What Happens When Relapse Occurs?

How people talk and think about relapse directly affects individuals struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD). Although there is evidence-based research regarding addiction, a majority of the public is misinformed about the subject which can negatively affect others. 

Addiction recovery can be a complicated path that requires patience and support. While accepting help is the first step towards recovery, the following steps include movements in all directions. Relapse is normal when dealing with a complicated disease like addiction and does not signify the end of recovery.

Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome

According to Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, when it comes to drug and alcohol withdrawal, there are more than physical responses and discomfort. After overcoming physical discomfort, there is a second wave of withdrawal known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome, or PAWS. 

Symptoms of PAWS involve psychological and emotional aspects. Depending on the duration and intensity of the addiction, this secondary withdrawal syndrome may appear shortly after starting treatment or months later. While PAWS is a transient disorder, the symptoms can lead to relapse. This can affect anyone in recovery. 

Understanding Relapse

Addiction is a complicated disease. When someone’s addiction is treated and managed, it signifies that this individual is in recovery. If someone in recovery returns to using substances or other harmful activities, the individual has relapsed. It is typically an individual’s thoughts and actions that lead to the return of substance use.

An Indian J Psychiatry, a NY: Pergamon Press study revealed that “more than 500 alcoholism outcome studies reported that more than 75% of subjects relapsed within one year of treatment.” 

Some circumstances can predict the return of substance use upon the presence of an old environment or negative habits. For instance, decreased motivation can cause an individual to neglect learned skills and information gained during treatment.

Understanding Relapse Prevention 

Relapse prevention is a strategy used to lower the risk and severity of relapse after stopping or reducing troublesome behaviors. According to The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, there are four main ideas regarding relapse prevention. 

  1. Relapse does not suddenly happen; it gradually progresses with distinct phases that can help others detect the issue. The goal is to educate people about these early phases to successfully prevent relapse from occurring.
  2. Recovery is a process of personal growth and development containing milestones. Risks of relapse differ depending on the stage of recovery.
  3. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and mind-body relaxation create healthy coping abilities and are the key relapse prevention strategies.
  4. A few simple rules can be used to explain the majority of relapses. Educating patients on these guidelines may help families focus on what is important to maintain sobriety. 

These guidelines include:

  • Changing an individual’s life
  • Being completely honest with themselves and others 
  • Asking for help
  • Practicing self-care

The 3 Stages of Relapse 

According to “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery,” relapse begins weeks and even months before an individual actually partakes in substance use. Although many practical studies are conducted to prevent relapse, patients may find this information overwhelming. Therefore, the author has narrowed down 11 phases that significantly reduce the chances of relapse into three simple ones. 

#1. Emotional Relapse

During this stage of relapse, individuals may be on a straight path towards recovery and are not yet thinking of using. They still clearly remember their past with drugs or alcohol and do not intend on repeating it. While individuals are not consciously thinking about using, they may be in denial about ever having a problem. As a result, their emotions and behaviors can be setting them up to relapse.

The leading cause of emotional relapse is poor self-care, which includes emotional, psychological, and physical care. Some signs of emotional relapse include:

  • Bottling up emotions
  • Isolating
  • Not attending meetings
  • Attending meetings but not participating
  • Focusing on others and others’ problems
  • Poor eating and sleeping habits

#2. Mental Relapse

After emotional relapse, individuals may begin to feel irritated and discontent, causing them the need for an escape which then transitions into a mental war. As individuals transition into this phase, part of them is inclined to use, and part of them is telling them not to give in to the temptation. 

Some signs of mental relapse include:

  • Craving drugs or alcohol
  • Thinking about people or places affiliated with past substance use
  • Bargaining
  • Lying
  • Planning relapse opportunities in which they can access substances

#3. Physical Relapse

Physical relapse occurs when an individual begins to use again. During this stage, an individual is no longer able to acknowledge the consequences that can come from consuming one drink or substance. Using once can then lead to uncontrolled use once again.

Overcoming a Setback 

Although the burden of a setback caused by relapse can be frustrating and cause someone to want to give up, it is important to know relapse is not the end. There is support and other methods that can help guide patients back towards recovery. 

How an individual deals with relapse plays a significant role in their recovery process. Setbacks are not only physical relapses but can be any action that can lead to substance use, such as having a poor self-care system or not setting healthy boundaries.

Setbacks are a normal part of a recovery process and do not equate to failure. Any setback, no matter how small, can add up with other “small” setbacks and, as a result, lead to relapse. This is why it is essential to remain aware of emotions and mental health. Patients can do this by asking for the help they need and talking about their setbacks during therapy to minimize the chances of relapse.

When following a relapse, it is common for individuals to feel like they have failed; failed themselves and their families. It is a trying time that can also come with feelings of shame, guilt, and regret. Although relapsing can be a setback in an individual’s recovery process, it does not signify the end or equate to failure. Relapse setbacks are caused by poor coping skills or inadequate planning. These issues can be fixed with professional help. As someone in recovery, it is essential to find the right resources to help create a life in which remaining sober is easier. By recognizing early warnings and creating an effective relapse prevention plan, individuals can learn from past relapses and use those experiences as a tool for motivation. With A New Hope Recovery, individuals can find the tools they need to recover and avoid relapse. For more about our services, call (407) 501-8490.