Relapse can be disappointing, but it doesn’t mean you’ve failed in your recovery. Knowing the stages, signs, triggers and resources for relapse can get you back on track.

Article Overview:

  • Relapse is common and affects around two-thirds of people during their first year of recovery.
  • Being aware of relapse warning signs can help you avoid a relapse.
  • A relapse does not mean that you have failed recovery and is an opportunity to recommit to sobriety.

A relapse is a return to substance use after a person has quit taking the substance. There’s a common misconception that relapse is a single moment when someone with a substance use disorder returns to their drug of choice for the first time after becoming sober. However, relapse is a process, and it often takes a long time before someone finally gives in to the triggers.

For many people recovering from drug or alcohol use, relapse is part of the process. In fact, 40 to 60% of people relapse at least once during their recovery.

It’s important to understand that relapse is common and does not mean you’ve failed at recovery, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should give up altogether. Take the situation as a learning experience and use it as what not to do throughout your recovery.

Although many people see relapse as impulsive, there are many warning signs that signal the danger of a possible drug or alcohol relapse. Relapse is thought to have three stages — emotional, mental, and physical — with related warning signs. 

Woman seated near the ocean resting her forehead in one hand

During the emotional relapse stage, a person is not actively using or thinking about using drugs or alcohol. They remember the last time they used (or relapsed) and don’t want to repeat it. But their emotions and behaviors may be setting them up for a relapse down the road. 

While in an emotional relapse, a person may start breaking the routines that help to keep them sober, like keeping in touch with their sponsor or attending therapy appointments.

Some warning signs of emotional relapse include:

  • Bottling up emotions
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Not going to recovery meetings
  • Going to meetings but not sharing
  • Focusing on others and their problems
  • Poor eating and sleeping habits

Mental Relapse

The transition between emotional and mental relapse is a natural consequence of poor self-care for long periods of time. A person may start to feel restless, irritable and discontent. The longer they feel this way, the more they think about using again.

During this stage, the mind is going back and forth between using and not using. Part of a person wants to use, while the other part wants to remain sober. Often, a person in recovery is the only one who can pinpoint the symptoms of relapse, as some of these warning signs include:

  • Craving for drugs or alcohol
  • Thinking about people, places and things associated with past use
  • Minimizing the consequences of or glamorizing past use
  • Bargaining
  • Lying
  • Thinking of ways to control using
  • Looking for relapse opportunities
  • Planning a relapse

4 Ways To Prevent a Mental Relapse

When you enter the process of mental relapse, there are some techniques you can use to regain control of your drug use:

Call Someone

Whether it’s a friend, family member, or your sponsor, talk through your urges with another person. It may bring you some clarity as to why you want to use again.

Wait 30 Minutes

Before acting impulsively, force yourself to wait 30 minutes. Re-evaluate your urges and why you want to use again. Passing time may help clear things up for you and “talk you down,” so to speak.

Think About What Would Happen

You know better than anyone that using once doesn’t really mean once, and eventually, you’ll find yourself at rock bottom again. Sometimes, thinking about the consequences of your actions can help curb drug or alcohol use.

Focus On Today

Don’t worry about tomorrow, next week or next month. Just focus on getting through today. Thinking about your sobriety in terms of forever is intimidating, but breaking it down into manageable pieces is often helpful.

Physical Relapse

Eventually, some people act on their urges. This leads to the third and final stage of relapse: physical relapse.

Some people only use once, realize they made a mistake, and choose to focus on moving forward in recovery, while others continue using for months. If you or someone you know relapses, just know it’s not the end of the world. There are steps you can take to get yourself back on track.

What Is the Difference Between a Slip, a Lapse and a Relapse?

There is quite a difference between a slip, a lapse and a relapse. It’s important to know how they differ from one another.

A slip is characterized by a single instance of using a substance a person has been recovering from. Someone who has slipped has usually done so because they couldn’t manage their internal dialogue about using, and it tricked them into thinking they could moderate.

A slip in recovery will actually cause a person to remember why they started and quickly realize they made the wrong decision. Often a slip can lead to a strengthened determination to stay sober afterward because they have been reminded of a life they no longer wish to live.

A lapse is multiple uses of a substance. In contrast to a slip, in a lapse, a person uses the substance more than once. However, the person has not fully returned to their previous pattern of substance abuse.

