Addiction relapse isn’t an uncommon experience among those with a former drug or alcohol addiction.
In fact, it’s estimated that about 40 to 60 percent of people in the United States who seek substance abuse treatment experience relapse at least once.
Relapse can be a learning experience. And it doesn’t erase the progress you’ve made. With additional support and motivation to get back on track, overcoming a relapse is possible.
What Is Addiction Relapse?
Relapse can be generally defined as a return to drug or alcohol use after an attempt to stop.
Some experts use the term ‘relapse’ to describe any instance of drug or alcohol use, such as having a single drink, or even a sip of alcohol.
Others use the term to describe a pattern of substance use after a period in recovery.
Common Causes Of Relapse In Addiction Recovery
Many people, including substance abuse experts, understand that relapse can be a normal, if not inevitable, part of the addiction recovery process.
Even so, knowing common triggers of relapse can be a useful tool for helping to prevent relapse in recovery or identify relapse when and if it does occur early on.
Some of the most common causes of relapse in addiction recovery include:
1. Drug Withdrawal
Several types of addictive drugs, including alcohol, opioids, and benzodiazepines, can cause symptoms of withdrawal that can increase the risk of relapse in early recovery.
- strong drug cravings
- thoughts of suicide
- loss of touch with reality
- foggy thinking
- nausea and vomiting
Without adequate support, drug withdrawal symptoms can be very difficult to manage physically, emotionally, and psychologically.
For some, this can last weeks to months after getting sober and may become a trigger for relapse, if only to serve as a form of symptom relief.
Stress is perhaps the number one trigger of relapse for people with a former drug or alcohol addiction.
Drug and alcohol use can, for many, become an unsupportive coping mechanism, or a tool for dealing with everyday stressors.
As a result, when someone with a former addiction is stressed, it may feel natural to look to drugs or alcohol to manage the difficult emotions that can arise from various forms of stress.
- financial stress
- job loss
- relationship problems
- problems in the home
- unstable housing situation
- important work or school assignments
- social situations
- moving homes
3. Social Pressures
It’s common for certain people and places to become triggers for people in addiction recovery.
Even seemingly simple things, such as hanging out with a friend that you used to do drugs with, or visiting a bar, can become triggering for someone in the early months of their recovery.
This can also rear its head at large social gatherings, such as celebratory events or get-togethers during the holidays, particularly if alcohol or other former drugs of abuse are present.
4. Physical Pain
Chronic pain is common among people with drug addiction, particularly those who become addicted to prescription painkillers such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), or codeine.
Pain that is left untreated or undertreated in recovery can become a trigger for relapse, as a common form of self-medication for those vulnerable to narcotic addiction.
5. Untreated Mental Health Issues
Co-occurring mental health disorders are common among people with addiction, including disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders.
From research, treatment experts know that having mental health struggles in addition to a drug or alcohol addiction can put a person at a higher risk for relapse in recovery.
Like with stress, feelings of depression, anxiety, or a lack of treatment for mental health symptoms, could lead someone to relapse in the absence of supportive symptom management.
When you’re in the throes of addiction, drugs and alcohol can take over nearly all aspects of your life. It can occupy your thoughts, and make it difficult to focus on or do little else.
Addiction recovery, on the other hand, can free up a lot of this time. As a result, it can be important to find employment or other activities to fill in those gaps and help prevent urges to use.
Social support, including the physical presence of family or friends, can be one of the most important cornerstones of a person’s success in recovery.
When a person is isolated, they typically have fewer resources at their disposal to help them work through thoughts or urges related to their past substance use.
When this does occur, they may be more likely to turn to substances to fill in the gaps left behind a lack of social support or to cope with feelings of grief or loneliness.
Wanting to leave struggles with addiction behind is a common tendency. Addiction is a painful experience for people that can also, for some, become a source of shame and guilt.
Unfortunately, this tendency can also become a form of avoidance.
Examples of avoidance might include:
- missing counseling sessions
- dropping out of treatment
- forgoing treatment medication
- going to self-help groups less often
A person may think that they’re “all better,” or no longer need treatment. Or, they may wish to leave their treatment experience behind, and move on.
Unfortunately, wanting to “move on” from treatment doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is ready to. Especially if they are in the process of recovering from a very severe or chronic struggle.
9. Relationship Problems
Having troubles with friends, family, or a spouse can be triggering for a person in recovery from addiction.
- getting into a fight with a friend
- acts of infidelity
- domestic disputes
- codependency issues
- bullying at school
10. Stopping Treatment Too Soon
Another risk factor for relapse in addiction recovery is stopping treatment too soon or leaving a rehab program early.
Addiction treatment programs typically last 30 to 90 days, and will often offer treatment services throughout programming that are intended to gradually set a person up for success in recovery.
Ending treatment early can disrupt this treatment process, and potentially leave a person underprepared to overcome challenges in early addiction recovery.
Seeing treatment through can help you prepare for relapse triggers such as:
- external triggers
- drug cravings
- urges to drink
- managing difficult emotions
How Do You Prevent Addiction Relapse?
While relapse isn’t uncommon in people with addiction, it’s also not a given.
Many rehab programs for drug and alcohol addiction utilize what are known as relapse prevention strategies, and other treatment services, to support continued recovery.
Read more about relapse prevention treatment programs and tips.
Is Relapse A Sign Of Treatment Failure?
No, relapse is not a sign that a treatment service or treatment program has failed.
In fact, research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows that substance abuse relapse rates are about on par with those of other chronic conditions, such as hypertension and asthma.
Addiction recovery is a lifelong journey. Setbacks like relapse can occur, but it doesn’t mean that a treatment has been ineffective, or that achieving stability in recovery isn’t possible.
Find Help For Addiction Relapse Today
When addiction relapse does occur, the best action you can take to get back on track is to seek help from your doctor, counselor, or recovery sponsor as soon as possible.
If you’re looking for additional support for yourself or a loved one who’s relapsed, we may be able to help.
Call us today to learn more about treatment options after relapse.Article Sources
- U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) — Treatment and Recovery
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: PubMed — Drug dependence, a chronic medical illness: implications for treatment, insurance, and outcomes evaluation
- U.S. National Library of Medicine — Focus: Addiction: Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery