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What Are Some Common Warning Signs of Drug or Alcohol Relapse?

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common warning signs of relapse

Relapse is a common occurrence in the process of recovering from drug addiction or alcohol abuse. Some behavioral health experts estimate that over 90% of people in recovery experience at least one full-blown relapse before achieving long-term sobriety.

It’s important to remember that there is no cure for a substance or alcohol use disorder. Relapsing doesn’t mean that you are a failure or that you’ll never achieve lasting recovery.

Going through a recovery treatment program is only the beginning of the journey, not the end. Staying clean requires vigilance to your self-care plan and a committed, consistent, honest examination of your behavior. 

Having a solid relapse prevention plan and awareness of the most common relapse warning signs can help you prevent a relapse before it happens. However, considering how common relapses are, it’s equally important to have an “after relapse” plan. 

You may never need it, but knowing what relapse includes and what to do in case a relapse happens could help you get back into addiction recovery as soon as possible.

What Is a Drug or Alcohol Relapse?

Some think of a relapse as the moment when an addicted person picks up a drink or uses an illicit drug after a period of sobriety. But relapsing doesn’t happen in a single moment. It is a slow process with many warning signs along the way. 

Think of it as an automobile accident. The moment a driver loses control and crashes into a tree is what we refer to as the accident. Still, the distracted driver, icy road, and faulty brakes were all indications that something terrible may happen.

Comparing relapse to an accident waiting to happen may seem fatalistic, but preparing for addiction relapse can empower the individual in their recovery process. If you recognize the warning signs, you have the power to change the outcome.

3 stages of relapse

The stages of relapse are often broken down into three parts:

●  Emotional relapse

●  Mental relapse

●  Physical relapse

First, you begin to feel unhappy, angry, or emotional. Next, you start to think about what it would be like to drink or use drugs again. And finally, you give in to your urges.

8 Common Signs of Relapse

It is just as important for friends and family members of the addicted person to recognize the signs of relapse as it is for the addict themselves. If you see any of the warning signs in yourself or someone else, reach out to your recovery support group or therapist for guidance.

1. You Believe You Can Control Your Addiction

Almost everyone in recovery has the urge to test their personal control at some point, especially early in the process. Going through detox and one or more treatment programs is a huge accomplishment. 

After years of using drugs or alcohol, achieving sobriety can and should boost a person’s self-esteem and confidence levels. The downside is that boost can lead to unrealistic expectations about your ability to control your urges for drugs or alcohol.

The Journal of American Medicine (JAMA) estimates that the relapse rate within the first year of recovery is 40-60%. While there are many reasons for this, a false belief in your ability to drink or use “just a little bit” contributes.

2. You Have Difficulty Dealing with Emotions

The inability to cope with their emotions is what leads some people to drug and alcohol use, to begin with. Treatment programs offer several therapeutic options for learning how to handle one’s emotions, but some people do manage to complete treatment without an honest, diligent examination of their emotional dysfunction.

If you have not made an effort to participate in therapy fully—or even if you have but still struggle to manage your emotions—you are at higher risk for relapse.

3. You Start Remembering Drug or Alcohol Use as Something Fun

We all have a tendency to romanticize days gone by. But when an addict starts reminiscing about the good old days when they drank or used drugs, it is a relapse red flag. Drug use may have started as a “good time,” but eventually, it led to a life in chaos, poor health, and a pile of consequences.

Sugar-coating that reality is a method of self-deception. If you can convince yourself or others that your drug and alcohol use wasn’t that bad, you can pave the way to using substances again.

4. You Make an Effort to Connect with Friends from Your Days of Alcohol or Substance Abuse

It can start innocently enough, reaching out to old friends to see how they are doing. Maybe you want to show them that recovery is possible. However, spending time with people who are actively using does not support your recovery effort. 

The desire to hang out with the people you used drugs with or in the places where you used to drink is not a trip down memory lane. It is a warning sign of relapse.

5. You Are Not Managing Your Mental Health

Many people with alcohol or substance use disorder also have an additional mental health issue. Trying to self-medicate a mental health problem may have led to addiction in the first place. If you have been diagnosed with a co-occurring mental health disorder, it is vital to your overall wellness and sobriety that you follow medical advice on the management of your disorder.

Failure to take medications as directed, keep therapy appointments, or make the lifestyle changes needed to support good mental health puts you in a vulnerable position for drug or alcohol use. Neglecting your mental health may also be an unconscious way to sabotage your sobriety.

6. You Begin Pulling Away from Sober Support

An addict contemplating breaking their sobriety will often begin isolating themselves from friends, family members, recovery mentors, and support groups. They might also stop participating in all the healthy habits helping them stay clean, such as going to the gym or volunteer work.

If you find you are avoiding people or activities that support your sobriety, it’s time for an honest evaluation of your motives.

7. You Behave Like an Addict

Addicts lie, cheat, steal, shrug off their commitments, and refuse to take responsibility for their actions. People who are on their way to a drug relapse may do the same.  Being moody, envious, reactive, and irresponsible is sometimes referred to as being a “dry drunk.” That means the person is sober but is behaving the way they did when they were using.

Everyone is entitled to a bad day, but if poor behavior becomes a pattern, it could mean an alcohol or drug relapse is on the way unless you take steps to prevent it.

8. You Feel Deprived

Your old friends don’t call anymore. You’re the only sober person at the company party. You’re upset you can’t have a single glass of wine during a romantic dinner for two. Sometimes it feels life is no fun without drugs or alcohol to boost the mood.

Recovery does require a great deal of self-discipline. If you feel deprived and maybe a little bit sorry for yourself, you are more vulnerable to temptation. And you do have to give up some momentary pleasures for the long-term satisfaction of lasting sobriety.

Preventing Drug or Alcohol Relapse

A relapse plan helps lower your relapse rate and enables you to recover quickly if you suffer a relapse. A plan prepares you to recognize your own triggers and find ways to combat them. 

Creating an actual “hard copy” plan that you can access at any time is an effective tool. A relapse plan can be as simple or complex as you need. A basic plan includes three sections.

Identifying Your Triggers

Are there certain anniversaries, events, or places that make you feel like indulging in drugs or alcohol? Understanding your personal triggers will help you avoid them and prepare you to handle them if they can’t be avoided.

List Your Coping Skills

What will you do if you’re exhibiting relapse warning signs? Create a list of at least 12 things you can do instead of using drugs or alcohol. Healthy coping skills might include things such as:

●  Attend a 12-Step meeting

●  Go for a walk

●  Call a friend

●  Write in a journal

●  Enjoy a hobby

●  Meditate

Remember that cravings and thoughts are only temporary. Distracting yourself with healthy activities that enrich your life will help you move through difficult moments and lead to lasting recovery.

Identify Your Recovery Resources

If you do give in to temptation, what is the next step? Hopefully, you will contact a sponsor, recovery expert, therapist, or treatment program. It will be easier to do those things if you already have a list of names and contact information at the ready. Think of it as emergency preparedness.

Find Help for Drug and Alcohol Relapse at The Haven New England

If you or someone you love is showing relapse warning signs, turn to the compassionate recovery specialists at The Haven New England. Our addiction treatment programs include comprehensive after-care to help minimize the likelihood of relapse. Remember that addiction relapse is not the end of your recovery. It is a bump in a very long and joy-filled road that can become a life free of drugs and alcohol.

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