Why Do People Relapse?

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After a successful recovery, there is sometimes looming anxiety about relapse. Urges and cravings may not have completely subsided, and being out of treatment and managing these issues alone may be difficult for some. There are a few important things to consider about relapse after recovery. It’s very important to realize that relapse is not an indication of failure. It is actually more common than one would think.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, relapse occurs between 40-60% of substance abusers. Therefore, it is considered a normal part of the recovery process. This is an indication that more treatment is needed to help a person cultivate healthier lifestyle choices.

Recognizing Triggers

While relapse is something a substance abuser wants to avoid, it’s a lot easier said than done. Certain triggers can cause a relapse. For example, someone who has just finished rehab for alcoholism may be triggered by the smell of beer or just seeing alcohol in a gas station. People, feelings, and events can trigger a relapse. Understanding these triggers will make it easier to avoid them, which is a tool in preventing relapse.

Education of one’s self is an overall theme when talking about substance abuse. A person needs knowledge to gain motivation. Sometimes, a person can feel hopeless. They feel they cannot successfully maintain sobriety on their own. And that’s okay. Re-entering therapy or treatment is not a sign of defeat. It is a sign of strength and self-realization. Realizing this can be very uplifting.

Stages of Relapse

An article published in the Yale Journal of Medicine and Biology outlines four stages in relapse. The article, “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery” defines the stages as:

  1. Emotional Relapse – During this stage, a person is not having cravings, but they may have fallen back into the same behaviors which led to their addiction, making relapse more likely. At this stage, self-care is very important in preventing a relapse. A sign of poor self-care is the acronym HALT: hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. Self-care means different things for each person; for some, self-care is about physical self-care, for others, it is about emotional self-care.
  2. Mental Relapse – The transition between emotional and mental relapse is directly associated with poor self-care. They start to feel uncomfortable in their own skin. Part of them wants to use, but part of them is still resisting the urge. Their mental resistance becomes weaker as time goes on. Helping people avoid high-risk situations is an important tool in preventing relapse. Clinical experience shows that individuals have a hard time identifying high-risk situations and believing that they are high-risk. Sometimes, they think that avoiding high-risk situations is a sign of weakness. Professionals can distinguish mental relapse from occasional thoughts of using by monitoring a client’s behavior. Warning signs are when thoughts of using become more insistent or more frequent.
  3. Physical Relapse – At this stage, a person is actively using again. Most physical relapses are those of opportunity. It usually happens in a window where the person feels they will not “get caught.” Part of preventing relapse involves rehearsing these kinds of scenarios to provide tools to avoid cravings. If people don’t understand relapse, they may think it involves just saying no before they use. But physical relapse is the final and most difficult stage to stop, which is why people relapse.

Mental Health’s Impact on Relapse

Detox programs treat the physical aspects of addiction. However, it does not treat the emotional or psychological aspects that are associated with substance abuse. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one treatment that is commonly used to help prevent relapse. The journal Psychiatric Clinics of North America asserts that abstinence rates may increase with CBT. Behavioral therapies help a person to become more self-reliant and able to handle stressful situations that may inspire urges and cravings.

CBT explores the way a person’s thoughts are associated with their actions. The therapy provides tools to change negative thought processes and behaviors. The negative thinking that contributes to addiction is usually all-or-nothing thinking, eliminating any positives, catastrophizing, and negative self-labeling. For example, fear is a common negative thinking habit for people in recovery.

They fear being judged, they fear not knowing how to live in the world without using, and ironically, they fear relapse. These thoughts can lead to anxiety, resentment, stress, and depression, all of which can lead to relapse. Cognitive therapy helps prevent a person’s unhealthy habits and retrains neural circuits to create new, healthier ways of thinking.

Northstar Transitions want you to know that relapse is not a sign of failure. In fact, it is considered a normal part of recovery. At first, it seems hopeless having to give up friends, lifestyles, or activities you viewed as fun during addiction, but a new happier life awaits you. Understand that retraining a brain to think differently is an incredibly long and tedious task, but it can be done and the trained, compassionate professionals at Northstar are here to support you. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Just say no,” but it’s definitely not that easy when avoiding relapse. Relapse prevention often requires clinical help and Northstar Treatment is here to help you achieve your recovery goals. Call us now at (303) 558-6400.


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