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The Anatomy of A Relapse: Signs, Stages, and Prevention

By Linda Whiteside

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Table of Contents

The anatomy of a relapse

In the world of recovery, relapse is the proverbial elephant in the room. It is a topic that recovering addicts tread carefully in thought and speaking out loud. While it is unpleasant to bring up, relapse is seen as a normal part of the recovery process. It is estimated between 50 to 90 percent of those in recovery will relapse at least once within the first four years of sobriety. That figure is enough to plant seeds of uncertainty and doubt.

While many people feel a relapse is a singular event, it actually is comprised of stages. Recovering addicts will often experience signs of relapse way before they fall back into using their substance of choice. The following article documents the three stages of relapse. Knowing these stages and the signs within the stages will make you better aware of your own feelings prior to a potential relapse. When you know what to expect, you can be proactive in dealing with issues before an actual relapse.

Anatomy of a Relapse: The Stages of Relapse

Stage 1: Emotional Relapse

The first stage of relapse is what is known as emotional relapse. In this initial phase, you may not have entertained any concrete thoughts of using—but the emotional signs may be present. You may be feeling an increase in anxiety, anger, and isolation. You may also be prone to more frequent mood swings. Additionally, you may also see significant disruptions in your eating and sleeping patterns.

You may also be feeling a considerable amount of resentment during the emotional relapse phase. You may be feeling self-pity or a sense of being deprived of the things you want, desire, or feel like you deserve. As a result, you may think the following thoughts:

“I deserve to have _________”

“Maybe this one time I can have/use__________”

If you are experiencing these feelings, you need to address them right away before they become overwhelming. Fixating or ruminating on these ideas will only make the situation and finding a distraction or someone in your support system you can communicate these feels to who can help you through it can help avoid relapse.

Stage 2: Mental Relapse

If you do not keep your emotions in check, your emotional relapse will morph into a mental relapse. Mental relapse is very dangerous because your mind is going to war. When you experience mental relapse, you experience romanticized thoughts of using drugs and/or alcohol. While you know the consequences of relapse, the thoughts of the good times you had while using substances are powerful and increasingly difficult to manage.

If you are in this mental stage of relapse, it is crucial that you take action. You should be attending a meeting right away. You should be calling your sponsor, a peer in recovery, a family member or other trusted person within your support network. You also should distract yourself by exercising, engaging in a hobby you enjoy, or practicing meditation to try and calm your mind.

Stage 3: Physical Relapse

The final stage of relapse is the actual moment you use drugs and/or alcohol. If you have allowed your mind to romanticize substance use and have done nothing to address those thoughts, you have set yourself up to use. When you succumb to using drugs and/or alcohol, you may feel a sense of relief followed by a tremendous feeling of guilt and shame.

Recovering from Relapse: Prevention Strategies

Relapse can make you feel like a failure. While it is normal to experience significant guilt or shame, it is important not to dwell on those feelings for too long. It’s important to realize that relapse can be a part of the recovery process. 

It’s best to get back on track as soon as possible to help mitigate the situation before it gets any worse. Communicate with your support network right away and get to a meeting. It is important to understand where you went wrong and adjust your individual treatment plan to strengthen those weak areas.

If you are in recovery and are concerned about relapse, call NuView Treatment Center toll-free today. Our outpatient and sober living programs are specifically designed to address triggers, cravings and relapse behavior. Our dedicated team of addiction professionals will work with you to give you the additional support you need to meet relapse behavior head-on.

Call us today.

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Author

Written By: Linda Whiteside
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Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson
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Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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