discipline in order to stay disciplined in your abstinence. If you feel like skipping a meeting or therapy session, it is a strong sign that you need to ask for help. You might be slightly moving away from your interest in recovery, which could lead to an interest in using again.

Mental relapse

This is the stage when individuals actively consider the idea of using substances or drugs again to cope with their emotional distress. It might occur only as a passing thought but it can lead to recurring thoughts and eventually returning to old addiction habits. At first, it may simply start off as thinking about previous times of drug use. As time goes on, your addiction may start playing tricks on you and you may start to fantasize about using again as you slowly start to forget how bad your addiction was in the end. When such early signs of mental relapse start appearing, it is important to speak up and seek help.

In the recovery process, entertaining memories of past drug use or acknowledging cravings isn’t just common but it’s more expected to happen. A healthy approach to these kinds of distressing thoughts is to address them without any fear, denial, or shame, and not let them overcome the best of you.

Make sure to talk about your thoughts to your therapist or counselor, or share them at a meeting. After recognizing a mental relapse, the best thing to do is to first tell someone you trust about your thoughts of using drugs again and then find a way to distract yourself. Remember to take small steps and give yourself time. Instead of making long-term promises to yourself of never using drugs again, make achievable short-term goals by focusing on not using drugs that day or in the next hour.

Physical relapse

You have thought about drugs enough and now you are driving to the liquor store or calling your dealer. You are past fantasizing about drug use and now you are making that fantasy come true. When this happens, you have fallen prey to physical relapse, which is the hardest stage of relapse to stop because your mind has strongly convinced the body of substance use. Physical relapse is the final stage in which someone practically returns to drug use.

Working through this stage of relapse with physical symptoms of a craving requires sheer force and willpower, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The best way to prevent relapse is to catch it in its early stages. Once you know what you’re dealing with, it gets easier to overcome the problem. Although relapse at later stages can be tough to deal with, it can always be prevented by choosing not to pick up a drink or a drug, no matter what.

Final thoughts

So this was all about what is a relapse, how to tackle it, and its different stages. The most important takeaway from this guide is that relapse is a process, not a single event that happens in a moment’s decision. Remember, just because the relapse process has begun doesn’t mean that it cannot be stopped. While a strong support system is necessary to achieving recovery, medical assistance is just as vital. Relapsing people should enroll back into treatment right away, specifically relapse prevention treatments.

Relapse does not mean failure. It’s important to understand that a relapse is a temporary setback in a recovery process that will one day lead you to live your life free of drugs. Conclusively, while recovering addicts or those in rehab should try their best not to relapse, there is still a good chance for solid recovery and happy and healthy life after relapsing. So instead of keeping it unattended and untreated, make sure to seek help and medical advice when relapse occurs.

Author

Nabeel Ahmad is the founder and editor-in-chief of Lone Mind. Apart from Lone Mind, he is a serial entrepreneur, and has founded multiple successful companies in different industries.

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