What Is Relapse?

what is relapse

The simplest definition of a relapse is the sudden worsening of a medical condition that had previously improved. Some diseases, like malaria, have long periods of abstinence followed by a relapse when the symptoms reappear.

For people in recovery, a relapse means the sudden return to drinking or drug use after a long period of not partaking. Although relapse may be heartbreaking for the person in recovery and their family and friends, many recovered alcoholics and drug-users relapse, and it is not necessarily a sign of failure. You can get back on the path of sobriety.

For those who are working on their sobriety, and the community of friends and family supporting them, they should understand that relapse is a natural, formative step on the way to a drug and alcohol-free life.

Relapse can be used as a teaching tool, helping the recovered addict learn their triggers and signs. It also affects almost 50% of those in recovery. Relapsing is common and does not have to derail anyone’s sober lifestyle permanently.

Stages of Change

The stages for overcoming addiction is also known as the transtheoretical model. In this model, there are several stages of overcoming addiction, including pre-contemplation, contemplation, determination, action, relapse, and maintenance. According to this model, relapse is a natural part of the road to recovery.

A final stage – termination – involves complete cessation of harmful addictive behaviors with no chance of relapse. Since very few people in recovery feel the addictive substance will never again tempt them, most remain indefinitely in the maintenance stage.

Some cycle through these stages many times before reaching a place where they feel comfortable with maintaining their sobriety. Relapse should be considered one challenge along the way to recovery. When relapse is managed as one of the several stages of healing, the user can better see and understand the process of recovery as a whole.

Types of Relapse

relapse and shameThere are two recognized types of relapse in the recovery community: A slip and a full relapse.

A slip is a small bungle in the long journey of recovery. A sip of wine at a party or a toke on a joint when it’s passed along are good examples of this small infraction. These minor moments may seem like they’re no big deal, but in reality, a little slip can cause the recovering addict to experience stronger cravings.

A full relapse is when the recovering addict goes back to a wholly addictive pattern of behavior. This may mean one heavy night of drinking or drug use, or a full-on binge.

The significant difference between a slip and a full relapse is agency. When a person in recovery slips, they usually do so in a reactive manner. An example of this is when a glass of wine gets put in your hand for a toast, and you take a drink. It’s almost automatic to take the drink along with everyone else at the celebration, but you did not ask for the wine.

A full relapse, on the other hand, usually means that the recovering addict actively seeks out the substance they’re craving. This involves going out to bars or making a call to an old contact who can hook you up with pills or heroin.

The most important aspect of a relapse is returning to treatment and a life of abstinence. Without this step, a relapse becomes a return to the addictive behaviors that were so harmful in the past.

Stages of a Relapse

Most relapses occur spontaneously and without a lot of thought. Despite the impulsive nature of a relapse, there are still three definable stages. Here’s a more in-depth definition of each step.

Emotional Relapse

An emotional relapse occurs when a person in recovery begins to experience some of the emotions they felt while actively using. They might not have relapsed yet, but they are moving in the direction of one. Some signs of emotional relapse are mood swings, avoidance of loved ones, and irritability.

Mental Relapse

This stage could also be known as the bargaining or internal conflict stage. During this period, the recovering addict may be internally justifying a return to past, harmful behaviors.

Physical Relapse

This stage is when the person returns to drug or alcohol use. It may last for a day, a week, or many months. It may indicate that the addict needs to return to treatment, counseling, and meetings.

Triggers of a Relapse

There are plenty of triggers that might set off a relapse for a person who is in recovery. The presence of a trigger does not guarantee that the person is going to fall off the wagon. With solid coping skills, transparent evaluations, and a supportive community, a recovering addict can recognize a trigger for what it is and move on.

Some triggers include boredom, a failed romantic relationship, interactions with people who drink or use drugs, stressful situations or environments, or the presence of the addictive substance, like at a party or a bar.

Triggers do not have to be significant. They can be as simple as running into someone the person used to party with or watching a movie or show that depicts alcohol or drug abuse.

Almost half of those who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction experience a relapse. It is essential to understand that a relapse does not mean failure; it is another stopping point along the road to recovery.

Signs of a Relapse

relapse and struggle

For those in recovery or those who support someone who is, there are signs that indicate the addict is heading for a relapse.

Some of these include cravings, irritability or mood swings, secretive behaviors, avoidance of friends and family, or destructive thoughts.

A recovering addict may find themselves fantasizing about drug or alcohol use, seeking out the company of users, missing therapy, isolating themselves, and experiencing an uptick in anxiety, anger, or depressive symptoms. To avoid the setback of a relapse, a recovering addict can learn to cope with some of these signs.

If the recovering addict has returned to treatment, it is useful for them to see the relapse as a learning situation. If they’re able to work backward from the event and discover what their signs and triggers are, they can more readily identify them in the future.

Dangers of Relapse

The most horrific outcome of a relapse is death by overdose. Often, an addict in recovery who relapses will use the same amount of alcohol or drugs as they did before becoming sober. Since the body is not used to the substance anymore or has lowered tolerance, this can have dire consequences.

Some signs that a person may be overdosing are dilated pupils, elevated or lowered breathing or heart rate, chest pain, nausea, and a blue tinge in fingernails, among other physical symptoms. A person who is overdosing can also exhibit violent or confused behavior, seizures, or convulsions.

If you are overdosing or in the presence of someone who is, seek medical help immediately. If the person is conscious while you are waiting for help, gather as much information as possible – what substance they took, how long ago they took it, and how much of it.

Positive Response to a Relapse

Relapses can be very frustrating both for the person who is actively in recovery and for their support system.

If you have a loved one in recovery who has experienced a relapse, there are ways in which you can act to support them through it. As best as you can, put aside your aggravation at what some may see as a setback, and concentrate on the person’s recovery. Here are some other helpful ways to support someone who us dealing with a relapse:

  • Connect with them regularly. Try and contact them weekly and, if at all possible, face-to-face.
  • Speak up, even if you don’t want to. Address the particular signs or triggers you observe, not the underlying fear of a relapse.
  • Don’t nag. Being present and supportive helps them much more than someone continually reminding them of their setback.
  • Provide encouragement. Don’t exhibit too much anxiety, anger, or disappointment, as these emotions can quickly transfer to the relapsing person.
  • Present different options. If the person has been skipping treatment or therapy, consider different treatment options or a change to their existing program.
  • Attend family or group therapy. Family and group therapy is a safe place for everyone to work out their feelings. It is a place that you can constructively voice your concerns. However, the focus needs to remain on the person’s recovery above all else.

If you need additional support to air your concerns and fears, consider attending a group for families and loved ones affected by addiction, or seeking out personal counseling.

Final Thoughts

A relapse is a stressful, frustrating experience for the person in recovery and those providing support. There’s no guarantee of how long a relapse lasts or if the person will choose the road to recovery again.

It is crucial to keep in mind that a relapse is natural in recovery, and can even be a teaching tool, helping to recognize triggers and signs that might emerge in the future. If you or a loved one need help dealing with addictive behaviors, get the treatment you need at Right Path Addiction Centers.

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