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What to Do After Relapsing

Recovery from addiction is a lifelong process that involves making changes over multiple areas.1 Change is not always easy, and when a person in recovery starts to revert to old habits, relapse may occur.1 This article will provide information on what relapse is, the signs of relapse, and what to do when you relapse.

What is a Relapse?

A relapse is when a person begins to use substances again after being abstinent for a period of time.1 A relapse does not mean that the person in recovery has failed or is weak.2 When learning about addiction, it is important to know that addiction is chronic in nature, and relapse may be just part of the process for some people in recovery.3

Often, the relapse process begins before you even start using again.1 Emotional and mental warning signs of relapse include:4

  • Bottling up emotions.
  • Isolating.
  • Not going to self-help meetings.
  • Going to self-help meetings but no longer sharing.
  • Focusing on others instead of your own recovery.
  • Having poor eating and sleeping habits.
  • Thinking about people, places, and things that you associate with using.
  • Minimizing consequences of use or glamorizing past use.

Emotional and mental relapses may lead to physical relapse, which is when you start using again.4

Why Do Relapses Happen?

Relapses may occur due to the person in recovery not being prepared for what recovery looks like.1 There are many factors that may lead to relapse, including psychosocial, daily life, internal, and external.1 Examples of these risk factors include:1

Psychosocial factors, such as:

  • Low self-efficacy.
  • Positive outcome expectations related to using.
  • Lack of motivation to change.
  • Insufficient adaptive coping skills.
  • A negative affect.
  • Inadequate social and emotional support.
  • Cravings.

Daily life factors, such as:

  • Being in contact with people who still use or sell substances.
  • Being in the presence of substances or related paraphernalia.
  • Spending time in places where you use to use substances.
  • Isolating or withdrawing from others.
  • Not reaching out to your recovery support network.

Internal risk factors, such as:

  • Having untreated physical or mental health issues.
  • Feeling bored, hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.

External risk factors.

  • Residing in a neighborhood with high use.
  • Living near a bar.
  • Being exposed to use in your professional or personal environment.

6 Steps to Take After a Drug or Alcohol Relapse

Recovery looks different for everyone, and so does relapse.1 However, if you are dealing with the fact that “I relapsed” and you are wondering what to do after a relapse, here are 6 steps that may be helpful if you or someone you love relapses in their recovery.

1. Identify Triggers

One of the first steps when you or a loved one relapses is to examine what led to the relapse in the first place.1 It is important to examine the warning signs and triggers that came up before the relapse occurred, remembering that relapse often starts emotionally and mentally before the physical act of using.1

Examining these signs helps the person in recovery understand the changes that took place before the relapse.1 Relapse can be seen as a learning experience to help you understand and develop skills of relapse prevention.1

2. Step Up Level of Treatment

After evaluating what led to the relapse, you may need to step up your level of treatment.1 It is important to have a smooth transition between levels of care, whether going up a level or down, so that treatment is effective.1 Gains in treatment can be lost if you do not keep up with ongoing aftercare treatment activities.1  Motivational interviewing and reinforcement activities can help maintain interest in treatment and staying on course.1

3. Consider Medication

With stepping up your level of treatment, you may need to consider using medication in combination with psychosocial treatment.1 Medications may be used to prevent cravings and can create a calming effect.3

4. Boost Personal Support

Once you have a level of treatment and possibly medication under control, it is important to boost your personal support to help you maintain recovery.1 During treatment, you may work on enhancing your communication skills to improve your interpersonal relationships.1 When developing your recovery-oriented support network, you can include family, friends, community groups, church groups, and self-help recovery programs.1

5. Work Toward a Balanced, Healthier Lifestyle

Finally, you can work to get back on track in your recovery by working toward a balanced, healthy lifestyle.1 One way that you can work toward a balanced lifestyle is to develop cognitive and behavioral coping skills to reduce the risk of relapse.1 These coping skills will also help with reducing stress.1

Another way to work toward a balanced lifestyle is to identify and challenge your cognitive distortions, such as black-and-white thinking, overgeneralization, catastrophizing, and jumping to conclusions.1

Additionally, developing positive habits and activities to replace addiction-based habits and activities.1

6. Attend a Meeting

Going to a meeting and sharing your experience with others in recovery can help you remember that you are not alone. Sharing can help you create a connection with others and can bring a boost of confidence, knowing that if others have gotten back on track, you can, too. It can also keep you accountable and reduce any feelings of shame or grief that you may be experiencing after a relapse.

How to Prevent a Relapse

Relapses may be part of the process of recovery, but there are ways to reduce the risk of relapse.1 Some ways that you can avoid triggers and keep relapses from happening include:1

  • Understanding relapse as an event and a process.
  • Learning to identify warning signs.
  • Identifying high-risk situations.
  • Developing cognitive and behavioral coping skills.
  • Enhancing your communication skills and interpersonal relationships.
  • Reducing, identifying, and managing negative emotional states.
  • Identifying and managing cravings.
  • Identifying and challenging cognitive distortions.
  • Building a balanced, healthier lifestyle.
  • Using medications in combination with psychosocial treatment, if needed.

Attending Rehab After a Relapse

If someone has used a substance for a long time, they may have developed a tolerance to it.2 However, if that person does not use a substance for an amount of time, the tolerance level is less, and it may increase the risk of overdose.2 Due to the increased risk of overdose, detox and rehab services may be needed.2 Treatment that may be useful for those who have experienced a relapse may include medical detox, inpatient addiction treatment, intensive outpatient addiction treatment programs, and outpatient programs for drug and alcohol addiction.

If you or a loved one has experienced a relapse, reach out to an admissions navigator at to learn more about your treatment options and how you can use health insurance coverage for rehab.

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