Why Do Addicts Relapse?

Dec 20, 2023

Key points:

  • About 85% of individuals recovering from alcohol and drug abuse experience relapse within the first year.

  • Relapse involves genetic predisposition, environmental triggers, stress, and mental health disorders.

  • Prolonged substance use alters the brain, impacting decision-making and emotional regulation.


Embarking on the journey of addiction recovery involves confronting the challenging reality of relapse. For individuals who abused alcohol and other drugs, 85% relapsed within the first year. Relapse may be a small stumble on the long path of recovery. An understanding of relapse, its contributing factors, and effective prevention strategies is key in supporting individuals on their path to sustained sobriety.

Factors Contributing to Relapse

The multifaceted nature of relapse involves an intricate interplay of genetic predisposition, environmental triggers, stress, and co-occurring mental health disorders. Prolonged substance use induces structural and functional alterations in the brain, impacting decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation. These alterations create formidable challenges, making it arduous for individuals to resist cravings and avoid a complete return to previous patterns of substance abuse.

Key Features of Relapse

Distinguishing relapse from a lapse is essential. While a lapse denotes a temporary setback involving a singular episode of substance use, relapse encapsulates a more profound return to regular substance use, marked by an inability to control or stop use and a loss of motivation for recovery.

Relapse is often characterized by a gradual decline in commitment to recovery. This decline may begin subtly, with small changes in attitude or behavior that may not immediately involve substance use. Individuals may start to distance themselves from their support systems, such as skipping meetings or counseling sessions, or they might begin to romanticize past substance use

Why Relapse Happens

Ongoing emotional and psychological issues, including anxiety, depression, unresolved trauma, and stress often trigger relapse. These issues are compounded by physiological changes in brain chemistry due to long-term substance abuse, increasing susceptibility to cravings.

Environmental triggers also play a role in relapse. Exposure to environments associated with past substance use or contact with individuals who use substances can reignite cravings and lead to a breakdown in recovery. Similarly, social and economic challenges, such as unemployment or conflicts in relationships, contribute significantly. 

Furthermore, feelings of isolation or emotional distress can contribute to the risk of relapse, highlighting the importance of ongoing, comprehensive treatment and support. Recovery entails addressing these triggers through therapeutic interventions, participation in support groups, and the cultivation of healthier coping mechanisms.

Types & Stages of Relapse

Understanding relapse as a process unfolding in three stages—emotional, mental, and physical—is crucial. Each stage comes with its own set of challenges and warning signs, making it important for individuals and their support networks to be aware and proactive at each step.

1. Emotional Stage: This initial stage is often subtle and can be easily overlooked. It's marked by emotional symptoms that may not directly relate to substance use but set the groundwork for a potential relapse. Key warning signs include increased stress, mood swings, anxiety, or feelings of isolation. 

Individuals might also start neglecting their self-care routines, such as poor sleep habits or a lack of healthy eating. During this stage, it's critical to strengthen emotional resilience through practices like mindfulness, regular therapy, and maintaining a robust support network. Early intervention at this point can prevent the progression to more advanced stages of relapse.

2. Mental Stage: Here, the individual starts experiencing a mental tug-of-war regarding substance use. There may be a resurgence of cravings or obsessive thoughts about using. Risky thinking patterns, such as glamorizing past substance use or rationalizing potential use, become more prominent. 

This stage is particularly challenging because the individual is consciously battling these thoughts, often feeling an internal conflict between the desire to use and the commitment to stay sober. Coping strategies during this stage involve engaging in activities that divert attention from cravings, open communication with therapists or support groups, and reinforcing the reasons and motivations behind one's sobriety.

3. Physical Stage: The physical stage of relapse is when the individual actively engages in substance use, marking a full relapse. This stage is often the most visible and can be mistaken as the 'start' of a relapse. However, it is actually the culmination of the emotional and mental stages. 

Preventing the physical stage requires vigilance and action in the earlier stages. Once here, it is important to seek immediate help and not to view this as a failure but rather as a part of the recovery journey. Re-engaging with treatment programs, revisiting recovery goals, and possibly adjusting treatment strategies are essential steps in getting back on track.

Relapse Risk Factors

Common risk factors for addiction relapse include exposure to triggers, stress, interpersonal problems, peer pressure, and a lack of social support. To mitigate these risks, it's essential to cultivate coping skills that can be used in moments of temptation or difficulty. 

Stress management techniques such as mindfulness, exercise, or therapeutic interventions are critical. Addressing and resolving relationship conflicts, often with the help of counseling, can also reduce the likelihood of relapse. Equally important is the ability to resist peer pressure, especially from circles that do not support recovery efforts. 

Actively building and maintaining a network of supportive friends, family members, or recovery groups even helps provide a safety net. These proactive steps empower individuals to fortify their defenses against the challenges that may lead to relapse.

