The Role of Relapse in Addiction

In addiction treatment and recovery, relapse refers to the use of substances after a period of improvement or abstinence. It’s a return to patterns of substance abuse or addictive behaviors.

You’ll sometimes hear addiction referred to as a relapsing disease because of factors including:

  • The chronic nature of addiction. Addiction causes changes in the brain’s function and structure. The changes can persist even after you aren’t using drugs or alcohol anymore. The changes to the brain make people vulnerable to relapse.
  • Behavioral and psychological patterns are often linked with addiction. Patterns can be challenging to break, even after undergoing treatment.
  • External triggers like stress, substance exposure and social pressure can cause intense cravings in someone with addiction.
  • If you have co-occurring mental health disorders, they can complicate your recovery process and make relapse more likely. In dual-diagnosis addiction treatment, your mental health is considered as well.
  • Environmental factors, including substance access and lifestyle choices, could influence a relapse.

While addiction is considered a relapsing disease because of the complex relationship between biological, environmental and psychological factors, it’s certainly not inevitable. With proper relapse prevention therapy during treatment, you can become more aware of all the things that could lead to relapse. Then, you can develop strategies to help you if they occur.

What Happens During a Relapse?

Processes that are psychological, emotional and behavioral unfold during a relapse. There may be three stages rather than one defined event in a relapse.

These stages are emotional, mental, and physical.

  • During the emotional relapse stage, you might start feeling things that set the stage for a return to substance use. You might not, at this point, be consciously thinking about using substances. Signs of emotional relapse can include high levels of stress or anxiety, mood swings, isolation or poor self-care.
  • Mental relapse is the next stage of relapse, where you’re feeling a cognitive desire to use substances, but with that is the struggle to stay abstinent. Your thoughts may conflict with one another, but you could also start to rationalize the reasons why you’d engage in substance use. Signs of mental relapse include thinking about the “good times” associated with using substances, bargaining with yourself about use, and minimizing the negative consequences.
  • During a physical relapse, you return to substance use. You’re acting on the thoughts and cravings present during your mental relapse.

The objective of relapse prevention therapy is to help you see these red flags in yourself as early on as possible and be mindful of them so you can proactively take steps to avoid a physical relapse.

What Is Relapse Prevention Therapy?

Relapse prevention therapy takes a structured therapeutic approach to help you identify, understand and manage the factors contributing to relapse in addiction recovery. It aims to equip you with skills, strategies and resources that prevent the recurrence of substance use so you can maintain long-term abstinence.

Key elements considered to create a relapse prevention plan for substance use disorders include:

  • Education: The beginning stages of relapse prevention therapy include education about the nature of addiction as well as the process of relapse and the factors triggering relapse. Understanding addiction’s impact on the brain and common warning signs and patterns lays the foundation for creating effective prevention strategies.
  • Identification of triggers and warnings: During relapse prevention therapy, you learn to identify personal triggers and warning signs that can occur before a relapse. Triggers can be external, like negative emotions or stress, or internal, like social situations or environmental cues.
  • Development of healthy coping skills: During relapse prevention therapy, you learn a range of coping strategies to manage stress, cravings and triggers without substances. Individualized coping skills include mindfulness meditation, problem-solving skills, emotional regulation strategies and relaxation techniques.
  • Lifestyle changes: A healthy, balanced lifestyle is integral to relapse prevention. During your therapy, you could start adopting holistic, healthier habits. This might mean addressing your diet, exercise and sleep habits to correct nutritional deficiencies or disturbances.
  • Social support system: A network of supportive people is essential in relapse prevention. In relapse prevention therapy, you’re encouraged to engage with supportive friends, family members, peers, and community resources like counseling or support groups.

Relapse prevention therapy helps empower you to participate actively in your recovery. You’re equipped with knowledge, support and skills to navigate and overcome challenges.

Relapse Prevention Plans

You’ll work on a relapse prevention plan in therapy. It’s a personalized strategy to anticipate, manage and mitigate relapse risk. Your relapse prevention plan will outline concrete steps, resources and coping strategies you’ll rely on to navigate difficult situations, cravings and triggers in your recovery.

It may include an emergency plan and some of the things listed above. You’ll develop a plan of action to follow if you’re in a crisis or relapse feels imminent.

A relapse prevention plan should be regularly monitored and reviewed, with adjustments made as needed. The goal is to help you stay self-aware and reflective to be proactive and responsive to shifting circumstances.

Relapse prevention plans help you identify patterns in yourself, be more confident in your ability to maintain sobriety, and equip yourself with a wide range of coping strategies and resources.

At Invigorate Behavioral Health, we help personalize every person’s relapse prevention therapy and plan so that they feel confident in their ability to navigate what’s next once they complete their treatment. Reach out for more about our addiction treatment program, pairing a nurturing, therapeutic environment with evidence-based therapies.

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