relapse warning signs

Relapse Warning Signs to Look Out For

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When you’re sober from drugs or alcohol, your goal is to avoid a relapse. However, the reality is that relapse can be part of the recovery process. That doesn’t mean it is inevitable, but it’s something you always have to be mindful of.

There may be relapse warning signs to watch out for, in yourself, or maybe a loved one who’s in recovery. 

When you’re mindful of these potential relapse warning signs, you may be able to stop it from happening, or if it has already occurred, reduce the damage and get back on track. Sometimes the warning signs involve negative emotions, but not always. Even celebratory situations can be triggering. 

What is a Relapse?

Recovery is a process when you’re in active addiction and stop using drugs or alcohol. A relapse is when you return to your previous drug or alcohol use levels.

  • There’s a distinction between a relapse and a lapse. 
  • A lapse is a temporary situation where you get off-track with your goals, but then you return to your recovery. A lapse can also be described as a short-term situation. 
  • Relapse can occur when that lapse turns into something longer-term and more severe.

We can use the term relapse when talking about any chronic medical condition. For example, if you have type 2 diabetes that was well-controlled and now isn’t.

You could have gotten control over the symptoms of your addiction, and then when you once again lose that control.

  • People working on overcoming addiction will often go through at least one relapse in their journey, and sometimes several.
  • Relapse is part of the stages-of-change model, which defines addiction recovery.
  • If you or a loved one experiences a relapse, it’s not a failure. Again, it’s part of the process.

What Are the Stages of Relapse?

Contrary to what we often perceive, regression isn’t one sudden event. Instead, it’s a process. That’s why it can be helpful to recognize drug or alcohol relapse warning signs.

The relapse process can take weeks or even months to develop.

The three main stages include:

  • Emotional: Someone might not be directly thinking about using drugs or alcohol during this stage. However, they could be engaging in behaviors or experiencing emotions that put them at risk of using again. Isolation, low social support, and anxiety can all contribute.
  • Mental: This second stage is when someone actively thinks about using drugs or alcohol. They might be missing or glorifying the situations they associate with their usage. 
  • Physical: The final stage is when someone uses drugs or alcohol again.

What Are Common Reasons People Relapse?

If you go to treatment, a lot of what you’ll work on during that time is relapse prevention and having a specific prevention plan to put in place when you spot common warning signs of the risk for relapse. 

Relapse prevention relies on gaining an understanding of your triggers. When you know your triggers, you can take steps to avoid them or positively respond.

While everyone is different, some of the more common triggers and reasons people may experience an alcohol or drug relapse include:

  • Going through withdrawal: This reason for relapse occurs early on. If you get medical help for withdrawal, you can substantially reduce the risk of relapsing because of the discomfort or cravings of withdrawal.
  • Mental health: If you’re dealing with untreated or improperly treated mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, you’re at a higher risk of a relapse. If you receive professional addiction treatment, your program should include dual diagnosis care for co-occurring mental disorders. If you stop using drugs or alcohol, but those underlying mental health disorders don’t receive treatment, you’re at a substantially higher risk.
  • The people you’re around: When you’re in recovery, it’s important to evaluate the people you once spent time with to achieve your goals in your life of sobriety. Are they in line with your goals for your life currently? It’s challenging, especially in early recovery to spend time with people who use drugs or alcohol, even if they do so casually.
  • Lack of self-care: Recovery means taking care of yourself and prioritizing your physical and mental well-being. If you aren’t doing this, you could be at risk.

Other triggers include feeling bored or isolated, having problems in relationships, or being overconfident in your recovery.

relapse warning signs

What Are Relapse Warning Signs?

Just like everyone’s triggers can be different, so can their relapse warning signs. Relapse is generally a gradual process. Some of the red flags of a possible impending drug or alcoholic relapse, or the start of one, can include:

  • Changes in attitude. You could notice this in yourself. For example, you might decide you’re no longer prioritizing going to meetings or counseling. You may realize your attitude is changing but not pinpoint precisely what’s going on. Similarly, if your loved one is in recovery, you may notice they aren’t prioritizing those things that help them stay strong in recovery like they were before.
  • High-stress levels. These stressors can be due to everyday life and returning to reality without drugs or alcohol. You might also experience stress because of a significant life event. The issue becomes when you react poorly or overreact to stress or when you see a loved one in recovery is doing that.
  • Reactivation of denial. When you first decide to get help for addiction, you have to overcome your denial. We often say it’s the hardest part of recovery—to admit a problem. If you notice denial in yourself, you might want to speak to a mental health care provider. You could be denying that you ever had an issue with drugs or alcohol or denying that it’s out of your control. You could also experience denial in other ways. For example, you might tell yourself you aren’t experiencing stress or negative feelings, even though you are.
  • Behavioral changes. If your loved one is in recovery from substance abuse, you could notice changes in their routines that indicate something is going on. They might not just stop going to recovery meetings or therapy appointments. They could perhaps become socially withdrawn and purposely isolate themselves from others.
  • Part of recovery is the development of healthy habits and routines. If these start to decline, it may be relapse warning signs. For example, not caring about personal hygiene or changes in sleeping or eating patterns can be a warning indicator in your recovery journey. 

I Experienced Relapse-Now What?

Fear of relapse looms large in the minds of many individuals in recovery. The stigma against relapse may prevent you from seeking the help you need after an instance of substance use or abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that relapse rates during recovery range between 40 and 60 percent. Though the majority of relapse situations arise within the first six months of graduation from a rehabilitation program, a person may find themselves facing relapse years after beginning their journey in recovery. Anyone can experience relapse at any time–you are not alone.

Maintaining sobriety is not easy and if you cannot rely on the support of others and you are not confident in yourself, you are at a disadvantage. Unless you change your lifestyle after an initial relapse, you will likely experience relapse again. Allow yourself to process the emotions associated with relapse and then seek help from people you trust. Your loved ones will always love you, your therapist will always want you to succeed, and your peers in your support group will always welcome you into their meetings. When you take responsibility for your journey, you will recover.

The final stage is when you might try to engage in “controlled” drug or alcohol use. Then, you realize that isn’t working, and you can’t do it. You feel guilt or shame. That can spiral into further loss of control, and you may need treatment again or to change your approach to recovery following a full-blown relapse. 

Some important points to keep in mind are growing your network and connections with people. It’s also helpful to make connections with people in your rehab, your support group, 12-step group, or partnerships with community businesses or local agencies. Another important point is to let go of expectations of the kind of work you’ll be able to get. It may be necessary to start over in an industry, get entry level or part time work, and practice mindfulness and self compassion during the ups and downs of the process. Another tool to keep in mind is to volunteer your skills on a regular basis. Volunteer connections can be a good way to practice your work skills, to meet potential employers and to build on job skills you already have.

While you always want to work to prevent relapse, no one is perfect. If you notice the signs in yourself or someone you care about, be proactive to get back to where you want to be. This often includes re-engaging your treatment plan or working with your care providers to adjust your plan as needed.

If you’re interested in learning more about relapse prevention, please contact Silver Lining Recovery at (833) 844-4769.