Relapse - Rehab Guide



Relapse is when a medical condition that has been improving gets worse again. It can be used in any physical or mental condition, including addiction relapse, which means returning to drinking, drugs, gambling or other compulsive behaviour.

An alcohol or drug addiction relapse is when someone who has previously managed to stop drinking and drugging starts abusing alcohol and drugs once again.

Behaviour addictions are more complex. For example, someone with a sex addiction may have to measure whether engaging in a physical relationship is a relapse or not. Binge eaters may face a similar issue where they have to decide if their behaviour constitutes a relapse or not.

Relapse in addiction is very dangerous for many reasons. However, it can be prevented, and it can be successfully treated.

What is a Relapse in Addiction?

In medicine, the meaning of relapse is defined as a recurrence of a past condition where previously there has been a recovery or rehabilitation period.

Many physical and mental health conditions are prone to relapse, addiction being one of them.

A relapse can happen in any condition that can be managed with treatment but cannot be permanently cured.

Relapse rates for people who have received treatment for a substance use disorder are very similar to those that have received treatment for other chronic illnesses such as asthma, Type 1 diabetes and high blood pressure.

Addiction is at the most severe end of the substance use disorder scale and is recognised as a brain disorder characterised by progression, compulsion, relapse and continuation despite negative consequences.

Addiction relapse can often be part of the recovery journey when it does happen, and the consequences can be fatal. This is particularly true of those who have suffered an addiction to high-strength opioids.

Opioid overdose is particularly common in those who relapse due to sufferers using the same amount of opioids they previously used before stopping.

During a period of abstinence, the body loses all tolerance for substances. A relapse on stronger substances can easily result in overdose, drug poisoning, coma and death.

What Causes Addiction Relapse?

There can be many reasons a person recovering from addiction relapses, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the treatment path has failed. However, it usually means that their recovery needs reviewing or tweaking.

Addiction is a very complex condition. Most recovering addicts experience a relapse that results in picking up drugs or alcohol again. Knowing some of the signs & indicators can help avoid this.

Recovery from addiction needs to be sustainable, realistic, and flexible to adapt their recovery to their ever-changing emotional, physical, and social needs. This is why there is no one set addiction treatment programme that works for everyone.

Scientists have found through continual addiction research that stress signals linked to previous drug or alcohol use are the most common triggers. Meaning people, places, and things that an addicted person would have previously used substances to cope with remaining a threat during recovery (2)

Therefore, evidence-based treatment methods need to focus on developing coping strategies to deal with everyday life and different situations.

As well as gaining valuable relapse prevention techniques and coping skills, it is equally as important that a person suffering from addiction transforms their thinking and subsequent behaviours.

As the saying goes, “ Nothing changes if nothing changes.”

relapse failure

Causes of addiction relapse:

  • Not addressing or healing core trauma or dysfunctional beliefs and behaviours.
  • Not changing anything other than stopping drugs and alcohol (dry drunk syndrome)
  • Continuing to hurt other people with addictive or destructive behaviours
  • Not addressing or facing key issues
  • Mental health illness or untreated mental health illness (dual diagnosis)
  • Complacency in recovery
  • Stress and feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling uninspired and bored in recovery
  • Unable to forgive or feel forgiven
  • Non-acceptance of addiction
  • Bereavement & significant loss
  • Lack of coping skills and strategies
  • Continuing to associate with old drinking and using friends
  • Abusing over-the-counter or prescription medications
  • Lack of boundaries and self-care
  • Loneliness and lack of support
  • Cravings
  • Lack of education and understanding of addiction

Every person is an individual and has different triggers and treatment needs. Successful addiction treatment must, therefore, be bespoke to account for this.

Stopping addictive substances or behaviours is only the very beginning of the recovery process. The bigger picture is that for a person afflicted by addiction to remain in the recovery process, they will need to undergo intensive healing and a profound change in their outlook on life.