In a full-blown relapse episode, the person returns to their previous patterns of substance abuse. In a relapse, the person forgoes their recovery completely. Quite simply, relapsing means they continue to abuse alcohol or drugs for an extended length of time regardless of the consequences.

Risks of a Relapse

A relapse can be risky to your health. Besides the ongoing risks of substance abuse, a relapse can increase your risk of overdose because your tolerance to the substance may have decreased while you were in recovery. 

Your mental state can also suffer when you relapse. You may struggle with depression and hopelessness, feeling as if your recovery was a failure. It is important to remember that these are common feelings and that a relapse does not mean your recovery efforts were in vain. Instead, a relapse is an opportunity to examine the factors that drove you back into substance use so you can avoid them in the future and recommit yourself to recovery.

What Are the Signs of a Drug Relapse?

The onset of a slip, lapse or relapse may begin with various warning signs. Some of the concerns for a potential relapse include:

  • Cravings for the substance
  • Thinking you can use without becoming addicted again
  • Romanticizing about using in a way that glamorizes the substance
  • Withdrawing or isolating from people who have supported your recovery
  • Putting yourself in triggering environments
  • Stressful conditions or changes in behavior
  • Stopping support groups or social relationships that foster recovery
  • Displaying withdrawal symptoms
  • Losing interest in hobbies or remaining active

What To Do if You’ve Relapsed

If you’ve found yourself in a situation where you’ve relapsed, you’re probably feeling many different emotions, including shame, guilt, anger, frustration and depression. Instead of sinking deeper into these negative feelings, it’s important that you pull yourself back up and find ways to move forward. 

Talk to Someone

Spend time with people who are positive for your sobriety, such as a sponsor or other sober friend. When you’re ready, talk through the reasons why you relapsed and learn what you can do differently in the future to avoid relapsing again.

Allow Yourself To Feel Your Emotions

Don’t feel as though you need to hide your emotions, as burying your emotions will only make the situation worse. It’s important that you understand why you’re feeling them.

Don’t Isolate Yourself

Although you’re feeling shame and guilt, it’s essential that you don’t isolate yourself from others. Spending time alone only makes the situation worse. Go out and make plans with friends, and do your best to move forward.

Evaluate Your Tools

There are plenty of tools to help you stay sober. For some, it might be using daily AA affirmations. For others, it might be finding a way to give back. As you continue your recovery journey, your recovery toolbox will continue to grow with people and hobbies that encourage you to stay sober and ways to avoid relapse in the future. Sometimes, that may include getting help by returning to treatment, attending therapy or rejoining your support group. 

Common Relapse Triggers and How To Avoid Them

Sometimes you can’t foresee the biggest obstacles to maintaining recovery after addiction. In the first year after completing a professional treatment program, around two-thirds (source: Psychology Today) of newly sober individuals will experience a setback like a slip, lapse or relapse. The best way to arm yourself against relapse triggers is to be aware and prepared. Here are some of the more common relapse triggers and how to avoid them.

1. Underlying Mental Health Issues

Mental health issues can complicate your recovery. If you did not enter a dual diagnosis treatment plan equipped to treat co-occurring disorders, additional conditions may impact your substance use disorder. These mental health issues can increase the urge for substance misuse. For example, depression is common in those who struggle with a substance use disorder and can be a persistent trigger.

Speaking with a mental health professional can help. If you do not already have a connection with a professional, Colorado addiction treatment resources are available to assist you in finding these services. Do not wait until there is a problem to talk to someone. Speaking openly and honestly with a mental health professional can only enhance recovery, whether there is an underlying mental health issue or not.

2. New You, Old Routine

Revisiting old common places to hang out, being around the same friend group you had prior to treatment, or doing activities that went in conjunction with substance misuse can all lead to setbacks or addiction relapse. Doing the same routine with the same people, places, and things can trigger the urge to go back to old habits or ways of living. Revisiting these can reignite strong and compelling memories that could lead back to a life of substance abuse.

Find new people to spend time with, places to hang out and things to do. You are living as a new, sober self and should approach your life as a new beginning. Take this opportunity to meet other like-minded people, explore new places and find new activities that you may have never thought to pursue before when life was dominated by substance use.

Couple on a hiking trail outdoors

3. Nothing Better To Do 

“I’m bored” can be two words that lead to an addiction relapse. A major part of life for a person dealing with a substance use disorder is the substance misuse itself. When that is taken away through the life-changing and healing process of treatment, there can be a great void that can turn to boredom when left unchecked. For many people, boredom is a negative emotion and does not always spawn positive results.

