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What is a Relapse, and How Can I Deal With One Happening?

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The path of recovering from addiction is truly a journey—a journey that’s filled with ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks. It’s a journey that demands courage, perseverance, and unwavering commitment. The concept of relapse—a phenomenon that is often misunderstood—is also often an integral part of the recovery process. Relapse should not be viewed as a failure, but rather as a natural aspect of the complex journey toward sobriety and well-being.

It’s essential to recognize that recovery is never a linear progression. Understanding the nature of relapse and how to navigate through it is critical for those on the path to recovery, as well as their loved ones. Rather than being discouraged by setbacks, individuals should view relapse as an opportunity for reflection, self-discovery, and renewed commitment to their recovery goals.[1]

In today’s article, Clear Behavioral Health will explore what relapse is, why it happens, and most importantly, how to deal with it effectively.

How is Relapse Defined?

A relapse refers to a return or worsening of symptoms in a person who has previously experienced improvement or recovery from a medical condition, addiction, or mental illness. It often involves a recurrence of behaviors, thoughts, or physical manifestations associated with the condition after a period of improvement or stability.

In the context of addiction, a relapse typically involves resuming drug use after a period of abstinence or reduced use. In mental health, a relapse may involve a recurrence of symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or psychosis after a period of remission or improvement.[2]

Relapse can occur for various reasons, including stress, environmental triggers, lack of support, underlying biological factors, or inadequate coping mechanisms.

How is Substance Abuse Defined?

Substance abuse refers to the harmful or excessive use of psychoactive substances such as alcohol, illicit drugs, or prescription medications. It involves the consumption of these substances in a manner that leads to negative consequences for the individual’s physical health, mental well-being, social relationships, or overall functioning.[3]

Substance abuse can take various forms, including:

  • Alcohol abuse: Excessive consumption of alcohol, leading to impaired judgment, physical health problems, and social or legal issues.
  • Drug abuse: The misuse of illicit drugs such as cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, or marijuana, as well as the inappropriate use of prescription medications like opioids, benzodiazepines, or stimulants.
  • Polydrug abuse: The simultaneous use or abuse of multiple substances, which can increase the risk of adverse effects and complications.

Substance abuse can have significant consequences, including developing a substance use disorder or addiction (substance dependence), physical health problems (such as liver disease, cardiovascular issues, or overdose), mental health conditions (such as depression or anxiety), social problems (such as strained relationships or legal issues), and impaired functioning in various areas of life (such as work, school, or daily activities).[4]

Why Does a Relapse Happen?

Relapse in addiction can happen for a variety of reasons, often with a complex interplay of factors. Some common reasons why relapse may occur include:

Triggers and Cravings

Certain people, places, emotions, or situations can trigger intense cravings for the substance. These triggers may include stress, being in environments associated with past substance use, encountering people from one’s past who are still using, or experiencing negative emotions.

Psychological Factors

Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, trauma, or unresolved psychological issues can contribute to relapse. Individuals may use substances as a way to cope with these underlying issues, and when faced with distressing emotions, they may turn back to substance use.

Social Pressures

Peer pressure or social influences can play a significant role in relapse. Being around friends or family members who still use substances or being in social settings where substance use is prevalent can make it difficult to maintain sobriety.

A Lack of Coping Skills

Many individuals who struggle with addiction may not have developed healthy coping mechanisms to deal with stress, cravings, or difficult emotions. Without these skills, they may feel overwhelmed and turn to substance use as a way to cope.

Physical Dependence

Physical dependence on a substance can lead to withdrawal symptoms when the substance is not used, which can be uncomfortable or even dangerous. Fear of withdrawal symptoms can lead individuals to relapse to alleviate these symptoms.

Overconfidence or Complacency

Sometimes, individuals in recovery may become overconfident in their ability to stay sober, leading them to let their guard down and engage in risky behaviors that increase the likelihood of relapse.

Unrealistic Expectations

Unrealistic expectations about recovery or a lack of understanding about the chronic nature of addiction can set individuals up for disappointment if they experience setbacks or cravings, increasing the risk of relapse.


Major life stressors or transitions, such as job loss, relationship problems, financial difficulties, or significant life changes, can increase vulnerability to relapse.

Biological Factors

Genetic predisposition, neurochemical imbalances, or alterations in brain function due to chronic substance use can make some individuals more susceptible to relapse.

It’s also important to recognize that relapse is not a sign of failure but rather a common part of the recovery process for many individuals with addiction. Learning from relapse experiences and identifying triggers and coping strategies can help individuals strengthen their recovery efforts and reduce the risk of future relapses.[5]

How Common is Relapsing for Addiction?

Relapse can be a common phenomenon in addiction recovery. While exact relapse rates can vary depending on factors such as the substance of abuse, individual characteristics, and the type of treatment received, research indicates that relapse rates for addiction are generally high.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), relapse rates for addiction are similar to those of other chronic illnesses and diseases like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. They estimate that the relapse rates for addiction range from 40% to 60%, which is comparable to the relapse rates for these other chronic medical conditions.[6]

It’s important to understand that addiction is a complex and chronic condition characterized by periods of remission and relapse. Relapse does not indicate failure; rather, it highlights the need for ongoing support, treatment, and coping strategies to manage the condition effectively.