Addiction cannot be cured. A person who often relapses very quickly finds themselves right back where they left off. The brain recognises the old stimulus and source of instant gratification and once again adapts to prioritise it. This is why there is no guarantee they will make it safely back to recovery. It is also why prevention is so important.

Lapse vs Relapse

In addiction treatment terms, a lapse is classed as a temporary state, whereas a relapse is a continuation of addictive behaviour. Therefore, repeating this lapse.

A lapse can quickly be recovered from. A relapse, however, can cause much more harm to a person physically, mentally, socially, financially and emotionally.

When a person lapses into addiction, it can be down to a momentary concentration loss, a poor decision or an automated response to an event.

An addiction lapse can be prevented from progressing into a relapse if an affected person promptly seeks help.

Drug and alcohol lapses are common, especially during the early days and weeks of recovery from addiction. Lapses happen mainly due to the brain still adjusting and recovering to a sober state. It is also a period of time that a person with an addiction will struggle the most to adapt and implement newly learned coping strategies and methods.

If a lapse is not immediately addressed, there is a very high risk of continuing and progressing into a full-blown relapse, which is much more complex to treat.

Signs of Addiction Relapse

Picking up an alcoholic drink, addictive substances or behaviour in recovery usually happens after a period of mental decline.

A person who relapses in recovery will have started to regress in their recovery well-being before the actual event. There will usually be visible signs that it will happen.

Spotting the signs of addiction relapse and taking action to intervene can be life-saving if the person is receptive.

Once a person with addiction reaches the stage of obsessing over alcohol, drugs or compulsive behaviour, there is little time to intervene before those thoughts are made into a reality.

This example of how it happens is by no means a written rule, but most people who have experienced addiction relapse will relate to at least parts of it.

Preventing Relapse

Preventing relapse is much more likely when a person in recovery has a strong network of supportive people around them. People that they trust to confide in and ask for help. Perhaps because they have experienced it themselves or are trained to spot the signs, people recognise the early signs of addiction relapse.

Being part of a positive and supportive recovery group is incredibly valuable in preventing addiction relapse for a newly sober person.

For example, attending 12-step recovery meetings and engaging in recovery practices; having a committed sponsor is vital as getting therapy or counselling for possible co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

For a person who has managed to stop addictive substances or behaviour to stay in recovery, recovery has to be enjoyable and stimulating. By creating a fulfilling life and purpose, a person afflicted by addiction is much less likely to return to substances as a means of changing the way they feel.

Treatment for Alcohol and Drug Relapse

Prevention plan written in a note pad and documents.

If you or a loved one have suffered an addiction relapse, it is important to seek professional help. This will provide the best means of attaining and maintaining recovery once again.

Lapsing doesn’t necessarily mean all is lost. In fact, it is an opportunity to build a stronger and more sustainable recovery.

Consulting an addiction treatment professional will provide the means to examine what was previously lacking in recovery and receive treatment, support or education to rectify it.

When returning to treatment, this time should emphasise therapy, especially cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), which has successfully educated recovering addicts on new behavioural responses to unhealthy thinking.

Other therapy methods to examine possible treatment rehabs include art and music therapy, yoga and relaxation techniques and physical fitness. After treatment, you can use these approaches and tools to support a sober life, employing these methods to cope with depression, anxiety or anger.

This is where finding the right rehabilitation programme is essential to making a full and lasting recovery. Some who suffer from addiction cannot make the necessary changes, undergo intensive healing, or learn the needed coping skills unless admitted to an inpatient detox and rehab facility.

A residential rehab facility provides all of the means for a person to recover from addiction whilst within the safety of a nurturing and temptation-free environment.

For further information on how Rehab Guide can help you or a loved one currently struggling with relapse, please call and speak to one of our addiction treatment experts today.

Resources and references:

  1. Drug dependence, a chronic medical illness: implications for treatment, insurance, and outcomes evaluation
  2. Drugs, brains and behaviour – The science of addiction. Treatment and recovery

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