There are many difficult things about recovering from a substance abuse problem, particularly knowing and facing the dangers of relapse. Experiences, people, places and situations that once seemed innocuous and fun may present the temptation to use again, and it can feel overwhelming.However, adequately preparing yourself to avoid relapse is the best place to begin.
The Reality of Relapse
Relapse describes a situation where a former addict has returned to using drugs or alcohol after an established period of sobriety. A relapse is often differentiated from a slip-up in that a slip-up is a one-time mistake that is immediately recognized and followed by action to prevent it from happening again.
In a relapse, on the other hand, the patient has no immediate intention of correcting his behavior. It is possible for a patient to relapse multiple times, and each return to sobriety is done with sincerity and optimism. The vulnerability to relapse often lasts many years—even for a lifetime—for many people. Because it is so common, relapse is considered a normal part of recovery; however, it can be very dangerous and should be avoided through appropriate prevention education and techniques.1
Relapse is most often brought on by triggers in a person’s normal environment and lifestyle that may subconsciously push them back toward their addiction. Common triggers include the following:
- Unreasonable expectations
- Lax discipline
- Other addictive substances
This is why it is important to pursue a healthy balance in all areas of life when seeking to heal from addiction.
Relapse and Exhaustion
Exhaustion, for example, can lead to poor judgment or an inability to think logically because of overwhelming fatigue. If a recovering addict puts herself in a situation where she is too worn out to function (overwork, strenuous physical or mental activity, etc.), she may think that a she can handle one drink or pill in order to deal with the exhaustion; however, that is the first step in compromising sobriety.
Many people find themselves exhausted from overwork when they are seeking to avoid another trigger: boredom. Patients are encouraged to cultivate hobbies as well as healthy and productive pursuits for a balanced lifestyle while maintaining appropriate boundaries to protect time to rest and relax, too.
The Risk of Pressure
Trying to keep on top of new pursuits while remaining connected to support groups and fulfilling professional, familial and academic obligations can be overwhelming. Coping with such stress and pressure is a key skill learned in treatment.
However, too much pressure often leads to patients using again as an escape. Patients must learn to rely on their post-treatment boundaries to protect themselves from both internal and external pressure as they build their resiliency without substances of abuse.
Relapse and Overconfidence
Many people leave treatment with an overinflated view of their ability to resist. Overconfidence for some can quickly lead to relapse. Support groups even have a term for it: “pink cloud syndrome,” describing a new member who can’t stop talking about how great life is now that he is sober.2 People who are unrealistic about the struggles of re-entry are less likely to monitor themselves and be self-aware about potential struggles.3
The cost of this confidence is perspective. While there is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with a feeling of personal strength and accomplishment, a truly grounded sense of confidence comes with knowing and accepting limits. Overconfidence can quickly turn into reckless behavior of using again. Staying in touch with a support group or a sponsor is a good way (perhaps even the best way) to retain the awareness necessary to be successful in recovery.
Complacency works by blurring the memory of how bad the substance abuse problem was. When you are tempted to use again, it excuses any precautions you may have. Complacency stems from a place of comfort. Although, many people in recovery can’t wait to feel comfortable in their own lifestyle again, it is important to maintain a level of vigilance to avoid relapse.
Relapse and High Expectations
It’s very tempting to think that exiting treatment and starting a new life mean that things will fall into place, and everything will make perfect sense. However, life seems to quickly get in the way: bills, work, kids, schedules, etc. can make life feel less than wonderful when your expectations are inappropriately high.
Setting a reasonable goal for happiness and balance in life is a key strategy in treatment. The problem arises when the patient’s goals are beyond what can be reasonably expected or achieved, and the patient feels stifled and distressed when she inevitably falls short of those goals.
Patients must also maintain reasonable expectations for their community. Life has gone on for your loved ones while you were in recovery, and while you may wish they could focus all their attention to you when you return, that is not realistic. Disappointment and adjusting to the mundane parts of life are inevitable steps of recovery, but this does not have to mean relapse.
Relapse and Relationships
Being in a relationship offers many benefits and advantages to a patient who is learning a new, healthier way of living, but there is a reason that recovery programs encourage waiting at least a year before entering the dating game.
In the early stages of recovery, the patient is still learning how to regulate his or her emotions without the help of addictive substances. While the rush of endorphins that comes from a first kiss or a romantic connection will be very appealing, they may be overwhelming for a former addict. That first year of recovery is meant for the addict to look inward and focus on himself as he adjusts to a new and balanced lifestyle. Beginning a relationship too early can lead to volatility as well as co-dependency.
Many patients struggle with symptoms of depression in early recovery, and these behaviors can cause ongoing problems in new relationships that are unlikely to be able to withstand the added stress. A fight or breakup on top of a weak recovery can quickly lead to relapse. Some people may also be attracted to unhealthy relationships while they are working to build their recovery. This can lead to abusive or co-dependent relationships causing more problems on top of potential relapse.
Avoiding Relapse Triggers
Relapse triggers come in all shapes and sizes, and that’s why staying connected to a recovery program is so important. Having a positive support network will help patients keep a sense of perspective and balance in life, reminding them that they are never alone.
Temptations to relapse will come, but those who are prepared and well-connected will be better equipped to resist the urge to use. The people in a support group know what that’s like, and they know that relapse isn’t failure. When sobriety becomes difficult, a 12-Step program (or another form of aftercare support) will give patients a place where they can vent, cry or otherwise express themselves in a way they can grow and develop as healthy human beings.
If you or a loved one is in early recovery and looking for a supportive community, please call our 24-hour, toll-free helpline to let us connect you with programs that work for you and your lifestyle. We want to help ensure your success as you seek to build a healthy and productive life.
1 “What Is Relapse?” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed 28 March 2018.
2 Herrera, Carlos, “Hey You, Get Off My Pink Cloud.” The Fix. 7 October 2012.
3 Formica, Michael J, “Addiction’s Blind Spot.” Psychology Today. 15 May 2012.
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