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What is relapse?

Recovering from drug or alcohol addiction isn’t a quick process. It takes time to get over a dependence, deal with withdrawal symptoms, and overcome the urge to use.

Relapse means going back to using after you’ve been abstinent for some time. It’s an ever-present threat when you’re trying to recover. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 40 to 60 percent of people who were once addicted to drugs will eventually relapse.

Being aware of the stages of relapse and having a plan to deal with them can help prevent you from using again. Follow these 10 techniques to help you stay on track with your recovery.

Relapse happens in three stages: emotional, mental, and physical. The process can start weeks or months before you start to drink or use drugs again.

You’re at risk of relapsing during each of these three phases:

  • Emotional relapse. During this phase, you’re not thinking about using, but your thoughts and behaviors are setting you up for a relapse. You’re isolating yourself and keeping your emotions bottled up. You feel anxious and angry. You’re not eating or sleeping well.
  • Mental relapse. In this phase, you’re at war with yourself. Part of you wants to use, and part of you doesn’t. You’re thinking about the people and places associated with using and the good times you had when you were drinking or using drugs. You remember only the good from those times, not the bad. You start bargaining with yourself and planning to use again.
  • Physical relapse. This is the phase when you actually start using again. It begins with one lapse — the first drink or pill — and leads back into regular use.

Certain people, places, and situations can drive you back into drinking or using drugs again. Be aware of your triggers so you can avoid them.

Here are some of the most common relapse triggers:

  • withdrawal symptoms
  • bad relationships
  • people who enable you
  • drug supplies (pipes, etc.) and other things that remind you of using
  • places where you used to drink or use drugs
  • loneliness
  • stress
  • poor self-care like not eating, sleeping, or managing stress well

When the urge to use hits, remind yourself why you started down the path to recovery in the first place. Think about how out of control or sick you felt when you were using. Remember the embarrassing things you may have done or the people you may have hurt.

Focus on how much better your life will be once you stop using drugs or alcohol for good. Think about what’s driving you to quit, such as rebuilding damaged relationships, keeping a job, or getting healthy again.

Don’t try to recover by yourself. Getting support will make the process much easier.

Your doctor or an addiction treatment center has treatments to control withdrawal symptoms. A therapist or counselor can teach you coping skills to deal with the negative thoughts or cravings that may be driving you to use again. Your family and friends can offer a friendly ear when you feel low.

Support groups and 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) can also be very helpful in preventing relapses.

People use alcohol and drugs to feel good and relax. Look for healthier ways to reward yourself.

Get into a self-care routine. Try to sleep for at least seven to nine hours a night. Eat a well-balanced diet with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains. And exercise every day. Following these healthy habits will help you feel better and more in control of your life.

Relaxing and taking time to do things that make you happy is another important part of self-care. Keep doing the things you love most. Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that recovery is a difficult process and you’re doing the best you can.

Withdrawal symptoms like nausea, shakiness, and sweating can be so difficult that you want to use drugs again just to stop them. That’s where your recovery team comes in. Medications can help you manage withdrawal symptoms before they trigger a relapse.

It’s natural for your thoughts to drift to using drugs or alcohol. Gently steer it away by focusing on healthier pursuits.

Take a run outside, walk your dog, or go out to dinner with friends. Or, stay in and watch one of your favorite movies.

Most cravings last for only a short time. If you can hold out for 15 to 30 minutes, you can overcome it.

Have someone on call for weak moments when you might slip back into your old habits. A good friend can talk you down and remind you of all the wonderful things in your life worth protecting by staying off drugs and alcohol.

Recovery isn’t easy. Give yourself credit for each small gain you make — one week sober, one month off drugs, etc. For each goal you achieve, give yourself a reward as motivation to keep moving forward. For instance, book yourself a relaxing massage or buy yourself something you’ve had your eye on.

If you’re not sure how to move through the recovery process, follow one of the relapse prevention plan models that are available. Substance abuse and mental health expert Terry Gorski has a nine-step relapse prevention plan that can help you recognize and manage relapse warning signs. Clinical psychologist and addiction specialist G. Alan Marlatt, PhD, developed an approach that uses mental, behavioral, and lifestyle choices to prevent relapse.

Recovery from drug and alcohol addiction can be a long and challenging process. The odds of relapsing are high.

It’s important to be aware of the three stages of relapse: emotional, mental, and physical. Watch out for signs that you’re about to start using again.

Get professional help, and care for yourself during your recovery. The more committed you are to the process, the more likely you’ll be to succeed.