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How to Guard Against Relapse

If you’re in recovery, here’s a plan that’ll keep you there.

Most people in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction will relapse at some point in their lives. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Even people who have been sober for years often struggle at first to get it right. Many will relapse three or four times—sometimes more—before figuring out what works.

Below I will do my best to take some of the trial and error out of recovery.

It happens to the best of us

The first point I want to make is this: A relapse is not the end of the world. Given the nature of the disease of addiction, relapsing is fairly common. Around 40 to 60 percent of people do so within a year after completing treatment, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As with addiction more generally, relapsing is not a moral failing or weakness of character. It’s a part of the disease of addiction and recovery.

Addiction is a chronic disease, and like diabetes or high blood pressure, it requires constant monitoring and ongoing care.

If a relapse happens, the key is to not let yourself wallow in self-pity and inaction, and get back into recovery pronto. Which doesn’t mean sweeping it under the rug like it didn’t happen. It’s important to take an honest inventory of what happened. (More on this below.)

Know the warning signs

To keep a relapse from happening in the first place, you need to be aware of cravings and triggers. Cravings are just that: urges to drink or use drugs. When a craving happens, a good strategy is to talk to your sponsor or a trusted support person immediately. Be honest about what you’re feeling, get it all out there, and talk it through. Experts in the addiction field have found that simply talking about cravings can significantly reduce their power.

Triggers are trickier and more subtle than cravings. They are external or internal situations or feelings that push people to use. Triggers include stress, negative emotions, feelings of isolation, anniversaries, celebratory occasions, being around people associated with your past addiction, or a combination of those. Again, triggers can be subtle. It’s not always clear in real-time what’s happening, or what ultimately causes the relapse.

Creating a relapse prevention plan

To protect yourself, you need a plan. It needs to be tailored to you and ready to implement at the moment you’re feeling cravings or triggers. This way, you’ll be ready to act more effectively to the relapse threat.

An example of a comprehensive, five-point, relapse-prevention plan:

  1. Go to a meeting (NA, AA, SMART Recovery, etc.)
  2. Call a sponsor/mentor/trusted friend or family member
  3. Get help asap with your medications (suboxone, methadone, naltrexone, mental health meds, etc.)
  4. Get out of your negative headspace with self-care, music, a long walk, or meditation
  5. Call your therapist or doctor for an appointment and take that inventory of what led to the relapse

Each of these components can have a positive impact. Bringing them together into a plan makes them more powerful.

So, you relapsed, now what?

Yes, relapsing is serious and potentially deadly. And yes, your goal is to keep it from happening in the first place. But it’s not the worst thing that can happen and it certainly doesn’t mean your recovery was all for nothing. Every day you spend in recovery is significant, worth it, and can’t be taken away from you. The key after a relapse is to get back into recovery. As. Soon. As. Possible.

To do that, you can take a lot of the same actions I listed above in the relapse-prevention plan. Things like…make an immediate appointment with your therapist. Talk to a trusted, nonjudgmental friend, sponsor, or mentor. And get out of your negative headspace in healthy ways.

Maybe most important—and your therapist will be a huge help here—do an honest and thorough relapse autopsy right away to figure out what made it happen. Then keep moving forward, stay positive, ask for support to stay on track, and be kind to yourself. No one is perfect.

More from Lantie Elisabeth Jorandby M.D.
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