While relapse may be common, it’s also essential to recognize that many individuals achieve long-term recovery from addiction with the right support, treatment, and resources. Recovery is a journey, and relapse should be viewed as an opportunity for learning and growth rather than merely as a setback.

Are There Different Kinds of Relapse?

Yes, different kinds of relapse can occur in the context of addiction recovery. These may include:

  • Lapse: A lapse refers to a brief or isolated incident of substance use after a period of abstinence. It may involve using a small amount of the substance or using it once. Lapses are often seen as more minor setbacks and can sometimes serve as learning experiences for the individual.
  • Full Relapse: A full relapse involves a return to regular or sustained substance use after a period of abstinence or reduced use. It typically signifies a more significant setback in recovery and may require additional support or intervention to address.
  • Emotional Relapse: Emotional relapse occurs when an individual experiences emotional and psychological symptoms that increase the risk of substance use but has not yet engaged in substance use itself. Emotional relapse warning signs may include increased stress, irritability, mood swings, isolation, or neglecting self-care.
  • Mental Relapse: Mental relapse involves a conflict within the individual’s mind between the desire to use substances and the desire to maintain sobriety. During mental relapse, the person may experience cravings, thoughts of using, or fantasies about using substances. They may also begin to rationalize or justify their substance use.
  • Physical Relapse: Physical relapse refers to the actual act of using drugs or alcohol after a period of abstinence. It is the final stage in the relapse process and typically follows emotional and mental relapse. Once physical relapse occurs, the individual may return to regular substance use patterns.[7]

Understanding the different types of relapse can help individuals in recovery and their support networks recognize warning signs and intervene early to prevent or address relapse. Developing coping skills, practicing self-care, seeking support from peers or professionals, and engaging in relapse prevention strategies can all help reduce the risk of relapse and support long-term recovery.

What to do After a Relapse?

Dealing with a relapse can be challenging, but it’s essential to approach it with compassion, understanding, and a commitment to continuing your recovery journey:

Understand the Cause

Reflect on the factors that may have contributed to the relapse. Identify triggers, stressors, or situations that may have led to the return to substance use. Understanding the underlying causes can help you develop strategies to address them more effectively in the future.

Get Support

Reach out to your support network, including friends, family, peers in recovery, or a therapist. Share your experience openly and honestly, and don’t hesitate to ask for help. Talking about your relapse with others who understand can provide valuable support and perspective.

Consider a Return to Treatment

Consider returning to addiction treatment if necessary. This may involve re-engaging with your therapist, attending support group meetings, or participating in outpatient treatment programs or a residential treatment program. Continuing treatment can provide you with the guidance and accountability needed to navigate your recovery effectively.

Practice Self-Compassion

Be gentle with yourself and practice self-compassion as you navigate through the challenges of relapse. Recovery is a journey, and setbacks can be a natural part of the process. Avoid self-blame or negative self-talk, and instead, focus on learning from the experience and moving forward with renewed determination and commitment to your recovery goals.

Create (or Revise) Your Relapse Prevention Plan

Work with your therapist or treatment provider to develop a personalized relapse prevention plan. Relapse prevention programs should include planning strategies for identifying and managing triggers, learning coping strategies, building a strong support system, and seeking help when needed. Regularly review and update your relapse prevention plan to ensure it remains relevant and effective in supporting your recovery.

Focus on Your Wellness

Take care of your physical, emotional, and mental well-being during this time. Engage in activities that promote relaxation, stress relief, and self-care, such as exercise, meditation, hobbies, or spending time in nature. Work towards a healthy lifestyle and prioritize healthy habits such as eating nutritious foods, getting enough sleep, and avoiding substances that can interfere with your recovery.

Get Help With Your Recovery Journey at Clear Behavioral Health

Navigating a relapse in your recovery journey can present significant challenges. By comprehending the triggers and factors behind the relapse, reaching out for support, and prioritizing compassion and self-care, you can effectively address this setback and maintain momentum toward sustained sobriety and overall wellness.

At Clear Behavioral Health, we understand the complexities of addiction recovery and offer comprehensive support and resources to individuals facing relapse. Our team of experienced professionals provides personalized treatment plans, evidence-based therapies, and ongoing support to help you navigate through challenges and rebuild a fulfilling life in recovery. Whether you need medical detox and residential treatment, dual diagnosis outpatient treatment, or other services, we’re here to support you every step of the way on your journey toward lasting sobriety and well-being.


  1. Guenzel, N., & McChargue, D. (2019, December 8). Addiction Relapse Prevention.; StatPearls Publishing. on March 12, 2024
  2. Alcohol and Drug Foundation. (2021, October 21). Relapse – Alcohol and Drug Foundation. on March 12, 2024
  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2019). Substance Abuse / Chemical Dependency. John Hopkins Medicine. on March 12, 2024
  4. American Psychological Association. (2021). Substance use, abuse, and addiction. on March 12, 2024
  5. Alcohol and Drug Foundation. (2021, October 21). Relapse – Alcohol and Drug Foundation. on March 12, 2024
  6. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July 10). Treatment and Recovery. National Institute on Drug Abuse. on March 12, 2024
  7. Melemis, S. M. (2015). Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 88(3), 325–332. on March 12, 2024

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