A relapse starts with a lapse, which is an instance of using once you’re in recovery. A relapse occurs when brain function changes due to using again, and you’re once again using compulsively despite negative consequences.
Three Stages of an Impending Relapse
A great deal of energy in treatment is given to relapse prevention programming, and one thing that people in recovery learn right off the bat is that relapse occurs in three predictable stages, and each stage has its own signs and symptoms. Knowing each stage and associated signs help those in recovery—and their loved ones—stay mindful of destructive thoughts and behaviors and identify an impending relapse before it occurs.
Stage One: Emotional Relapse
During an emotional relapse, you’re not actually thinking about using, but unhealthy behaviors and negative emotions may be setting you up to do just that. Denial is common at this stage, which is why it’s important to recognize the signs of emotional relapse and get help, even if you don’t think you need it. The signs of emotional relapse include:
- Bottling up emotions.
- Feeling isolated.
- Skipping meetings or not engaging at meetings.
- Focusing on how others affect your emotional states.
- Poor self-care, such as eating an unhealthy diet or neglecting sleep.
Stage Two: Mental Relapse
During a mental relapse, there’s a war going on inside. Part of you wants to use, but another part wants to stay in recovery. As this stage progresses, you’ll likely to begin to lose your resolve, and you might try to bargain, such as by saying you’ll only use on vacation or just on Friday nights. Other signs of mental relapse include:
- Frequent cravings.
- Thinking about past use or the people you used with.
- Lying to yourself and others.
- Devising ways you might be able to control your drug use.
- Considering opportunities for lapsing and planning your lapse around others’ schedules so you don’t get caught.
Stage Three: Physical Relapse
The third stage is when the lapse occurs. You head to the liquor store or make a phone call to an old friend, and at this point, it’s extremely difficult to stop the lapse. The lapse can then very quickly escalate into a relapse of the addiction.
How to Survive a Relapse—And Come Back Stronger
Getting help at the first sign of an impending relapse is crucial for heading it off. If it does occur, approaching it with gentleness, forgiveness, and hope is essential for getting back on track.1 When individuals view a relapse as a colossal personal failure, they’re more likely to feel overwhelmed and abandon their long-term goals. But when they focus on their past successes, acknowledge their strengths and delve into the issue behind the relapse, they’re more likely to successfully get back on track with recovery.
The most important thing, especially in early recovery, is to stay focused on the recovery plan, attend meetings and counseling sessions and stay mindful of harmful attitudes and behaviors that could lead to a setback. Above all, hold on to hope, which is the foundation of recovery.2 Hope is the belief that the challenges of recovery can be overcome, and holding onto hope during a relapse or when one appears imminent can help you come back to recovery stronger than ever.