If your asthmatic friend had an asthma attack in front of you or your diabetic friend had to be hospitalized for their blood sugar, you would not call them failures for their inability to control their symptoms.
Support & Encouragement
Just like the person who has a diabetes or asthma relapse, a person in addiction recovery who relapses needs support and encouragement. They need to work with a treatment provider to determine where their treatment fell short and to alter their plan for addressing their health condition. In this way, they can learn to cope with their relapse.
Danger on the Horizon
A person in addiction recovery can be mindful of several common relapse triggers:
- Dangerous Times – The times that can cause danger to a person in recovery can include anniversaries of their sobriety, anniversaries of difficult experiences, or any time there is no solid recovery plan in place or they aren’t following the plan.
- Dangerous People – This category includes people who are actively using as well as those who aren’t supportive of the recovering person’s sobriety or who trigger their emotions in toxic ways.
- Dangerous Places – As they say in the recovery community: if you hang around the barbershop long enough, you’re bound to get a haircut. If you hang out in places where people get drunk or high, it’s only a matter of time before you do, too.
- Dangerous Thoughts – Any time that a person’s thoughts become more negative or focused on what others will think of them for becoming sober, etc., their recovery is in danger.
The Best Defense Is a Good Offense
Ideally a person in recovery is aware of their own relapse triggers and can stop relapse by closely observing their own thoughts and feelings. According to the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine addiction relapse occurs in three stages:
Stage 1 – Emotional Relapse
In this stage, the person may do any/all of the following:
- Bottle up their feelings
- Isolate themselves
- Start skipping recovery meetings, therapy sessions, and meetings with their sponsor (or they go but do not share openly)
- Focus on others and their problems and instead of themselves
- Lapse into poor eating and sleeping habits
Stage 2 – Mental Relapse
In this stage, the person starts to:
- Crave drugs or alcohol
- Reminisce about people, places, and things associated with past use
- Minimize consequences of past use or even glamorize it
- Begin bargaining and justifying a relapse
- Try to think of ways they could use again without getting caught or having consequences
Stage 3 – Physical Relapse
In this final stage, the person begins to use drugs or alcohol again. Some researchers distinguish between a lapse (single use of a substance) versus a relapse, where a person returns to active addiction and the mindset that accompanies it.
While it would be easy for a person or their family to beat themselves up for not seeing the signs of relapse ahead of time, guilt and shame only add fuel to this disease. Honesty and accountability are important, but they need to be offered without harsh judgement, especially when you’re trying to cope with relapse. When someone who has relapsed trusts their support system to treat them with compassion and understanding, they are more likely to recover, to recover more quickly, and to stay sober in the future.
Breaking the Relapse Cycle
It seems like some people are chronically trapped in a cycle: recovery, relapse, repeat. This is a cycle that can be broken. The following steps are recommended to stop relapses from happening:
- Getting therapy – especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
- Addressing the fears that might be contributing to relapses – these may include fears of being unworthy, judged, or fraudulent; fears of what life will be like without access to drugs or alcohol; and more.
- Changing the definition of “fun” – without their drug of choice available, people in recovery need other things to look forward to.
- Learning from setbacks – rather than seeing relapses as failures, understand that they are learning opportunities and can be part of the foundation for a strong recovery.
- Embracing the uncomfortable – a person in recovery has to develop a new “normal,” and this may be a difficult adjustment to make at first.
Safe Harbor Can Help You Cope with Relapse
People don’t always know how to cope with relapse, but the right tools and support are available to help you and your loved one move forward. It may also be necessary to re-enter treatment following a relapse, as the person might need a “booster” to their recovery plan to ensure that it meets all of their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual needs. The person may not need the level of care they underwent during treatment previously, so it will be important for them to have a fresh evaluation to ensure they are getting the correct level of care.