What Do You Do After a Relapse

A relapse can be a frustrating part of the treatment process. When you experience a relapse, you may feel like all your work toward your sobriety has been for nothing. But while a relapse can be a dangerous setback in your recovery, it doesn’t mean your recovery efforts have failed. Each day in recovery offers new insights into how to cope with a substance use disorder. Still, a relapse is a critical moment in recovery, and it can mean the difference between continuing on the path toward lasting sobriety or falling back into active addiction. But how can you bounce back after a relapse? 

What Is a Relapse?

Relapse is a term used in healthcare to refer to a return of uncomfortable symptoms. Relapse is often associated with drug and alcohol addiction, but you can also experience a relapse that involves other mental health issues and chronic medical conditions. In addiction treatment, a relapse is a return to drug or alcohol use and uncontrollable cravings. A relapse starts with a single lapse that causes something called an abstinence violation effect (AVE). Abstinence violation effect is when a single lapse causes you to fall back into regular drug use. You may feel like you can’t resist cravings or that sobriety is impossible for you.

What Is the Relapse Prevention Model?

The relapse prevention model is a product of the cognitive behavioral approach to addiction treatment. According to the model, relapse doesn’t start when you first start taking drugs again. Rather, relapse begins in your mind as you respond to a high-risk situation. A high-risk situation is any circumstance that causes stress or triggers that can lead to relapse. External triggers can cause these situations, such as driving past an old favorite bar. But they can also be caused by inborn factors like depression or anxiety. 

Your coping response to these situations can start a relapse or prevent one. Ineffective coping responses lead to a decrease in self-efficacy, which is your belief in your ability to maintain your sobriety or deal with challenges. As an example, a stressful workday can be a high-risk situation. After work, an ineffective coping response may be to think you’re too stressed to handle your week and that you need something to get you through. You may think you’ve earned a small lapse that won’t lead to a full relapse. However, once you lapse, you’re more likely to get through a full relapse. However, the relapse prevention model shows how addressing thoughts and feelings early in the process of a lapse can help prevent a return to drug use. 

How Common Is Relapse?

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Relapse is fairly common when it comes to substance use disorders. Addiction is a chronic condition that can take time and effort to overcome. For many people, relapse is a part of recovery. Chronic relapse can also occur, but even that doesn’t mean you can’t reach lasting sobriety. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), around 40% to 60% of people who achieve sobriety relapse at some point. However, this includes people who don’t go through the full continuum of care, people who complete detox, and people who detox while incarcerated with limited support. Still, that relapse rate is consistent with other chronic diseases, like hypertension and asthma, which both have a relapse rate of around 50% to 70%.

Substance use disorders (SUDs) are behavioral disorders that often have other co-occurring problems like mental health disorders. The behaviors associated with addiction are deeply rooted and difficult to overcome. While it’s difficult to effectively eliminate addiction from your life, substance use disorders are treatable. Recovery is a lifelong process, and you should continue to pursue recovery, even after formal addiction treatment has ended. You’re more likely to relapse when you grow complacent in recovery. However, it can happen without warning. If it does, you can still achieve long-lasting sobriety.

Is Relapse Dangerous?

Relapse can be dangerous in certain circumstances. During active addiction, your tolerance will grow, and you’ll need to take higher, more frequent doses to achieve the same results. When you stop taking the drug after entering a treatment program or for some other reason, you’ll go through withdrawal and then begin to lose your tolerance. People who spend a long time in active addiction get used to taking a specific dose. However, after a period of even brief sobriety, the dose you’re used to may now be too high. A relapse can often lead to dangerous and deadly overdoses.

How to Respond to a Relapse

A relapse can be a frustrating experience that causes your morale and self-efficacy to plummet. However, the way you respond to a relapse can make or break your continued recovery. Many people fall into the trap of feeling they are incapable of achieving long-term sobriety, but that is not necessarily true. Many people achieve long-term sobriety after going through several relapses. The best thing to do after a relapse is to seek help as soon as possible. Here are some other reactions to a relapse that may help you bounce back. 

Change How You View Relapse

Relapse is a setback that can be dangerous in some circumstances. But it doesn’t mean your efforts up to now have been worthless. You may feel like any treatment you’ve been through before a relapse failed, but relapse is not a mark of failure. Everything you learn in treatment can follow you through a relapse and into your next attempt at long-term sobriety. 

Think of addiction as a chronic disease. As a chronic disease, it makes sense that relapse will be part of the recovery process for some people. Like people with hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic diseases, it’s common to experience a return of symptoms. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on treatment or that treatment so far has failed. If your blood pressure rose again after you’ve been successfully managing it for a while, you would stop trying to maintain healthy blood pressure. Likewise, every moment free from active addiction is a moment when you are not in danger of overdose and other serious consequences. 

Get Immediate Support

A relapse is probably the moment that you least want to reach out for support, but it may be when you need it the most. If you’ve been through treatment and formed a network of support in your addiction recovery, you may dread letting your loved ones and support team that you’ve relapsed. However, a relapse is a critical moment when you need help assessing your current needs and avoiding a return to active addiction. 

While relapse doesn’t mean treatment has failed, it may mean you need to return to treatment. Some people return to high levels of care after a relapse that leads to chemical dependence or other medical needs. You may also need to return to high levels of care if you also have a relapse of severe mental health issues. Getting help immediately can also allow you to avoid feelings of isolation. You’re not going through recovery alone, even after a relapse. 

Reflect on Your Relapse 


While relapse can be frustrating and demoralizing, it can offer you some valuable insight into your recovery. During treatment, you will create a relapse prevention strategy, especially if you’re going through cognitive behavioral therapy. During this process, you’ll work to identify common triggers and stressors that lead to relapse. You may also work through some common thought patterns that lead to ineffective coping when it comes to relapse. After a relapse, think about the thoughts, triggers, and emotions that lead to your relapse. When you return to therapy, the insight you glean from your relapse may be instrumental in creating a better relapse prevention strategy. 

Accept Responsibility Without Shame

People with substance use disorders often experience guilt and shame, especially after a relapse. However, there is a significant difference between these two terms. Guilt can be useful in spurring you to accept responsibility for your role in developing an addiction. It can also encourage you to make positive changes in your life and strengthen your relationship with people around you. 

Shame is not useful; it is more likely to do harm than good. If guilt is the feeling that you messed up, shame is the feeling that you are messed up. In other words, guilt addresses actions while shame targets you as a person. Shame is more likely to break down your self-efficacy and resolve than it is to inspire positive change. 

After a relapse, shame can lead to the feeling that you are worthless and incapable of sobriety, which can lead to a cycle of active addiction and severe consequences. It’s important to accept responsibility after a relapse, but if you’re feeling shame, speak to your therapist or clinician about these feelings and how you can work through them.

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