Relapse Prevention [The Three Stages of Relapse]
Relapse is a scary term for anyone in recovery; the fear of going back to using drugs or alcohol is a devastating thought for most, but practicing effective relapse prevention skills can go a long way towards making sure that this never has to happen. Many people in sobriety have come to believe the old adage “relapse is a part of recovery,” however this is not true. There are many people who are recovering from their drug and alcohol addictions which have never relapsed, even after decades of sobriety.
Relapse prevention is based on a few different things including understanding the process of relapse, learning healthy habits in order to reduce the possibility of this process beginning, and finally knowing the warning signs and coping mechanisms to make in case you do find yourself in the process of relapse. While relapse can look different for everyone, it typically follows a process or progression which can be recognized in each different situation.
Continuing to take action which allowed you to establish your recovery in the first place is always the most effective form of completely avoiding relapse. However, it is also important to know how to deal with the process of relapse if it does begin to occur. The following article should help you to understand a bit about the process of relapse as well as to learn some effective actions to take if it should occur.
What is relapse?
One of the most important things to know when it comes to relapse prevention is that relapse is not a single event, but a process which can last days, weeks or even months. Relapse doesn’t begin when someone picks up and uses a drink or a drug, instead that is the moment that a relapse ends and the person moves back into active addiction. This can be confusing to many as the term relapse has begun to be used in popular vernacular as a term for someone who was sober at one time but is now using again.
What relapse truly is, is the process which someone follows emotionally, mentally and eventually physically which takes them from being in active recovery into active addiction. This process generally follows three steps, each of which can be gradual or sometimes quite sudden. The good news about this is that educating yourself on the signs of relapse and the steps you can take to reverse it once it has become apparent mean that there are safeguards which you can take if you notice yourself inching towards your old thoughts and behaviors.
Knowing the general idea of the relapse process may help you to better understand the nature of addiction and recovery, which will also help to reinforce your relapse prevention techniques. While effective relapse prevention is an important part of recovery, it is also important to remember that if a relapse does occur, it is not the end of the world. The earlier it is recognized and actions are taken to reverse it, typically the easier it is to manage.
One of the most common complications in dealing with relapse is the shame that many people associate with it. They feel that telling their peers in recovery that they are struggling will make them seem like bad people, but this is almost never the case. Most people in recovery are happy to help another addict or alcoholic who is struggling. Don’t stay silent if you recognize that you may be in one of the stages of relapse.
The stages of relapse
- Emotional relapse
Emotional relapse is often the most drawn-out stage of the relapse because it can include many subtle emotional distortions, each magnifying one another. Emotional relapse is the process when a recovering addict begins to slip into old patterns of behaviors and emotions. This is an important thing to understand because the process of recovery is based on not just quitting drugs and alcohol but reversing and changing the emotional and behavioral patterns which cause and reinforce drug and alcohol use in the first place.
The process of emotional relapse can begin with something as simple as a stressful day or even a frustrating moment which begins to snowball. One of the most important aspects of recovery is being mindful of negative emotions and behaviors and taking action to prevent them from occurring, or if they do, taking action to erase the negative consequences that they may have. Emotional relapse can begin to take hold when these preventative and maintenance actions are not take, allowing these negative emotions to build up to a point of discomfort.
It is also important to remember that this step does not include direct thoughts of using drugs or alcohol. Instead it is simply the process in which someone begins to neglect or discontinue the actions which have helped them establish and maintain their recovery and starts to become restless, irritable and discontent as a result. If this process continues for long enough it can lead to the second step of relapse which is mental relapse.
However, knowing the emotional and behavioral warning signs of this first step is often the best way to prevent using drugs or alcohol again. If you are feeling irritable or depressed, don’t ignore it but instead reach out to another person in recovery and let them know. Ask for advice and most importantly, take that advice.
- Mental relapse
The second stage of relapse, which follows the emotional relapse stage, is mental relapse. This phase is also extremely important to remember when considering relapse prevention techniques because once you have reached this stage, it can be considerably more difficult to reverse. However, it is not impossible. Mental relapse is defined at the point at which the negative feelings and emotions which have been building up during emotional relapse hit their “breaking point” and someone begins to think about drugs or alcohol as a way to numb out or erase these feelings.
This phase can last from a few minutes to months, depending on the person and their situation. During this time the individual will be contemplating using drugs or alcohol but have not decided to do so yet. People can also move back and forth between the mental and emotional stages of relapse. When someone begins to think about using drugs or alcohol but then leaves this thought behind without resolving the emotional or behavioral issues which cause these thoughts to appear in the first place then have gone back into emotional relapse. However, they will usually move back into the mental phase of relapse because they have not adequately addressed the situation.
This phase of relapse is much easier for a person to recognize, as it can be quite alarming for a recovering addict to find themselves pondering the use of drugs and alcohol. If you find yourself in this situation it is crucial that you begin to take action immediately. Simply relying on self-will and “white knuckling it” is NOT an appropriate form of defense. As addicts, we should have learned early in our recovery that lacking the ability to say no is one of the main tenants of what makes us addicts. Instead, relying on the support of other addicts and alcoholics and trusting in their advice is the only appropriate step.
Unfortunately, some people fall into the trap of self-reliance and believe that they can manage these thoughts and emotions by themselves without help from others. It is in these situations where people can eventually make the decision to use drugs or alcohol and then begin to take action towards doing this, which is the final step in the process of relapse.
- Physical relapse
Physical relapse is the final step in the process of relapse. This step occurs when someone has moved through the emotional and mental stages and has made the decision to use drugs or alcohol and begun to take actions to do so. While this is the hardest step during which to utilize relapse prevention techniques, it is still possible to avoid going back into active addiction and use if the proper steps are taken.
Depending on the situation, the physical relapse process can be as short as minutes or as long as days. For someone who is an alcoholic, when they decide to drink it can be as quick as walking down to the corner store and purchasing a bottle of liquor, which can happen quite quickly. For others, the process can involve traveling to pick up drugs or even making an appointment at a doctor’s office with the intention of asking for a narcotic prescription medication. Regardless of the situation however, stopping these actions can be very difficult. If you do find yourself taking actions to acquire or use drugs or alcohol then the most effective form of relapse prevention is to reach out to another recovering drug addict or alcoholic immediately and being honest with them about your intentions.
What is relapse prevention?
Using relapse prevention techniques can not only help you avoid entering into the process of relapse but they can also help you to reverse the process and escape it if you do find yourself in one of the three stages. Relapse prevention is all about being aware of your feelings, emotions and behaviors as well as taking the actions that helped you to initially recover from addiction or alcoholism in the first place. Whether you went to a rehabilitation facility, attended 12-step meetings or sought therapy from a doctor or a counselor for your substance abuse problems, continuing to do the things that you learned while getting sober is the most effective way to stay that way.
Most relapses begin after a period of time when someone has lost focus on their recovery and begins to think that they are “cured.” Unfortunately, addiction doesn’t seem to be an ailment which can be cured, but it can be held in remission with continuous attention. Recovery is a different process for everyone, what might work for one person may not necessarily work for another. That is okay, but it does mean that once you have found something that works and allows you to abstain from drugs and alcohol that you have to stick with it.
Relapse, just like recovery, can be different from person to person. Some people may wade in the first or second stage of relapse for months or even years before they end up either using again or doing something to avoid it. Others still may pass though all three phases of the relapse process in a single day. Whatever the situation is, the most important thing to remember when learning relapse prevention techniques is to know the stages and the signs of each stage and be willing to take action as soon as you do. Just remember, you didn’t get sober alone and you can’t stay sober alone either so reach out to others every chance you get.