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For individuals on the journey to recovery, understanding the stages of relapse is crucial in maintaining lasting sobriety. Relapse is a common and normal part of the recovery process. Rather than fearing or feeling ashamed of relapse, it is important to recognize it as an opportunity for growth and learning.

In this blog, we will delve into the three stages of relapse: emotional relapse, mental relapse, and physical relapse. By gaining insights into stages of relapse and learning effective strategies to prevent relapse, we aim to empower individuals to pursue a healthier, substance-free life.

Clinically Reviewed by: Charee Marquez, LMFT

What is Relapse?

Relapse refers to the return or recurrence of a behavior or condition, often after a period of improvement or recovery. In the context of addiction, relapse specifically refers to the recurrence of substance use after a period of abstinence or successful treatment. It is a common and challenging aspect of the recovery process.

Relapse does not mean that the individual has failed in their recovery; rather, it highlights the chronic and complex nature of addiction. It is important to view relapse as an opportunity for learning and adjustment in the ongoing journey of recovery.

Key points about relapse include:

  1. Definition:

    • Relapse is the resumption of substance use or addictive behaviors after a period of abstinence or improvement.
  2. Common in Addiction:

    • Relapse is a common occurrence in the course of addiction recovery. It is considered a part of the overall process rather than a failure.
  3. Triggers and Warning Signs:

    • Certain triggers or warning signs may precede relapse. These can include stress, emotional challenges, environmental cues, social pressures, and other factors that contribute to the urge to use substances.
  4. Multifactorial Causes:

    • Relapse can result from a combination of biological, psychological, and social factors. Addressing these factors comprehensively is crucial for sustained recovery.
  5. Learning Opportunity:

    • Individuals and their support networks can use the experience of relapse as an opportunity to identify triggers, assess coping strategies, and make adjustments to the treatment plan.
  6. Prevention Strategies:

    • Prevention strategies for relapse often include ongoing counseling, support groups, aftercare programs, and the development of healthy coping mechanisms.
  7. Chronic Condition:

    • Addiction is considered a chronic condition, and relapse is understood as a potential aspect of the ongoing management of the condition.
  8. Treatment Adjustment:

    • Following a relapse, treatment plans may be adjusted to address underlying issues or to enhance coping skills. Re-engagement with treatment and support services is often recommended.

What are Some Common Relapses?

Relapses can involve a variety of behaviors or substances depending on the nature of the addiction. Here are common scenarios and substances associated with relapses in different types of addiction:

**1. Substance Use Disorders:

  • Alcohol: For individuals recovering from alcohol use disorder, a relapse often involves a return to drinking, whether moderate or heavy.
  • Illicit Drugs: In cases of drug addiction, relapse may involve the use of illicit substances such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, or other drugs.
  • Prescription Medications: Individuals may relapse by using prescription medications inappropriately, especially if they have a history of substance abuse.

**2. Nicotine Addiction:

  • For those trying to quit smoking, a relapse may involve resuming the use of tobacco products such as cigarettes or other forms of nicotine.

**3. Behavioral Addictions:

  • Gambling: Individuals with a gambling addiction may relapse by engaging in excessive gambling behavior.
  • Food: For those with food addiction or eating disorders, relapse may involve unhealthy eating patterns, binging, or purging.
  • Internet/Technology: Behavioral addictions related to excessive internet or technology use may involve a return to problematic online behaviors.

**4. Process Addictions:

  • Sexual Behavior: Individuals recovering from sex addiction may relapse by engaging in compulsive or risky sexual behaviors.
  • Shopping: People with compulsive shopping or spending addictions may relapse by reverting to impulsive or excessive shopping.

**5. Co-occurring Disorders:

  • Individuals with co-occurring mental health disorders and substance use disorders may experience relapses involving the misuse of substances or exacerbation of mental health symptoms.

**6. Self-Harming Behaviors:

  • Some individuals, particularly those struggling with emotional or psychological distress, may engage in self-harming behaviors as a form of relapse.

**7. Other Compulsive Behaviors:

**8. Poly-Substance Use:

  • Some individuals may relapse by using multiple substances simultaneously, known as poly-substance use.

**9. Environmental Triggers:

  • Certain environments or situations can act as triggers for relapse. For example, returning to places associated with substance use or encountering specific stressors may contribute to relapse behaviors.

It’s important to note that the specific behaviors or substances involved in relapses can vary widely based on individual circumstances, the type of addiction, and the underlying factors contributing to the addiction. Addressing relapse often requires a comprehensive and individualized approach that may include counseling, support groups, medication-assisted treatment, and ongoing aftercare planning.


