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drug relapse
June 5, 2019

Drug Relapse Signs, Triggers & Prevention Tips

drug relapse

Drug addiction and substance abuse disorder affects millions of people. Those with an addiction have intense cravings, an inability to control drug cravings, and develop a tolerance and eventually a dependence on their drug(s) of choice which could be a prescription drug and/or an illicit drug. Drug addiction interferes with life at all levels, and many long to quit. Among the most difficult aspects of quitting and rehabilitation is a relapse.

What Is Drug Relapse?

At one point, relapse was defined as the act of reverting back to drug use. In other words, one would relapse at the point when drugs were actually consumed. However, since relapse is a frequent focus of rehabilitation research, the definition continues to evolve.

Experts now define relapse as a process rather than an outcome or the actual act of using itself. In other words, relapse involves a setback or a series of setbacks that lead up to an individual making the decision to use drugs again. Defining relapse as a process rather than the actual event has significant implications in regards to relapse prevention.

  • Relapse is a process; it’s a setback or series of setbacks.
  • Relapse begins prior to the act of using drugs again.

Relapse Is Not Failure

Those in recovery and those close to people in recovery will come to quickly understand that relapse is common. It’s important to know that it does not mean that rehabilitation efforts have been a waste. It does not mean that anyone or any effort is a failure. It does not mean that recovery is impossible.

Recovery is possible for anyone. A setback is just that: a setback. It’s very common and absolutely possible to get back on track to recovery after a relapse. Relapse is another opportunity to learn from and grow on the journey to sobriety. It helps you plan better for the future.

Understanding Relapse As Part of the Recovery Process

Although everyone’s recovery journey is different, setbacks are very common. Drug addiction is known as a relapsing disease because many in the recovery process experience relapse. Why?

People develop an addiction to drugs because repeated drug use for an ongoing period of time often results in a change in brain chemistry. The brain develops a tolerance and ultimately a dependence on a certain drug, and it takes time and a long-term recovery plan to return the brain to its natural state. If and when a craving develops, and if withdrawal symptoms or the fear of withdrawal symptoms set in, relapse may occur. In many ways, relapse is like a form of self-medication.

Identifying Drug Relapse Signs and Understanding the Process

If a relapse is viewed as a process rather than the act of drug use, there are warning signs to look out for to help us identify a potential relapse. If we can successfully identify these warning signs, and if there’s a plan in place when they’re discovered, research suggests that this can significantly reduce the risk of an addict returning to drug use.

These warning signs may include the following:

  • Isolating oneself
  • Not attending treatment or meetings
  • Attending meetings but not sharing emotions, bottling up thoughts
  • Not taking care of self mentally or physically
  • Poor eating, sleeping, and self-care habits
  • Experiencing drug cravings
  • Mood swings, irritable behavior
  • Thinking about previous drug use
  • Downplaying consequences of drug use
  • Lying to others
  • Planning on how to better control drug use in the future
  • Returning to previous social situations, groups, habits
  • No longer taking self-imposed rules seriously
  • Using the drug(s) just one time
  • Returning to uncontrolled use

Drug relapse typically happens in three stages: emotional, mental, and physical, and the warning signs typically fall into one of those categories.

During the emotional stage, the individuals are not really thinking about using drugs again, but they’re setting themselves up for it by not doing anything preventative. In a way, they’re in denial that relapse is possible.

During the mental stage, they’re at war with themselves. They don’t want to use drugs again, but part of them does, so they downplay how bad it will be if they do.

The physical stage, using the drugs again, is the final and most serious stage of relapse, and it may last the longest. It may require a return to more formal treatment or possibly a rehabilitation facility. It does not mean, however, that someone will face addiction again.

Drug Relapse Triggers

If you want to give up eating french fries, it’s probably best not to park yourself inside McDonald’s. The same concept applies to those in drug recovery. Identifying triggers may help someone avoid or minimize relapse in response to them.

Common relapse triggers include:

  • Stressful situations and/or stressful environments
  • Bars, clubs, and other social environments that encourage drug use
  • Spending time with friends and/or family members who misuse drugs
  • Interpersonal relationship issues
  • Boredom

Relapse Prevention: Tips and Suggestions

Studies show that 85% of individuals relapse and return to drug use within the year following treatment. They also estimate that more than 2/3 of individuals in recovery relapse within weeks to months of beginning addiction treatment.

Since relapse is so common, it is critical to developing a long-term drug relapse prevention plan. Without one, attempts to remain sober become more difficult. Work with a professional to develop ways to avoid relapse, to prevent putting yourself in situations that encourage relapse, and more importantly, to put yourself in situations that encourage sobriety and healthy living.

What To Do If Relapse Occurs At Any Stage

If relapse occurs, it’s absolutely not the end of the world! The first thing to do is to simply ask for help. This is critical at any stage of the relapse process. The sooner, the better. Remember that you are not alone. Develop a support system at the beginning of your recovery process, and reach out to those in your circle. You can also reach out to someone else in recovery who understands what it’s like, such as a sponsor or friend at Narcotics Anonymous.

If you begin to have negative thoughts about yourself and your ability to recover at any point during the relapse stages, ask for help. Obsessing over negative thoughts will only push you deeper into a relapse.

Remember, relapse is not a failure. It’s a learning opportunity. Take the time to develop an effective recovery plan to help prevent future relapse. Figure out what’s needed to take care of yourself emotionally and physically, and what triggers you need to avoid. If you or a loved one has relapsed or feels you’re at risk of a relapse, you can talk to an expert confidentially 24/7 at Beach House today. 

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