Tips for Overcoming Thoughts of Relapse During Times of Coronavirus Social Distancing and Isolation
Addiction is a common disease in the United States. In 2018, there were around 20.3 million people with a substance use disorder (SUD).1 Of those, approximately 1.4% (3.7 million people), received substance use treatment, with .9% (2.4 million people) getting substance use treatment at a specialty facility.1
While 3.7 million people began their journey toward recovery in 2018, that work did not end after rehab was over. Rather, substance use treatment is only the first step on the lifelong path toward sobriety, and along the way there can be stumbles and pitfalls, especially when it comes to the threat of relapse. In fact, of those who have gone through treatment, 40-60% relapse.2
And in these unprecedented times, when anxiety, fear, and isolation have become major players in our lives as COVID-19 sweeps the world, it becomes even more imperative that you find the practices that will help you successfully avoid relapse.
Signs of Relapse
Recognizing the warning signs of relapse provides the best opportunity to avoid it. Signs of potential relapse include the following:
- Increasing stress levels. Regular, everyday life can be stressful, and fear and concern about the coronavirus—in addition to stresses regarding money, childcare, employment, and health that arise from the pandemic—can further raise stress levels.
- Denial. Refusing to admit there is anything to even be concerned about only increases the likelihood that a relapse will occur.
- Attitude change. Changes in attitude, including abandoning recovery efforts, and sudden feelings of loneliness or depression may all be signs that you are heading toward a relapse.
- Romanticizing past drug use. Remembering only the good times of substance use can be easy, but it is important to keep in mind that you stopped using for a reason.
- Isolation from your support system. Falling out of touch and neglecting relationships with your family, friends, members of support groups, sponsors, and other members of your support system could be a sign that something is wrong.
- Believing you can use again without it being a risk. The idea that you are able to have “just one,” that you are able to control your substance use, poses a tremendous threat to your continued recovery.
- Loss of dedication to recovery program. A rapid change in how you view your recovery program may lead to a quick move toward using again, as belief and confidence in the program helps you stay sober.
If you are noticing changes in yourself, in everything from dropping hobbies to feeling down and sad all the time, pay attention to those changes and have a strategy in place for how you can deal with those changes so you don’t risk relapse.
Tips for Avoiding Relapse
There are various tactics for taking care of yourself and setting yourself up for success when it comes to your recovery, and those tactics might be even more important as we face stress, anxiety, social distancing, and isolation in the coming days ahead. With the pandemic impacting our very way of life, strategies for avoiding relapse include the following:3
- Talk to others about your feelings. Sharing how you are feeling (afraid, unsure, anxious, lonely, depressed) provides you with both the opportunity to get those feelings out (keeping them to yourself only gives them more power) and the chance to have others aware of what you are dealing with. When you are sharing, be completely honest—with others and with yourself.
- Don’t feel guilty for your feelings. In the best of times, you need to be kind to yourself when it comes to how you are feeling. With a global pandemic wreaking havoc on your life, it is even more imperative that you cut yourself slack when it comes to relapse feelings. Feeling tempted to use during periods of high stress, anxiety, and loneliness is very common. Be aware of any signs of relapse thoughts, but do not punish yourself for having those thoughts.
- Learn new coping strategies. Dealing with stress, anxiety, and fear in a positive way is so important if you want to remain sober. Learning stress management and relaxation techniques may help you avoid the temptation of returning to alcohol or drugs during stressful times. Breathing techniques, yoga, systematic relaxation, and mediation are all techniques that may help.
- Practice self-care. Take the time to focus on yourself and your mental and physical health. This will allow you to be in a better mindset. Practices for self-care may include the following:
- Exercise regularly.
- Practice meditation/mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation can be an excellent technique for dealing with unwanted thoughts. You can learn to observe your mental processes instead of being caught up in them.
- Get good sleep.
- Eat healthy foods.
- Get outside. Feel the sunshine and the wind. A change of scenery may change your mindset.
- Reconnect with a hobby that you’ve moved away from (sculpting, dancing, writing, playing an instrument, etc.).
- Don’t let yourself get bored. Fill your time with healthy, positive activities so that you are less likely to fill that time with substance use.
- Pay attention to HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, or tired). These feelings can increase your stress and possibly lead to bad decisions.
- Create a thankfulness list. In what can feel like dark days, it is important to remember that, despite everything, you still have things to be grateful for. This list is a good reminder of all the reasons you have to stay sober.
- Create a relapse prevention plan. A relapse prevention plan may include a daily checklist, a list of reminders (for appointments, chores, etc.), and ways to identify triggers when they pop up.
- Ask for help. Maintaining recovery is profoundly challenging, and you run the risk of making it even harder if you try to do so alone. If you are struggling, ask your family and friends for help. Reach out to your support system.
- Get social support. If you are already part of a 12-step or alternative support group, continue to participate if at all possible. If you are not, find a way to get involved. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are offering online support meetings. There are also various other online spaces where you can find support. In the Rooms is a free resource that offers 130 online meetings every week for people in recovery.
- American Addiction Centers is also hosting free, virtual support meetings. The meetings will be based on traditional 12-step meetings and will be hosted by someone in recovery.
Maintaining your recovery is a journey full of ups and downs, and it is imperative that you recognize that our global health crisis may put you at risk of a major down that could lead to relapse. Make sure to do the work to prepare yourself for this risk so that you can stay sober during these trying times. And if you need help, reach out to one of our admissions navigators today at . We are always here to support your efforts and help you continue to fight for your recovery.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. PEP19-5068, NSDUH Series H-54). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition): How effective is drug addiction treatment?
- Melemis, S.M. (2015). Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. Yale J Biol Med, 88(3) 325-332.
- Caceres, V. (2020). What’s the Difference Between an Epidemic and Pandemic? U.S. News & World Report.
- Centers for Disease Control. (2020). What you need to know about coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).