The Psychology of a Relapse

two glasses of alcohol on coffee table

In the wake of long-term drug use, relapse is a looming and probable obstacle; if you or someone you know has experienced getting sober, you know that it is often said to be a part of the recovery process. Explanations for why it occurs are sometimes offered, usually as vague as simply saying it is the ‘nature of the disease,’ but one does wonder if there is any science behind it. As it is such a complex disease, some theories have been proposed but no solid evidence pointing either way. A few of the educated guesses, however, are worth considering. Relapse is sometimes cast as an indicator that treatment was not effective or that someone’s recovery has failed. This is not the case. Relapse is obviously something to be avoided, and relapse prevention is a key component of sustained recovery.

However, a relapse episode does not mean that one’s recovery, and the valuable lessons learned, were all for naught. Recovery is an ongoing process, and there will be bumps in the road. It does not equal failure and can even pave the way for a stronger comeback. There are quite a few reasons as to why a person relapses. There might be no specific reason at all – it could just be a craving that they weren’t able to stave off. The best thing we can do is to be aware of the factors against us, and prepare ourselves for what to do in case they crop up. We learn from those who have walked before us, and when we understand these factors we have a better chance of avoiding relapse or learning what to do should it occur.  

Why Does Relapse Happen?

One of the possible reasons a person relapses could be a need to change strategy. When in active addiction, many lack structure, routine, and consistency in their daily lives, so when they first get sober they do their best to stick to a schedule. While this is an excellent way to begin, it can begin to feel mundane when a recovering person is vulnerable. Some ways to avoid this include:

  • Switching up your schedule with new meetings
  • Trying different meditation techniques and yoga practices
  • Making some new connections in the fellowship

These are all ways you can keep your routine from feeling stagnant, and can allow you to keep growing in your recovery. Another reason for relapse could be that the person is starting to feel too comfortable. They may be getting things back in their life they have lost—for example, if they are in structured sober living, they may gain phone privileges or overnights. Having things come back may take the urgency out of the equation, and they might have less discipline. This could mean fewer meetings, neglecting step work, not speaking with their sponsors as often, and so on. The person might feel they don’t need the vigor they brought to their recovery at the onset. If you can recognize these privileges drumming up fear or thoughts of using, let your sponsor know that you might need a little extra support. Physical, psychological, and environmental factors may also contribute to relapse. If a person returns home right after treatment, they might lose the momentum gleaned from treatment, and not have the support they need so early on. If there is drug use or criminal activity in the place of living, that can impact the risk of relapse, as well. Life happens without our permission, and it’s one of the realities of being present and sober that must be accepted. Disruptive or disturbing events can happen without notice, such as encountering a loss or anything that causes stress, and if the person does not have the right resources or coping mechanisms, they might reach for a substance. The best way to avoid this is to cushion yourself with support. Speak to your sponsor every day, and attend meetings as often as you can until you begin to feel stronger. If you are more drawn to yoga and meditation, incorporate more of those practices into your daily regimen.  

Physical Dependence

Perhaps the most glaring and obvious reason for relapse is because we were physically addicted to the substance. Many drugs can cause what is known as post-acute withdrawal symptoms, known as PAWS, where cravings and several physical and emotional symptoms associated with drug use can continue well past treatment. As we know, drugs can change the brain’s pathways, with lasting effects on mood, cravings, and behavior that may push the user towards a greater likelihood of relapse. The presence of mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression, greatly increases one’s likelihood of relapse. Certain personality traits, such as high levels of neuroticism or low levels of conscientiousness, are also associated with higher relapse rates. If you or your loved one is showing signs of a co-occurring disorder or personality trait that is not being treated, it is best to have a professional evaluation as soon as possible.  

Relapse Prevention and Management

When people talk about recovery from substance abuse, fear is often brought up. It is often the root of why a person begins using in the first place. For those who have gotten sober and are in early recovery, this fear is often connected to relapsing. As a person progresses in their recovery and is fully immersed in their new sober life, they will have things in place to help prevent falling backward and picking up. The best way to arm yourself against relapse is to have a strategy in place that works for you, and a network of support to call upon. Any recovery program for substance abuse should focus on teaching relapse prevention strategies, often in the form of cognitive-behavioral therapy or healthy practices to replace addiction, such as regular exercise or meditation. Developing a plan to avoid or respond healthily to high-stress situations with specific urge control techniques can be crucial.

Our caring and professional team of specialists can help you or your loved one learn what to do to avoid relapse, how to find post-recovery care to minimize risk, and what to do should relapse occur. With therapy, life skills training, a supportive community, and a beautiful and healthy environment, our drug and alcohol abuse programs will help you beat addiction and achieve a better life of sustained recovery. If you or a loved one is considering getting help for your addiction, give our admission specialists a call at 318.855.8773.  

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