What Does a Relapse Look Like and What Does it Mean?

Relapse can happen to anyone at any time and the reality is, many in treatment will experience it at least once in their journey.

Regardless of how much time someone has spent sober, there are a number of triggers and experiences that can put a person at risk. In most cases, relapse does not happen suddenly without warning. There are often a series of events that play a role in its development. Identifying the signs of relapse early can help prevent it from reaching physical relapse. Attending a treatment program can help newly sober individuals learn tools to prevent relapse. Unfortunately, no one is invincible.

What Can Trigger a Relapse?

The most common triggers for relapse include:


  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Poor self-care
  • People, places, or things that trigger cravings
  • Relationships
  • Isolation
  • Mental and emotional triggers
  • Overconfidence

what does a relapse mean

Physical and Mental Triggers

There are a number of ways these factors work together to put a person at risk for relapse. Physical, mental, and emotional symptoms can all play a role. In most cases, a person will experience emotional and mental relapse prior to physical relapse. For example, emotional relapse is not taking care of one’s own needs and can put a person at risk for relapse even if they are not thinking of using. Not getting enough sleep, not eating a balanced diet, and not seeking help for mental health conditions can all put someone in a vulnerable state of mind. A collection of negative experiences can tempt a person to use drugs or alcohol as a means of coping or escape. This makes self-care and continued support vital to successful sobriety.

Mental relapse is often a struggle because it is an internal battle between wanting to maintain sobriety and wanting to use again. Because of the nature of addiction, there will always be an underlying urge to use, but the way a person responds to those cravings is what determines whether or not they actually relapse. Spending time with substance-abusing friends, reflecting on the past with rose-tinted sunglasses, and lying about what you are doing can put you in a state of mind where part of you wants to relapse and considers doing it. It can become harder to make the choice to not use when surrounding yourself with enablers and glorifying the past. Once you start down this path, the risk for physical relapse becomes incredibly high.

    If you are considering treatment for yourself or a loved one, call us today.

    What to Do When Relapse Happens

    Even those who seem strong in their recovery are at risk for relapse. 

    Depending on the individual and the severity of relapse, different steps may need to be taken in order to achieve sobriety again. When relapse does happen, however, it is important to keep the following in mind:


    • Don’t panic: Relapse is scary and seeing the symptoms of substance abuse present in your loved one may cause you to panic. It is important to avoid panic and instead focus on getting your loved one back on track. Your loved one may need to get back into treatment so it is important to reach out for help and consider your options.
    • Identify what happened: Sometimes, identifying what caused relapse to occur can be difficult. There are a number of factors that can play into the development of relapse, but they generally do not appear overnight. Reflect on triggers, situations, people, or events that may have contributed to relapse. Determine if the treatment they were receiving was effective at helping prepare them for managing their sobriety independently. Were the tools suggested as part of their aftercare program followed? Finding things that can be changed or improved can strengthen their recovery.
    • Get help: Getting back into practices that enabled sobriety is critical once relapse has occurred. Working with a sponsor, joining a support group, or starting counseling can help start the recovery process over. If more serious help is needed, your loved one may need to reenter treatment for addiction.
    • Don’t blame: It can be easy to point your finger at your loved one and blame them for not managing their sobriety, but the reality of addiction is much more complicated. Maintaining sobriety long-term is difficult and it is impossible to be completely out of reach of the influence of addiction. It is easy to find fault in others when things do not go right, but it is more important to focus your energy into finding a way to get your loved one back on track.

    Preventing Relapse

    Relapse prevention is a life-long process in which you must remain cognizant of how your thoughts and behaviors influence your risk of relapse.

    Recognizing behaviors that put you at risk for relapse and addressing them early on can make a substantial difference.

    Self-care is one of the most important aspects of recovery. This includes taking care of your mental health needs as well as ensuring your physical needs are met. Taking care of yourself through proper diet, exercise, and adequate sleep is critical to ensuring your basic needs are met. Not ensuring these needs are met can wear down your defenses and make you more likely to use.

    If you struggle with emotional and mental cravings, it is vital that you communicate your thoughts and feelings to a trusted person.

    Whether that be a close friend or family member, or even a medical professional, sharing what you are going through can help you process it, reduce feelings of isolation, and ensure you have support.

    The thought of staying sober for the rest of your life can feel monumental and like a colossal responsibility. Take your recovery one day at a time rather than thinking about in terms of “forever”. When you focus on smaller chunks of time, it can feel more manageable. Set achievable goals in those windows of time to keep you motivated and focused on your recovery. Thinking about it as one large entity can make you feel overwhelmed and may set you up for failure.

    If you or a loved one are suffering from addiction, we’re here to help. Contact us today and speak with one of our trusted recovery advisors.

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