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Relapse Prevention Program

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According to a recent survey conducted by the National Study on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 28.6 million United States citizens over the age of 12 struggle with drug or alcohol addiction. Among this large and growing population, only about 10 percent will enter a long-term recovery treatment program. Of that 10 percent, between 40 and 60 percent will likely relapse.

The statistics are alarming, but by learning about the warning signs that point to relapse, it’s possible to detect when a potential relapse is around the corner. If you want a fighting chance at beating your addiction, it’s highly recommended to get relapse prevention counseling during some point of your treatment.

Mental vs. Physical Relapses

Most mental health professionals agree that there are three different relapse stages, which can be divided into two categories: mental and physical.

If a relapse is to occur, mental triggers are the first to arise. The first stage is typically classified as an “emotional relapse.” During this period, which typically occurs after detox and withdrawal have already been completed, patients will begin to experience unsettling emotions such as:

  • Cravings
  • Depressive feelings
  • A sense of isolation or loneliness
  • Irritability
  • Mood swings

These feelings then typically snowball into the “mental relapse” phase. Because patients feel unsettled, they instinctively begin to look outside of themselves for some sort of reprieve. In the past, they’ve found that escape in drug use, and by force of habit they begin to fantasize about using again. The mental relapse phase includes:

  • Romanticizing about drug use
  • Fantasizing about relapse
  • Returning to old friends and social environments where drugs are available

At this point, most users are set up for a “physical relapse”. The physical relapse entails, as the name suggests, actively drinking or using drugs again. They arrive at this point through a domino effect, which begins with a series of unsettling emotions.

Early Warning Signs

Before each stage of relapse begins, there are several telltale warning signs. By being able to identify these signs, it’s possible to stop the process in its tracks before it snowballs into relapse.

It’s also important to be able to spot these warning signs when they appear in friends or loved ones. For many, addiction is incredibly challenging to face alone, and without the support of friends and family, they are highly likely to return to the cycle of substance abuse.

The first warning signs are emotional. They both precede and go hand in hand with the “emotional relapse” stage. These signs typically manifest as:

  • Feeling disinterested by activities that normally excite you
  • Having trouble finding pleasure in things that typically bring you joy
  • Ignoring or repressing emotions

These signs are soon followed by the next stage of warning signs, in which a user lies about his or her feelings regarding addiction to their support group, and uses mental tricks that downplay the negative aspects of cravings or drug use. They may begin the process of internal bargaining and weighing the pros and cons of returning to alcohol or drug use. Of course, these calculations are totally skewed and are not grounded in a realistic assessment of the consequences.

Just before a user may return to alcohol or drug use, there will be a set of physical warning signs. If these signs are identified during this stage it’s still possible to prevent a relapse, but in many cases users keep to themselves during this period, making it difficult for friends or support groups to intervene. Some of the most common signs during this phase include:

  • Asking around for their substance of choice
  • Placing his or herself in an unhealthy environment in which drugs are available
  • Using “just once” justifications

Relapse Prevention Techniques

Most relapse prevention techniques that are taught in addiction treatment require a great deal of self-awareness. This means understanding when you’re experiencing warning signs or facing relapse triggers and responding to them in a positive way.

If you begin to experience any of these warning signs, tell somebody. Don’t keep it to yourself. Addiction can be a lifelong challenge, and it’s a burden that no one should have to bear alone. That’s why treatment centers help patients build a support network; people who can be reached out to in times of weakness. While a slip-up may happen, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to achieve long-term recovery in the future. As long as you follow a few relapse prevention strategies, you’ll be able to get back on track and kiss your substance use disorder goodbye.

The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine suggest you adhere to five rules which can help you create a relapse prevention plan. These rules include:

  • Change your lifestyle. By making positive changes that steer you away from dangerous environments, relapse is less likely.
  • Practice honesty. Be honest with yourself and those around you about your urges and intentions. This will make it easier for others to help you, and for you to help yourself.
  • Ask for help. Most people believe that addiction is their personal burden to bear, but most people have an extended support group of counselors, friends, and family who are willing to help.
  • Practice self-care. Learning how to channel negative emotions into positive actions is a vital part of preventing relapse.
  • Stick to the rules. It may be tempting to break your personal mandates, but by sticking to them you have a higher chance of avoiding relapse and staying sober.

There are also some common relapse triggers to notice and avoid, which include:

  • HALT – an acronym which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. If you experience any of these states, relapse is likelier.
  • Stress. Stress affects the body in numerous powerful ways. Avoiding it through relaxation techniques and taking care of responsibilities is a huge step in avoiding relapse.
  • Over-confidence. The temptation to relapse can creep up at any time, and if you’re overconfident about your ability to resist it you might place yourself in compromising or stressful situations.  

What to do if you relapse

If you do relapse, it’s important to take immediate action and follow a relapse plan outlined by your addiction treatment center. By delaying action, you increase the chance that a one-time slip may grow into a full-blown habit. Recognize and accept that you made a mistake, and then seek the help of people within your support system.

Attending meetings immediately after a relapse is a great way to reintegrate yourself into a positive and nurturing environment. Often, relapse occurs because an individual has strayed into a dangerous social environment. In the recovery network, everyone bands together in solidarity, and being actively involved can be a powerful tool in coping and managing continuing urges. Once you go through a relapse prevention program, you’ll have all the tools needed to be your addiction once and for all.


National Institute on Drug Abuse. Treatment and Recovery. 2018.

US National Library of Medicine. Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. 2015.



Reaching out can be the hardest step. Talk with someone who will listen.