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How Common is Relapse After Rehab, and How Can It Be Avoided?

Drug Relapse and Recovery Sign

A slip, or even a full-blown relapse, is not uncommon on the road to addiction recovery. Addiction to drugs and alcohol, also known as substance use disorder, is a chronic disease with relapsing-remitting cycles. Those in active recovery are in a state of remission, with no symptoms of addiction. Relapse occurs when symptoms of addiction return.

Relapse is NOT an indication of failure. While relapse can and does happen, it by no means signals that all is lost. A relapse can reinforce coping skills and strengthen the resolve to find long-term recovery.

Although there may be feelings of shame after a relapse, and loved ones may be fearful or frustrated, it is important that all parties remain as calm as possible. Loved ones who continue to express their support can be crucial in helping the person seeking recovery get back on the proper path.

People seeking recovery need to be reassured that they are not the first to relapse and they won’t be the last—many have done so and gone onto long-term recovery. Loved ones can help by encouraging contact with a physician, therapist or sponsor, and to get to a 12-step or other support program meeting as soon as possible.

First steps to take

An article in Psychology Today cites studies that show most relapses happen within the first 90 days of abstinence, which is why attending a rehab program lasting at least 3 months may be most beneficial. However, no matter how long your rehab program, or at what point your relapse occurred, there are many steps you can take to get back on track.

  • Stay positive. Reread or revise your recovery plan. Surround yourself with people you trust, who maintain an optimistic outlook, and who believe in and support you.
  • Continue or resume individual or group therapy. Substance use disorder usually involves deeply rooted behaviors and emotions that are often complex. Relapse may be an indication that you should resume or change your treatment approach.
  • Look for therapeutic programs that specialize in the relapse prevention skills needed to manage trigger situations. This can also help you evaluate who you’re spending time with and where you’re socializing and whether you need to make changes.
  • Consider either individual or group Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Better understand what triggered your relapse, the dynamics of the situation and how to change negative thoughts and behavioral patterns.
  • Increase your attendance at a 12-step or other support group. Consider attending daily, or even several times a day. Many members of support groups have relapsed and successfully gotten back on track. They can be invaluable support and inspiration to you and your recovery.

If you don’t have a sponsor or accountability buddy, make that a priority. If you have a sponsor, consider whether you need a new one. A sponsor or accountability buddy should be someone you trust to be available day or night, for support and encouragement and in case of emergency.

Best ways to avoid relapse

There are many ways you can strengthen your physical, emotional, and mental health to help you avoid relapse. Keep the acronym HALT in mind—it stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired. These signify four physical and emotional states that can increase the risk of relapse. When you’re feeling one or more of these states, your defenses are down, making it easier for relapse to occur. Consider the following areas, and plan how you can improve all aspects of your health.

Manage triggers – A trigger can be anything that reminds you of previous addictive behavior and may evoke a powerful urge to re-experience that behavior. It can be a person, place, location, stressful situation, event or other factor that elicits positive feelings about drug, alcohol or other addictive behavior. Having a conversation with a therapist or someone in your support network about romanticizing use is important.

The stronger coping skills you have, the more likely you will successfully avoid relapse. If you do experience a relapse, learning to better avoid, manage or otherwise deal with triggers can help prevent another.

Support network – Surround yourself with sober, supportive family and friends who are firmly invested in your abstinent lifestyle. It is best to no longer associate with anyone still actively using drugs or alcohol. People can be especially strong triggers to addictive behavior.

Do not attend an activity where you know others will be using alcohol or drugs. If there is no way to avoid attending such an activity, have a sober friend attend with you for support. Always have access to transportation so you can leave the activity if you need to and if you begin to feel pressured or uncomfortable, never hesitate to leave.

Active participation in a 12-step support group and working the steps with a sponsor can increase the chances for long-term recovery and lessen the incidences of relapse. Studies show a strong correlation between the level and length of involvement in a 12-step program like AA or NA and long-term sobriety. For example, those who attended 60-200 meetings a year for a period of 5 years had an abstinence rate of 73-79%.

Strengthen relationships – Addiction often takes a big toll on your closest relationships. Attending family counseling can teach valuable communication skills, how to identify unhealthy family dynamics and how to heal relationships within the family structure.

Stress Management – Learning how to manage and reduce stress will make you healthier and happier and lessen the likelihood of relapse. Techniques or lifestyle changes may include regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, positive thinking, yoga, meditation, writing daily thoughts in a journal, renewing involvement in a previously loved hobby or activity, exercising your creativity in music, art, writing or other area and embracing spirituality in whatever form is most meaningful to you.

Service Work – Numerous studies have shown that helping others can be of great benefit to people in recovery, improving mood, decreasing anxiety and depression, increasing self-esteem and strengthening a sense of purpose. These have all been shown to be powerful factors in successful recovery.

Findings of a multiple university research study found that helping others also reduces your feelings of isolation, decreases social anxiety and can increase your chances of staying sober by up to 50 percent.

Once you’ve been sober for a year or more, volunteering to be a sponsor to another member of a 12-step fellowship can be a great way to help another seeking recovery and can also help strengthen your own.

Do not live in fear of relapse. Instead, focus on your goals. Frequently review your recovery plan and seek to implement positive changes in every aspect of your life

Turning Point of Tampa’s goal is to always provide a safe environment and a solid foundation in 12-Step recovery, in tandem with quality individual therapy and groups. We have been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Addiction, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987. If you need help or know someone who does, please contact our admissions department at 813-882-3003, 800-397-3006 or