The Important Role That Relapse Plays In Recovery

This image represent the relapse in recovery

Sharing is caring!

Alcohol and drugs currently and historically have played a crucial role in the lives of both individuals and societies when it comes to bonding and “social engagement”. Whether it’s coming of age rituals, religious ceremonies, weddings, funerals, or a host of other occasions or holidays, alcohol and/or drugs are always seemingly omnipresent. 

That is one of the many reasons that getting sober and staying sober can be so challenging for somebody with an addiction. While we culturally recognize and support people who identify as addicts and are working a program of recovery, there is still a lot of stigma associated with it as it is often viewed as more of a character flaw, than a true disease. 

Western culture, in particular, is fully entrenched in “booze-filled” celebrations and committing to a lifetime of sobriety can seem impossible in the culture we live in. Yet there is one question that often gnaws at the back of an addict’s mind, and that is what happens if they mess up? You know, if they “fall off the wagon”, or “slip”? What does that say about them as a person, and what does it mean for their recovery? Finding the answers to those questions is what this article will explore.

Addiction & Recovery Stats

Substance abuse is a serious global issue, as a 2019 report by World Drug Report states that 35 million people worldwide suffer from drug use disorders with only 1 in 7 people receiving the treatment they require. In the United States, over 23 million people are struggling with at least one type of addiction with about 10% receiving treatment. The seriousness of addiction and its global impact cannot be underestimated as this list of intriguing statistics from disturbmenot.com demonstrates: 

  • People addicted to prescription drugs are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin.
  • Approximately 966,000 American adults struggled with a cocaine use disorder (CUD) in 2017.
  • Every year, 3.3 million fatalities result from the consumption of alcohol.
  • Meth is involved in 85%–90% of stimulant-related drug fatalities, thus seriously contributing to the drug problem in America.
  • In 2017, cocaine was associated with 1 out of 5 overdose-related fatalities.
  • Opioid painkillers account for 38.2% of drug overdose fatalities.
  • Doctors released 191,218,272 opioid prescriptions in 2017.
  • Approximately 80% of individuals who used heroin also misused prescription opioids.
  • Around 34 million Americans smoke cigarettes.
  • Genetics and the influence of the environment have a 40%–60% effect on a person’s chances of developing an addiction.

Is Relapse a Sign of Failure?

Despite what you may have heard, relapse is not a sign of failure. Relapse is very common in recovery, and it doesn’t discriminate as anyone can be susceptible whether you are new to sobriety or have experienced years of sobriety. A 2014 JAMA study stated that between 40 to 60 % of people who’ve been treated for addiction or alcoholism relapse. Some research suggests that relapse is more common during the first year of recovery, but plenty of people with years of sobriety under their belt have relapsed. The truth of the matter is that relapse is a “hallmark” of addiction, and many view it as an expected part of the recovery process. The stages-of-change model predicts that addicts tend to cycle through a process of avoiding, considering quitting, taking active steps to quit and then relapsing. Many times people will cycle through the stages several times before successfully quitting.

“Humans have a host of self-destructive behaviors; we do it with food, with lack of exercise, with smoking,” says Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, professor and associate chief of general internal medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montfiore Health System in New York City. “How many of us haven’t resumed behaviors we pledged to stop? Changing your behavior is hard.”

Causes of Relapse

There are many factors that contribute to someone deciding to start using drugs or alcohol after a sustained period of abstinence. Some of these include what their level of commitment was in the beginning. Did they seek treatment voluntarily or was it court-ordered or done to placate others? Did they want to stop using for the long haul, or were they only looking to try to “control” their behavior? If someone is 100% committed to working a program and living a sober life, there are stressors, pressures, and triggers that can always throw them off track. Some of the most common environmental and mental triggers that can contribute to relapse are listed below:  

  • Places where someone used drugs or alcohol
  • People with whom someone associated at the time of the usage
  • Objects (like a pipe)
  • A song or movie
  • Being exposed to one of the stresses that caused a person to turn to drugs or alcohol in the first place
  • Work pressures 
  • Relationship problems
  • Money problems

Relapse Prevention 

Developing a plan that includes relapse prevention strategies can be helpful and reduce the risk of future relapses. Researchers have found that a successful relapse prevention plan should help people to identify the early signs of relapse as well as develop coping skills for dealing with stressors, cravings, and thoughts of using drugs. Cognitive therapy and relaxation techniques can be helpful interventions for preventing relapse.

Cravings will come and go, but the time will pass more quickly if you’re engaged in a distracting activity. You may even find it beneficial to keep a shortlist of distracting tasks on you in case a craving pops up unexpectedly. Some healthy distraction activities include:

  • Regular exercise  
  • Surround yourself with positive people
  • Practicing meditation
  • Remaining grateful when negativity surrounds
  • Showing humility in your most grandiose moments
  • Being Honest, Open and Willing
  • Staying preoccupied/busy when bored
  • Improving spirituality practices like meditation and prayer
  • Taking a shower
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Walking around the block
  • Calling a friend to catch up
  • The next time you feel a craving, take a moment to experience it and then remind yourself that it’s going to pass- just like they always do
  • Calling somebody when cravings are heavy
  • Going to meetings when you least want to
  • Avoiding old friends and playgrounds
  • Finding new hobbies and forms of entertainment
  • Utilizing therapy

What To Do If You Relapse

The important thing to do is change the dialogue in your heard about relapse and look at it not as a failure, but a sign that it is time to make some changes in your recovery and treatment plan. A relapse is no reason to “throw the baby out with the bathwater”, or to throw up your hands in defeat and give in to the demons associated with your full-blown addiction. Don’t wallow in shame or guilt, and be sure to reach out to someone you trust such as a sponsor, friend in recovery or professional to help you figure out what is the next best step for you. 

Depending upon the severity and the duration of the relapse, detoxification may be necessary or you may just need to try a new type of therapy or peer support group. Remember, a relapse does not mean that the journey is over. Recovery is a process, and relapse is part of it for many. So adjust your treatment plan, resume your recovery, and keep moving forward on the path toward a healthy and happy life rooted in sobriety. If you would like more information about addiction, relapse or a free assessment by a counselor, then please contact the professionals at The River Rehab to explore what treatment options are available.