So, keep busy! Make a daily list of things to accomplish or new activities to try. In addition to attending support groups, find other groups that meet who share a common interest, like a book club or sports team. Keep an open dialogue with friends, sponsors, therapists, and even physicians so that your support network can be aware if you seem to be drifting off course and allowing boredom to creep in. Communicating with others and scheduling daily tasks are two great routines to develop when working through addiction relapse triggers.

Relapse Doesn’t Mean Failure

Relapse can be daunting, overwhelming and disappointing, but it doesn’t mean you’ve failed in your recovery. It’s what you decide immediately following a relapse that matters most. Surround yourself with positive influences, practice self-care and seek additional treatment if needed. By picking yourself up and moving forward, you can come back from a relapse stronger than ever.

How To Handle a Friend’s Relapse

A friend’s relapse can be a difficult thing for a recovering addict to handle. You may have spent many hours in rehab talking about your addictions and about life, discovering what you have in common, and planning your sober futures after rehab. Now, your friend has decided to give up on sobriety and go back to abusing drugs or alcohol.

While it is never easy to deal with a friend’s relapse, it is possible to handle this situation well while protecting your own sobriety and needs in the process.

Challenging Friends’ Thinking About Relapse

Your initial reaction when friends relapse or say they want to relapse is to try to talk them out of it. It is worth a try to explain to your friend why relapsing is a bad idea and to try to get him or her back into treatment so they can get back on track.

It is important to understand, however, that you are unlikely to convince your friend to return to sobriety in many, if not most, cases. Friends who persist in their relapse can cause a significant amount of emotional turmoil for their sober friends like you, as you watch them spiral downward even though they cannot see what they are doing to themselves.

It is important to let go after you have tried to help your friend see the need for help, for your own sobriety and well-being. Remind yourself that your friend alone is ultimately in charge of their own life and choices. You cannot single-handedly save your friend, no matter how badly you may wish to do so.

This type of thinking is not heartless, even when it feels that way; it demonstrates good, healthy boundaries and recognizes that people have free will and cannot be saved by anyone else unless they want to save themselves.

People consoling someone in a group session

Protecting Your Own Sobriety

Observing healthy boundaries is the first step to protecting your own sobriety, but you may need to go further to ensure that you don’t go down the same path. Finding out about a friend’s relapse can bring up all sorts of feelings, including the temptation to relapse yourself. Your friend may even pressure you to go back to using drugs or alcohol with them.

It is not wrong to put distance between you and your friend if you are feeling like being with them triggers your own addiction and threatens to make you slip. Your friend may or may not understand your reasons for keeping him or her at arm’s length, but you should do whatever you need to do to keep yourself on the straight and narrow.

If, despite getting distance from your relapsing friend, you think you are still at risk of relapsing yourself, you should get the help you need. This may include going back to treatment, counseling, or ongoing support programs that you thought you moved beyond. There is no such thing as a cure for addiction. It only works as well as your efforts to make it work, and that includes getting as much help as needed to stay sober. 

Getting Help

If you or a loved one has relapsed or is displaying some of the warning signs, do not hesitate to take steps to get them help. Contact us today to understand your options for treating or preventing relapse. Our trained professionals are here to help get you or your loved one back on track.

Editor – Rob Alston
Rob Alston has traveled around Australia, Japan, Europe, and America as a writer and editor for industries including personal wellness and recovery. Read more
Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Jessica Pyhtila, PharmD
Dr. Jessica Pyhtila is a Clinical Pharmacy Specialist based in Baltimore, Maryland with practice sites in inpatient palliative care and outpatient primary care at the Department of Veteran Affairs. Read more

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University of Maryland Baltimore County. “Recovery.” Accessed May 31, 2021.

Manejwala, Omar. “How Often Do Long-Term Sober Alcoholics and Addicts Relapse?” Psychology Today, February 13, 2014. Accessed May 31, 2021.

Strang, John; McCambridge, Jim; Best, David; et al. “Loss of tolerance and overdose mortality[…]ion: follow up study” BMJ, May 3, 2003. Accessed May 31, 2021.

Smith, Kathleen. “Substance Abuse and Depression.” Psycom, November 11, 2020. Accessed May 31, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.