13 May 2022

Why do people relapse?

Some of the most common triggers of relapse include:

  • Boredom
  • Stress
  • Money problems
  • Relationship issues
  • Certain sights and smells
  • Certain people or places
  • Falling into old habits
  • Anger
  • Not attending meetings or following the 12-step programme

In late stages of recovery:

1) Individuals often want to put their addiction behind them when they are adjusting to life after rehab and may want to forget that they ever had an addiction. They feel they have lost part of their life to addiction and don’t want to spend the rest of their life focused on recovery. They start to go to fewer meetings.

2) As life improves, individuals begin to focus less on self-care. They take on more responsibilities and try to make up for lost time. In a sense, they are trying to get back to their old life without the using. They stop doing the healthy things that contributed to their recovery.

3) Individuals feel they are not learning anything new at fellowship meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and begin to go less frequently. They need to understand that one of the benefits of going to meetings is to be reminded of what the “voice of addiction” sounds like, because it is easy to forget.

4) People feel that they should be beyond the basics. They think it is almost embarrassing to talk about the basics of recovery. They are embarrassed to mention that they still have occasional cravings or that they are no longer sure if they had an addiction.

5) People think that they have a better understanding of drugs and alcohol and, therefore, think they should be able to control a relapse or avoid the negative consequences. They may think that they are now able to drink or use drugs in a non-addict way but this isn't the case.

Recognise early warning signs / triggers of relapse

Triggers are identified as internal thoughts and external situations that cause those in recovery to crave. It’s important to work with a therapist to determine personal triggers to develop strategies to cope with the trigger that don’t include the addiction.

Internal triggers are a response to stressful situations. These may be more difficult for the individual to remove, as they’re emotional responses that trigger the desire to use.

Common internal triggers include fear, anxiety, guilt or shame. Often, the individual may have suffered deep trauma in the past which caused negative emotions to arise. Avoiding the pain of negative emotions is typically the reason that people begin drinking and using drugs. That's why many people have questioned if there is a link between trauma and addiction. Dealing with the pain in a healthy manner can make it easier for the client to choose other ways of working through emotional situations without using and that's where trauma therapy for addiction can help.

External triggers include places, people, activities or even objects that the client associated with using. Part of relapse prevention swaps out old routines with new ones, instead of simply removing the external triggers.

Emotional relapse

Withdrawal from an addiction whether that is drugs, alcohol or a certain behaviour has a physical effect on the brain and emotions, including feelings of anxiety and depression. As the brain heals, these feelings gradually go away. However, the strong negative emotions that lead clients to take part in their addictive behaviour can trigger a relapse at this stage.

Poor self-care during the emotional phase of relapse can quickly lead to mental relapse. During the emotional relapse stage, therapy can help the individual understand the triggers for negative emotions and help guide them to ways to deal with these emotions that don’t include using. Journaling, exercising and cognitive behavioural therapy are all good relapse prevention strategies.

Mental relapse

Mental relapse involves the individual’s battle with themselves. In this stage, the client begins casually thinking about using again. These thoughts become more intrusive and include believing that they can control the drinking or using.

During mental relapse, it’s critical to maintain self-care and therapy as well as journaling the results after a night of substance abuse, which the client can use to remind themselves why they quit in the first place. Cravings may intensify at this stage, and the client may reminisce fondly about people they once used with and places they used to go.

Physical relapse

Physical relapse is the act of picking up a drink or calling a dealer for drugs. There may be a lapse in which the individual has a brief slip-up or a full relapse in which the individual returns to their old patterns of using they may even require a detox to manage withdrawal.

Physical relapse prevention isn’t as simple as just saying no when the opportunity arises. It’s the culmination of the emotional and mental relapsing that put the client in a place where they are too overwhelmed to say no.

Physical relapse may also occur when the individual thinks they won’t get caught. It’s essential to have strategies in place and recognise when one is in a vulnerable situation in order to avoid physically using again.

How to prevent relapse:

Relapse doesn’t mean failure.

  • Create schedule - Plan your days out to help you keep on track
  • List triggers - Note down triggers to make yourself more aware of them and understand them better
  • Set goals - Set goals for the day or the week aiming towards something can help you stay on track
  • Come to terms with cravings - Recognise you will have cravings from time to time but acknowledge that it is normal
  • Cycle of support (fellowship) - Make sure you connect with supportive groups. This can help to reason and motivate you to continue on your journey
  • Therapy - If you aren't already engaged in therapy you may want to consider contacting an addiction specialist who offers 1-2-1 or group therapy
  • Recovery retreats - up to 12 week stays for those wanting sober living. If you would like to know more information on this please visit our Recovery retreats page or our blog post highlighting the difference between Rehab and a recovery retreat.

Get the help you need

Don't wait around, if you have any questions or concerns call our specialist addiction support team. They are available to help and support you in any way they can as well, we offer free assessments.

Don't feel ready to call yet? Drop us an email or text the Rehabs UK support team directly.