What Should I Do If I Relapse?: 5 Steps to Getting Back on Track

Relapse is a very normal part of the recovery journey. In fact, between 40% and 60% of people in addiction recovery will relapse at some point. These rates are comparable to chronic medical illnesses, such as hypertension and asthma. This makes sense, because addiction is considered a chronic condition as well. And treating chronic conditions like drug or alcohol addiction involves changing a myriad of maladaptive behaviors and thought patterns, which can take time. Relapse doesn’t mean you’ve failed or that your treatment didn’t work—it simply means you may need extra support at this time to get back on track. This extra support may mean contacting your therapist or doctor about beginning treatment, changing your treatment plan, or trying a new type of treatment.1

In this article:

What is the Difference Between a Relapse and a Slip?

Sometimes a slip and relapse are used interchangeably, while other people in recovery consider them to be very different. Generally, a slip tends to be a brief return to drug or alcohol use, in which the person uses a substance but then quickly stops, avoiding continued use and a return to full-blown addictive behaviors. The person who has a slip or “lapse” immediately regrets the decision, which is what causes them to stop. A slip doesn’t usually decrease a person’s motivation to avoid drugs and alcohol.

Conversely, a relapse refers to someone returning to their previous substance use behaviors. They don’t just use drugs or alcohol one time—they abandon their recovery plan altogether and return to full-blown drug or alcohol misuse. But if you have relapsed, there is nothing to be ashamed about.

It is very common, but fortunately, there are many things you can do to get back on track and return to a substance-free life.

1. View Your Relapse as a Brief Setback, Instead of a Failure

Once you have relapsed, the most important thing is how you respond to your relapse. Avoid shaming or blaming yourself for returning to substance use. That will only make you feel worse and won’t allow you to get into the headspace necessary to return to your recovery plan. Remind yourself that many other people have been in this very same position as you.

Recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction is a lifelong process—this is just a brief setback on your long-term recovery journey. Avoid thinking of your relapse as a failure. Viewing it through this lens can keep you stuck in your substance-using behaviors. It can be helpful to reframe a relapse as a learning opportunity in which you discover new things about yourself and what is helpful and not helpful for your recovery.2,3

2. Reflect on What May Have Caused Your Relapse

If you have relapsed, you may want to take this time to reflect on what factors may have contributed to your drug relapse. Relapse takes time and occurs in stages (emotional relapse, mental relapse, then eventually, physical relapse) so there were likely many influences that ultimately led to you returning to substance use. For example, have you experienced significant stress lately due to a relationship or finances? Or maybe you recently spent time with a friend you used to use drugs with, which brought up old memories of using substances.

Research has established some common relapse triggers as well as factors that increase the risk of relapse. These may include:1,2,3,4

  • Negative mood, such as depression, anxiety, boredom, anger, and loneliness
  • Exposure to substances
  • Poor coping skills
  • Lack of social bonding
  • Financial stress
  • Interpersonal conflict
  • Exposure to old places or people associated with substance use

Spending time reflecting on what may have led to your relapse can prepare you to prevent another one in the future. For instance, if you realize that you don’t have a toolbox of coping skills, you can begin building and practicing coping strategies. You can do this on your own, at individual or group counseling, at peer support group meetings, or in a psychoeducation or relapse prevention class.

If you are struggling to figure out what led to your relapse, you should seek help from a professional, such as a psychologist or therapist. They can help you figure out the various factors that contributed to your relapse. Once they help you figure that out, they can assist you in working on coping skills that work best for you.

3. Reach Out for Support

You don’t need to struggle alone. Research indicates that positive social support can reduce the risk of relapse.4 As such, if you have experienced a relapse, one of the best things you can do for yourself is reach out for support from others, such as your sponsor, friends from a 12-step group, trusted family and friends, or your therapist.

The sooner you reach out for help, the better off you will be. So much of active addiction is wrapped up in shame and isolation that even the act of telling someone about your relapse can be therapeutic. It reminds you that you are not alone, that you are okay, and that you are a human who has made a mistake, like we all do.

4. Go Back to Treatment

When you reach out for help from your treatment professional, they will re-evaluate your recovery plan, what’s working and what isn’t working. This assessment may include returning to an addiction treatment program or, if you are already in an outpatient program, stepping up to inpatient rehab.

Because addiction is a chronic and relapsing condition, it may involve many ups and downs, improvements and setbacks. And many people may require many different bouts of addiction treatment throughout their recovery. In fact, relapse is often an indication that treatment may be needed to get back on track.

As with your relapse, view returning to treatment as a learning opportunity, another chance to build new skills and learn more about yourself. If you decide to go to rehab, talk with your treatment provider about what program may be the best fit for you. For instance, if yoga is a big part of your list, you may want to find a program that offers yoga and other holistic treatment modalities to treat the whole person.

5. Develop Healthy Habits and Routine

Whether you decide to return to rehab or not, now is the time to begin developing healthy habits that can strengthen your recovery and prevent another relapse. Making positive choices related to your health and lifestyle can make all the difference when it comes to relapse prevention.1,2

Here are some ways to get started on developing healthy habits:

  • Practice good sleep hygiene: Go to sleep at the same time each night and get up at the same time in the morning, making sure to remove electronics and screens from your bedroom. Make sure you are getting at least eight hours of sleep each night, as chronic fatigue can trigger relapse.
  • Eat a well-balanced, nutritious diet: Educate yourself on proper nutrition and begin prioritizing nutritious, well-balanced meals that enhance your physical and mental health. If you need help, nutritional counselors are sometimes available at rehabs or on an outpatient basis.
  • Exercise regularly: Even if you’ve never exercised before, it’s never too late to start. This doesn’t mean you have to hit the gym super hard—it just means that you can move your body in enjoyable and mindful ways, whether that involves going for a walk, dancing, hiking, playing a sport, or taking your dog for a walk.
  • Socialize with positive, supportive people: Social isolation can be a major relapse trigger. Make sure to surround yourself with supportive influences and make time to catch up, whether it’s over a coffee or tea or doing an activity together.

Remember, a relapse is not a personal failure. Although not everyone relapses, as many as 60% of people in recovery will relapse at some point. Know that you aren’t alone and that you have many people who want to help and support you during this tough time.

If you need help finding a rehab after relapsing, call our confidential helpline at 800-662-4357. One of our knowledgeable treatment support specialists can assist you.

Resources

1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Treatment and Recovery.
2. Dennis C. Daley, P., & Antoine Douaihy, M. (2015). Relapse Prevention Counseling: Clinical Strategies to Guide Addiction Recovery and Reduce Relapse. Pesi Publishing & Media.
3. Marlatt, G. A., &George, W. H. (1984). Relapse prevention: Introduction and overview of the model. British Journal of Addiction, 79, 261–273.
4. Giordano, A. L., Clarke, P. B. and Furter, R. T. (2014). Predicting Substance Abuse Relapse: The Role of Social Interest and Social Bonding. Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling, 35, 114–127.

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