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Demystifying Series: Understanding Relapse as a Part of Recovery

Those who have escaped personal experience with active addiction may associate the word relapse with weakness, failure or giving up. This could not be further from the truth.

Many also mistakenly believe that once an individual has completed treatment, the journey ends there. While a universally hopeful scenario, the truth is, the road to recovery begins there. Recovery is anything but easy and fast. Sobriety involves an intense mental, physical, and spiritual journey that one undergoes for the remainder of life. It’s about making substantial changes that replace old ways of thinking. It’s about developing new skills, and an alternative way of approaching life. There will be good days and bad, successes and failures, temptations and triumphs. There is no clear set path, the journey is different for everyone, and relapse is not only part of the process, but likely to happen to most.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, relapse rates for people in active addiction are similar to relapse rates for other chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma, which also involve a physiological and behavioral component to recovery. Treatment of chronic diseases involves changing deeply engrained behaviors, and relapse does not mean treatment has failed. It’s usually a sign that someone needs to adjust their treatment so it works better for them.

For someone with an active alcohol addiction, relapse can mean just one sip of alcohol before the individual is able to get right back on the path of recovery. It can also mean an individual has one slip and returns to active addiction for some time.

Experiencing a relapse can be a frustrating and disappointing experience, especially for the individual who finds themselves in active addiction once again. Feelings of hopelessness and shame quickly return. It’s easy to imagine that the situation is out of their hands. This is simply not true. The sooner the individual can get back on the path to treatment, the better, as the longer the individual continues to relapse, the more difficult it becomes to return to recovery.

Relapses, while discouraging, can also be viewed as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and what triggers your addiction. To prevent relapse from occurring, try to identify the triggers that may cause a relapse such as stress, anger, hunger, loneliness or tiredness. Relapse often occurs when the brain tricks the individual into believing just one won’t hurt them. This type of distorted thinking can be powerful and difficult to overcome. Being able to identify when these thoughts prevail and how to defuse them can help individuals maintain sobriety.

Throughout recovery there are several things that can be done to decrease the chance of relapse.

  1. Know your triggers and always have a plan to address them without substance use.
  2. Develop and do not hesitate to make use of a sober support system of friends, family, or others in long-term recovery.
  3. Continue to participate in recovery after initial treatment ends. Do whatever it takes to make it to meetings, therapy or support groups. Not only do these treatment options help keep recovery at top of mind, but they also help us to continue to learn and grow on our recovery journey.

While relapse is common, it’s important to also remember that it is possible to maintain sobriety. There is much hope for those able to maintain sobriety for long periods of time. An eight-year study of 1,200 individuals who had suffered an active addiction disorder, found that extended sobriety directly correlates with long-term abstinence. Findings showed that one-third of individuals who are abstinent less than a year remained abstinent. For those who achieved a year of sobriety, less than half relapsed; and those individuals who made it to five years of sobriety, had less than a fifteen percent chance of relapse.

When it comes to relapses, remember that recovery is a journey. The more support and treatment options an individual has along the way, the less likely a relapse will be. When things aren’t going the way you want, it’s time to make a change. Take the time to reevaluate your situation and make adjustments so that you can get back on the right track.

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