Common Causes of Addiction Relapse

Identifying triggers is crucial in preventing addiction relapse. Social situations, negative emotions, cravings, and boredom emerge as common contributors. Combatting these triggers requires the establishment of a sober support system; this may include friends who respect your sobriety, family members who understand your journey, or fellow members of recovery groups.

Developing coping strategies for handling negative emotions - such as engaging in therapy, journaling, or pursuing hobbies - helps in preventing relapse. Additionally, learning to manage cravings through techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, or medication-assisted treatment can be essential. Finally, filling one’s life with diverse and fulfilling activities can counteract boredom and provide meaningful alternatives to substance use. 

Ways To Prevent Relapse

Preventing relapse is a multifaceted endeavor. Key to this process is the avoidance of known triggers, whether they are places, situations, or people that might reignite old habits. Equally important is the cultivation of a strong support network. This network should not just consist of family and friends, but also include peers who are on a similar recovery path, as their shared experiences can offer unique understanding and solidarity.

Self-care is another cornerstone of preventing relapse. Beyond just relaxation, self-care also involves regular physical activity, which can greatly improve mental health and reduce stress. A balanced diet is also essential, as proper nutrition can help regulate mood and energy levels.

Additionally, professional help in the form of therapy or counseling is invaluable. These services provide not just a space for working through personal challenges and traumas that may contribute to substance abuse, but also offer practical tools and strategies for managing cravings and stress. Tailored to individual needs, this professional support can significantly enhance an individual's capacity to stay on the path of recovery.

By adopting these strategies, individuals enhance their resilience and fortify their defenses against the intricate challenges inherent in the recovery journey.

What to Do Right After a Relapse

Relapse can be a disheartening part of the recovery journey, but it's important to remember that it's not the end of the road. The steps taken immediately after a relapse are crucial in getting back on track and preventing further setbacks.

1. Acknowledge the Relapse: The first step is to acknowledge that a relapse has occurred. This acceptance allows you to address the situation head-on rather than being in denial, which can lead to more issues.

2. Avoid Negative Self-Talk: It's common to experience feelings of guilt, shame, or failure after a relapse. However, engaging in negative self-talk can be counterproductive. Instead, try to adopt a compassionate and forgiving attitude towards yourself. Understand that recovery is a journey with potential bumps along the way.

3. Reach Out for Support: Contact your support network as soon as possible. This could be a therapist, a support group, a trusted friend, or a family member. Sharing what happened can alleviate some of the emotional burdens and help you find guidance on the next steps.

4. Reflect on the Causes: Once you're in a stable mindset, reflect on what led to the relapse. Identifying triggers or situations that contributed to it can help in making necessary adjustments to your recovery plan.

5. Reaffirm Your Commitment to Recovery: Revisit and reaffirm your commitment to recovery. Remind yourself of your reasons for wanting to stay sober and the progress you’ve already made.

6. Adjust Your Recovery Plan: Consult with a professional to review and adjust your recovery plan. This might involve increasing therapy sessions, changing coping strategies, or finding new ways to manage triggers.

7. Focus on Self-Care: Prioritize self-care to restore both physical and mental health. This includes getting enough rest, eating well, engaging in physical activity, and practicing mindfulness or other stress-reduction techniques.

8. Learn and Grow from the Experience: Finally, view the relapse as a learning opportunity. Each challenge on the recovery path provides insights that can strengthen your resolve and enhance your strategies for maintaining sobriety. 

Treatment Options After a Relapse

The decision to return to treatment post-relapse hinges on individual circumstances. A critical first step is to reassess the current treatment plan with a healthcare professional, identifying what adjustments might be needed. Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) offer a blend of structured therapy and support while allowing individuals to stay in their home environment. 

For those needing a more immersive approach, residential treatment provides a stable, controlled setting for intensive recovery efforts, away from everyday triggers. Support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) play a role in offering peer support and accountability, and their importance often increases post-relapse. 

Individual therapy continues to be a key treatment option, offering personalized strategies to address specific triggers and underlying issues. Additionally, Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) can be an effective component for certain types of addiction, combining medication with counseling and behavioral therapies. The choice of treatment should be tailored to the individual's needs, as each journey towards recovery is unique. 

Finding Help

Navigating the complex landscape of relapse in addiction recovery requires a comprehensive and compassionate approach. Recognizing the intricate interplay of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors contributing to relapse is essential. Armed with this understanding, individuals can actively engage in prevention strategies, fostering resilience and fortitude on their journey toward sustained sobriety. 

Embracing a holistic perspective, incorporating professional support, and refining coping mechanisms over time are integral elements in overcoming the challenges inherent in the recovery process. By acknowledging relapse as a potential facet of the journey, individuals can empower themselves with the tools and insights needed to navigate its complexities and emerge stronger on the path to lasting recovery.

References:

New Findings on Biological Factors Predicting Addiction Relapse Vulnerability - PMC

What Is the “Trigger” of Addiction? - PMC 

Addiction Relapse Prevention - StatPearls 

Clinical Issues in Intensive Outpatient Treatment for Substance Use Disorders | SAMHSA 

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