Prevention: What to Do on the Edge of a Relapse

Individuals teetering on the edge of relapsing may not know what to do or where to turn. If you are in early recovery, you might find yourself in this position. Transitioning back into everyday life poses many new challenges and relapse risk factors. For example, you may have to reacclimate to a work environment, school schedule, or daily routines and responsibilities. One goal of treatment is to learn coping skills for handling challenges such as these, but it is natural to become overwhelmed. When you understand the causes of relapse, where to go, and who to call, you have ways to pull yourself back from the edge. 

Risks of Relapsing

The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine (YJBM) describes a few ideas regarding relapse. Those ideas include: 

  1. Relapse is a gradual, multi-phase process and treatment should help you become aware of each step so you can prevent them
  2. Recovery is a journey, not a destination, and changes, as you hit certain points, meaning each stage of recovery, comes with unique relapse risks
  3. Relapse prevention focuses on using cognitive therapy and mind-body relaxation to implement healthy coping skills
  4. You should focus on changing your life, honesty, asking for help, and self-care, all of which are rules that should not be bent. 

Relapse does not mean failure, but it can be dangerous. “If a person uses as much of the drug as they did before quitting, they can easily overdose,” explains the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Your body loses tolerance over time. The more you use a specific substance, the more accustomed your body becomes to it. Consequently, when you abstain and then use again after some time, your body can not handle the same dose. 

Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics show that “There were an estimated 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States” during 2020. That is a 28.5 increase from the previous year. The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on this increase, but the fact remains that overdose deaths—including those from relapses—are a growing concern. 

Stages of Relapse

There are three stages of relapse: emotional, mental, and physical.

Emotional Relapse

During this stage, you are not typically thinking about substance use. However, you may be compromising your sobriety with negative emotional and behavioral patterns. Signs of emotional relapse include:

  • Bottling up emotions 
  • Isolating 
  • Avoiding support group meetings, or going but not participating 
  • Focusing on other people’s problems 
  • Poor eating and sleeping habits

Emotional relapse is often related to a lack of self-care. 

Mental Relapse

If left unchecked, emotional relapse can lead to mental relapse. A mental relapse involves more internal conflict. Part of you wants to turn to substance use, but another part does not. The longer you let mental relapse go untreated, the more your “cognitive resistance” declines.

Signs of mental relapse include:

  • Cravings for drugs or alcohol 
  • Thinking about people, places, and things associated with substance use 
  • Minimizing the consequences of past substance use
  • Glamorizing past substance use
  • Bargaining 
  • Lying 
  • Scheming to control substance use 
  • Looking for relapse opportunities or planning to relapse

Physical Relapse

The final stage is physical relapse–when you start using again. Professionals distinguish between lapse and relapse. A lapse is an initial incident of substance use, whereas a relapse is returning to uncontrolled drug or alcohol use.

No matter how far you have progressed through the stages of relapse, regaining sobriety is always possible. You simply need to know your options for getting back on track. 

Relapse Prevention

Some professionals regard relapse as a part of the recovery journey, but it does not have to be. Many tools can be part of your relapse prevention plan.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an excellent tool for relapse prevention. It focuses on changing your negative thought or behavioral patterns and developing healthy coping skills. Weekly CBT sessions with a mental health professional can increase your chances of avoiding relapse. However, you must be open and honest with them about your thoughts, cravings, and feelings as they pertain to recovery versus relapse.

Aftercare and Alumni Programs

Many facilities have aftercare programs for you as you navigate your new life in recovery. Programs such as these are beneficial all throughout the recovery process. Additionally, these programs connect you with peers and professionals. Studies indicate that people who attend an aftercare program are less likely to relapse and may find it easier to transition back into everyday life after treatment.

Alumni programs give you the chance to connect with others, learn from their experiences, get advice, and have a community to turn to when you are on the edge of relapse. If you are in recovery but fear you are approaching a relapse, reach out to your support group, counselor, or a member of your alumni program immediately. By getting ahead of relapse and talking it out, you may feel more supported to avoid it. To learn more about relapse or to seek treatment after a relapse, reach out to NorthStar Transitions

There are many tools at your disposal when you feel like you are on the edge of relapse. More than ever, treatment facilities focus on the importance of relapse prevention. Many addiction treatments and recovery professionals regard relapse as a part of the recovery process. For many people, it is. However, relapse at any point can be dangerous, but it can be avoided. Creating a relapse prevention plan can decrease your chances of relapse. That plan may include weekly therapy or support group meetings. At NorthStar Transitions, aftercare planning is part of our process, and we have an active alumni community. We believe that treatment works best when followed by relapse prevention strategies and aftercare programs. If you find yourself on the edge of relapse, do not hesitate to contact a peer or professional for help. For recovery support, call (303) 558-6400

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