Recovery from addiction isn’t a straightforward path for most people. There are many obstacles along the way, and many people experience more than one relapse during the recovery process. It’s a common belief that relapse is situational and happens quickly in an uncontrollable way. However, there are 3 stages of relapse:
• Emotional relapse
• Mental relapse
• Physical relapse
If you can recognize these relapse warning signs during recovery, it’s possible that you prevent it before it happens. During your recovery, you have likely learned various coping strategies and skills through therapy. Recognizing harmful thoughts and behavior patterns is key to avoiding relapse in recovery.
What Is Relapse?
After going through addiction therapy, many people in recovery have a strong fear that they will eventually encounter relapse. However, it’s important to know that relapse is common in recovery, and it’s also common to relapse several times before reaching long-term recovery. It doesn’t have to return you to full-fledged addiction. Relapse is essentially the act of returning to drugs or alcohol after a period of abstinence. It can start in a subtle way and then get worse. That’s where the 3 stages of relapse come in.
The first stage is called emotional relapse. Those suffering from addiction aren’t thinking about returning to their chosen substance during this first stage. Instead, they begin thinking about the first time that they relapsed during recovery and how much they’re afraid of doing it again. The problem is that their feelings and behaviors are inching them closer to another relapse. Denial is a big part of the emotional relapse stage. Some other symptoms of the emotional relapse stage are as follows:
• Withdrawing and isolating
• Attending therapy sessions or meetings but not engaging
• Suppressing your emotions
• Problems sleeping or eating
• Thinking about other people’s problems
• Mood swings
• Irritability and defensiveness
• Poor self-care
Poor self-care often directly leads to the stage of emotional relapse. This includes physical and psychological self-care. Keep in mind the four attributes of HALT:
Neglecting physical self-care such as eating properly and getting enough sleep will soon lead you to feel hungry and tired. Neglecting mental self-care such as not allowing yourself to have fun or interacting with other people will soon leave you feeling angry and lonely. These negative physical and mental feelings set the stage for an emotional relapse. Ask yourself the following questions to see if you’re in the emotional stage of relapse:
• Are you taking time for yourself?
• Are you using coping skills you learned in therapy?
• Are you participating in recovery meetings?
• Are you managing your daily stress well?
You can also compare your current behaviors now vs. when you were in active addiction. If you recognize some similar behaviors and thoughts, it could be a warning sign of an upcoming relapse.
When someone in addiction recovery stays in the first stage of relapse for an extended period of time, it’s likely to lead to the second stage of mental relapse. They begin feeling uncomfortable and unpleasant about themselves, which then leads to feelings of discontent, restlessness and irritability. These negative emotions start to build tension in their mind until the person starts looking for an escape. That escape might quickly present itself as substance abuse. Mental relapse is a sort of psychological war where one side is trying hard not to succumb to relapse, but the other side wants to escape the negative emotions by indulging in drugs or alcohol.
Significant signs of mental relapse during addiction recovery include the following:
• Thinking nostalgically about addiction and using drugs or alcohol
• Downplaying the consequences of using
• Romanticizing your past use or your former lifestyle of addiction
• Craving alcohol or drugs
• Lying or bargaining with yourself about using
• Thinking about ways you can use in a controlled capacity
• Looking for opportunities to relapse
• Planning to relapse
The mental relapse stage is characterized by bargaining and making excuses. You might start thinking and planning out ways that you can use again, but this time you’ll be able to control it. You might also think about substituting a different substance and justify to yourself why this is ok. For example, if you were previously a drug user, you might justify drinking alcohol to celebrate the holidays or another special occasion. This type of justifying and bargaining is typical of the mental relapse stage.
The main way to recognize mental relapse is by realizing that your persisting thoughts and memories of using are not going away. The more you entertain them, the more likely you are to reach the final stage of addiction relapse. That’s why it’s important to develop strategies through therapy to cope in recovery, and also to have an exit strategy when you begin to recognize relapse signs.
The final relapse stage is physical relapse. This is where you begin using alcohol or drugs again. Sometimes a physical relapse might just be a slip-up where you have that first drink or period of using a previously-used substance. However, that slip-up can easily turn into uncontrollable use again. This is mainly because the addicted person in recovery obsesses over how much they used during the slip-up. Instead of recognizing the consequences, they attempt to justify only using a small amount. As obsessive thoughts take control, the cycle of use restarts. Physical relapse can also happen when the addicted person finds a window of opportunity where they think they might be able to get away with using without getting addicted again.
Relapse Prevention In Recovery
In order to avoid getting to physical relapse, it’s crucial to get out of the first few stages without giving in to the need for alcohol or drugs. Here are four techniques you can use to cope with the first two stages:
1. Talk to someone you trust. This could be a support group member, trusted friend, therapy professional or family member.
2. Wait for 30 minutes when you start having thoughts about using. Keep busy or distract yourself for that time period until it goes away.
3. Use relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness exercises and meditation.
4. Live in the present and take it one day at a time. Don’t spend too much time obsessing over whether you can obtain a lasting recovery. Focus on yourself and becoming more productive.
Regularly attending therapy sessions can also help prevent relapse.
Doctor Howard Samuels is a skilled addiction Therapist in Los Angeles who can help you develop coping strategies and skills through therapy to avoid relapse. Being more aware of the stages of relapse and how to get out of them can help you reduce relapse opportunities and bring you into a lasting recovery. Contact Doctor Samuels today to find out more.