Stages of Relapse: What You Should Know

Stage 1: Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse is the initial phase of the relapse process. During this stage, individuals are not actively contemplating using drugs or alcohol. However, their emotions and behaviors may set them up for future relapse.

Some noticeable symptoms of emotional relapse are:

  • Not attending recovery support group meetings
  • Withdrawing from peers and family
  • Suppressing emotions
  • Poor eating and sleeping habits
  • Attending meetings but not actively participating
  • Focusing on other people’s problems to avoid one’s own
  • Inadequate management of anxiety, anger, or other emotional challenges
  • Intolerance
  • Defensiveness
  • Mood swings
  • Reluctance to seek help
  • Neglecting emotional and physical self-care
  • Neglecting sober activities and personal time

Engaging in self-reflection by asking certain questions to prevent getting trapped in the first stage of relapse is beneficial. Journaling can serve as an excellent starting point. Consider these self-reflection questions:

  • Are you practicing self-care?
  • How are you enjoying yourself?
  • Are you making time for yourself, or are you getting caught up in the lives and dramas of others?
  • What coping mechanisms are you using?
  • What can you add to your recovery program to ensure emotional and physical well-being?
  • Are you addressing your thoughts, emotions, and feelings?
  • Have you tried to actively participate in recovery support meetings?
  • How are you managing the daily stresses of life?

Recognizing that you are experiencing emotional relapse and making immediate behavioral changes are crucial for preventing relapse. If you notice any signs of the first stage of relapse, it’s better to discuss it with the professionals so that they can make changes in your treatment for addiction. This will help you stop at the first stage of relapse. Also, note that if tension builds, the risk of transitioning to stage 2—mental relapse—becomes greater.

Stage 2: Mental Relapse

When individuals with substance use disorders (SUDs) neglect self-care and remain in a state of emotional relapse for extended periods, they start feeling uncomfortable with themselves. This discomfort leads to restlessness, irritability, and discontent. These emotions build up tension, triggering thoughts of using drugs or alcohol as an escape.

Mental relapse becomes a battle within the mind, with one side yearning to eliminate negative emotions through substance use while the other side resists relapse. Resisting relapse becomes increasingly challenging as the individual becomes more absorbed in this obsessive mental state.

Signs of Mental Relapse Include:

  • Dwelling on past drug or alcohol use and the addict’s lifestyle
  • Minimizing the consequences of past use
  • Romanticizing and glamorizing past use or lifestyle
  • Cravings for drugs or alcohol
  • Engaging in lying or bargaining
  • Contemplating ways to control drug or alcohol use
  • Seeking opportunities to relapse
  • Planning a relapse

During the mental relapse stage, individuals may engage in bargaining. This can involve looking for excuses to drink or use drugs again or seeking ways to control their substance use. They may feel they deserve to drink or use drugs to celebrate occasions like holidays or weddings or because they are attending a friend’s gathering.

Stage 3: Physical Relapse

Individuals may progress to physical relapse if mental and emotional relapse symptoms are not acknowledged and addressed promptly. This stage involves the actual act of using drugs or alcohol. It is crucial to seek help immediately upon recognizing physical relapse to prevent further entrenchment in the destructive cycle of addiction.

How to Avoid Relapse in Your Recovery Journey?

To avoid relapse, it is important to be aware of triggers that may lead to a return to harmful addictive behavior. Some common triggers include:

Social Triggers

These are people or groups of people associated with drinking or drug use. They may be referred to as drink buddies or drug buddies. Encountering such individuals can act as a social trigger and create cravings for alcohol or drugs.

Emotional Triggers

Drug use and heavy drinking often have deep emotional roots. Whether it’s celebrating joy or self-medicating to numb pain or sadness, these emotions often lead to cravings. Emotional triggers can be challenging to overcome.

Pattern Triggers

Certain times of the day, seasons, significant events, or holidays can act as pattern triggers and trigger cravings for alcohol or drugs.

Withdrawal Triggers

Social, emotional, and pattern triggers are psychologically conditioned. Withdrawal triggers, on the other hand, are biological responses to the absence of substances in the body. These triggers commonly occur in the first few weeks of recovery as the body adjusts to the absence of the substance.

While triggers can sometimes occur randomly, they are typically connected to past drinking or drug abuse.

The most potent triggers often span multiple categories. For example, if someone used to drink heavily every Christmas with their family, they may face triggers across all the mentioned categories, leading to strong cravings.

Seeking Treatment? We Can Help!

At California Prime Recovery, as an in-network provider we work with most insurance plans, such as:

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health challenges or substance abuse, reach out to California Prime Recovery today. Our team of compassionate professionals is here to support your journey towards lasting well-being. Give us a call at 866-208-2390

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