Relapse is never an easy concept to come to terms with for anyone in recovery. Obviously, no one wants to relapse, but statistics show that roughly 40 to 60 percent of people with addiction and substance abuse disorders will at some point relapse.
When broken down into specific substances, research shows that the relapse rates for heroin and opiate addiction are near 90 percent, with one study finding that of the 109 subjects who had completed rehab and were sober, 99 relapsed, 64 of them within the first week of leaving treatment.
An estimated 88 percent of former methamphetamine users relapse, and as for those in recovery from alcohol dependence, 90 percent are likely to relapse at least once over the course of a four-year period.
While these numbers can feel overwhelming, the important thing to take away from them is that relapse does happen, but it does not mean that you or your treatment have failed. Addiction is a chronic disease, and treating chronic diseases requires lifelong monitoring, management, and significant behavioral changes, which don’t happen overnight.
Lapsing back into substance use can and will happen, but that just means that it’s time for you to reevaluate what isn’t working, seek out new tools and different forms of support, and readjust how you manage your addiction.
One key way to learn from a relapse and avoid the risk of another is to learn to recognize your relapse triggers: those feelings and situations that can cause someone to return to using.
While every individual will have unique triggers based on their personal experiences, there are some common relapse triggers that nearly everyone in recovery will encounter. By understanding your relapse triggers, you’ll be more prepared to handle them, should they occur, and substantially increase your likelihood of long-term sobriety.
1. Emotional Dysregulation
Sobriety can be a disorienting and difficult experience, especially early on, and your emotions will most likely be all over the map, which is perfectly understandable. However, this emotional instability can leave you vulnerable to relapse. After all, up until very recently, your brain had been trained to seek out drugs or alcohol in response to negative feelings.
While it’s impossible to avoid any stressful or emotionally fraught situations entirely, it’s still smart to try to take things slowly and keep yourself isolated from what you know might set you off. Eliminate everything that is not essential to your recovery, if necessary. Choose low-key, calming activities like yoga, meditation, baking, or even just listening to music if it helps you to keep centered.
Developing emotional coping skills takes time and work, but it is possible. If you feel emotionally overwhelmed, stop and examine what it is you’re feeling and why. Irritation and anger can be masks for fear or embarrassment, and if that’s the case, the best thing you can do for yourself is to put your ego aside and reach out for help, whether it’s from family, friends, or others in recovery.
2. Lack of Acceptance and Insight
Acceptance is a sizable part of recovery, to the point where it’s the most crucial aspect of the first step in the 12-Step Program. Being able to accept your situation, your circumstances, and the fact that there are things in your life that are outside of your control are all necessary for successful rehabilitation.
One major roadblock to acceptance and long-term sobriety, in general, is a lack of insight, in other words, understanding the meaning and motivations behind your addictive behaviors. Many people are under the impression that recovery ends after detox, but that is merely the first step. Detox focuses only on the physical aspect of addiction, and in order to avoid relapse, the mental, emotional, and behavioral aspects need to be addressed as well.
Treatment program mainstays such as cognitive or dialectical behavioral therapy have been proven to greatly reduce the risk of relapse and to help you not only learn to better understand and change negative patterns and behaviors but also give you the tools to become self-reliant and better prepared for stressful situations and other potential triggers.
3. Relationship Problems
“Don’t date during your first year of recovery” is a frequently-heard recommendation, and there’s a good reason for it. Although a romantic partner can help quell feelings of loneliness, provide support, and distract you from negative feelings you might be experiencing in the early stages of sobriety, dating early in the recovery process is still a risky proposition for several reasons.
Early on in the post-rehab phase, many people will be searching for a replacement addiction, and a relationship can fill that need, with new love providing feelings of euphoria during the “honeymoon phase.” Trading one addiction for another doesn’t solve the underlying problem, and allowing yourself to become as dependent on a person as you were on drugs or alcohol creates a situation that, should the relationship end, can easily trigger a relapse.
The distraction a relationship can provide is also a problem in and of itself. Now is the time when you need to be focused on your recovery first and foremost, not seeking comfort in a relationship that you are most likely not emotionally stable enough to handle.
Instead, find the comfort you need by surrounding yourself with a reliable support group of friends and family. If you feel like you can’t be trusted not to seek out romantic entanglement, make a commitment with someone else who’s in recovery that neither of you will date so you can keep each other honest and focused on what’s most important during this time.
4. Holding On to Resentments
This relapse trigger might not seem as obvious as the others, but it is still a common trap that people in recovery can fall into without realizing it. You can start to feel resentment for many reasons:
- Recovery is more challenging than you first expected
- Feeling like people are trying to interfere too much with your life post-recovery
- Continuing trust issues with family and friends
- Family and friends seem to not give you enough credit for the effort you’re putting into your recovery
- Comparing yourself to someone who seems to be doing better in their recovery
But in the end, it doesn’t matter what causes these feelings of resentment, if you allow them to them build up inside without addressing them or attempting to deal with them, it is an almost guaranteed recipe for relapse. What’s important to remember is that learning to be sober requires new ways of thinking and reacting to situations and that includes letting go of negative emotions before they can do any serious damage and trigger a relapse.
Some things you can do to keep resentful feelings at bay include reaching out to your support system and talking about your feelings. You should also practice keeping yourself in the present instead of dwelling on the past or the future. Focus on gratitude and mindfulness and remember the meaning behind the Serenity Prayer: there are some things that you cannot change, and that’s okay. Learn to let them go.
5. Lack of Involvement in Recovery Programs and Complacency
As we previously mentioned, getting sober is just one part of recovery. If you want to stay sober, you have to make a concentrated effort to do so. It’s more than just going to therapy or regularly attending support group meetings like AA; there needs to be active participation and involvement. You’re going to get out of these programs what you put into them, and if you’re going just to go or because you’re “expected to,” they won’t be nearly as useful in helping you stay abstinent. Full commitment is essential to successful recovery.
Similarly, becoming complacent or ambivalent can be a relapse situation waiting to happen. While you are absolutely allowed to feel accomplished about the progress you’ve made in your recovery, you still need to keep yourself in check and remember that addiction is a disease that will always require managing. Believing that you “have it under control” and can handle just one drink or one hit or one dose is the kind of thinking that can cause a relapse and spiral back into abuse. In order to remain sober, you have to completely give up on the idea of ever using drugs or alcohol again.