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What Is Relapse?

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

In the realm of addiction, relapse is a return to substance use after a period of nonuse. It is common and can be expected during the difficult process of change. Between 40% and 60% of individuals relapse within their first year of treatment, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Relapse is not a sign of failed recovery. Recovery from addiction requires significant changes in lifestyle and behavior, ranging from changing friend circles to developing new coping mechanisms. It involves navigating a new and unfamiliar path.

The risk of relapse is greatest in the first 90 days of recovery, a period when sensitivity to stress is enhanced while sensitivity to reward is low and it may be tempting to fall back into familiar patterns of behavior.

Common triggers for relapse include:

  • The discomfort of withdrawal symptoms.
  • Unpleasant feelings including hunger, anger, loneliness, and fatigue.
  • Feeling isolated. Being alone with one’s thoughts for too long can lead to relapse.
  • Seeing old friends who still use drugs.
  • Finding oneself in places associated with one's past drug use.
  • Over-confidence that everything is under control.
  • Breakups.

How to Prevent Relapse

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Research has found that getting help in the form of supportive therapy from qualified professionals, and social support from peers, can prevent or minimize relapse. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people overcome the fears and negative thinking that can trigger relapse.

Experts in the recovery process believe that relapse is a process and that identifying its stages can help people take preventative action.

  • Emotional Relapse. At this stage, a person might not even think about using substances, but their lack of attention to self-care, their isolation, or their inconsistent attendance at therapy sessions or group meetings sets them up for relapse. This is when an individual needs self-care, sleep, and healthy eating.
  • Mental Relapse. This stage is characterized by a tug of war between past habits and the desire to change. Romanticizing past drug use, hanging out with old friends, lying, and thoughts about relapseare danger signs. Coping skills can keep thoughts from escalating into substance use.
  • Physical Relapse. Once a person begins drinking or taking drugs, it’s hard to stop the process.
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