Drug Addiction Relapse

Drug addiction is the bane of our society. It corrupts our communities, destroys lives, and tears families apart. Once introduced, hard drugs can render a community hollow from the inside as they do users. This is why rehabilitation and recovery from drug addiction are crucial for drug users.

Often, drug users will reject any notion of addiction and the need for rehabilitation and recovery. The ones who do accept, or are forced by loved ones, have a long and difficult journey to sobriety that is riddled with confusion.

Similar to diabetes, asthma, or hypertension, drug addiction is a chronic and relapsing disease. Addicts that stop substance abuse may often relapse and start using again.

What does it mean to have a relapse?

When a drug user who has quit substance abuse, for any period of time, makes a bad decision and starts using again, this is known as a relapse. Relapse in drug addicts is very common and many users may relapse multiple times before finding long-term sobriety.

The hard truth is that even those addicts who have maintained abstinence for long periods of time can relapse and fall back into substance abuse. Drug addicts have to work hard to resist their addictions and usually go through difficult treatments to stop using.

In many cases, relapse is expected of those who are resisting substance abuse for the first time because the chances that they relapse are much higher than drug addicts that have recovered from relapses. Some estimates suggest that there is a 40-60% chance of drug addicts to relapse.

These are high rates which make it easy to see how common relapsing is in addicts even after treatment or long periods of sobriety. This does not mean that their prior treatment has failed rather, relapsing is considered part of the process.

They should resume revised treatment depending on their changing needs. New and advanced treatments are designed to prevent relapse in addicts but if they stop following their treatment plan, they have a higher chance of relapsing.

What causes drug relapse?

Relapse occurs in drug addicts as it does with most chronic diseases when the user makes bad judgments and stops following their treatment plan and medication. Sometimes the medication can stop working or the user’s addiction grows higher.

There can be multiple reasons for addicts to relapse but in most cases, relapse is caused by a ‘trigger’. These relapse triggers cause addicts to feel forced to use drugs again. There are three main types of relapse associated triggers, these include:

  • Emotional
  • Mental
  • Physical

These triggers can also be considered the three phases of relapse. Any recovering addict may go through these phases in the order mentioned or they may get triggered by either of them at any stage of their recovery.

Emotional Phase

The emotional phase of relapse is the first phase where an addict may not exactly think about using again but their emotional state is building up the urge to relapse and use again. This phase has many telling signs in addicts through their change in behaviors due to how they feel.

You may see them:

  • Letting go of self-care
  • Developing unhealthy sleeping and eating habits
  • Becoming more defensive than usual
  • Facing difficulty coping with anger and anxiety
  • Isolating themselves from others
  • Experiencing mood swings
  • Not sharing at support group therapy meetings
  • Missing meetings altogether
  • Becoming intolerant

In this state of constant emotional stress and anxiety, addicts are more likely to relapse simply to escape feeling stressed and anxious all the time. Relapse during this emotional phase is considered relapse due to emotional triggers.

If addicts continue on this negative emotional trajectory for long enough, they have a higher chance to move on to the next phase of relapse, the mental phase.

Mental Phase

After experiencing long periods of emotional stress and anxiety without sharing it with others, addicts start developing thoughts of abusing substances again. This is their entry to the mental phase of relapse where they start fighting an internal war.

They struggle to avoid thinking of using again and their minds are at a constant battle between thoughts of using again and maintaining sobriety. The rational part of their minds wants to resist substance abuse and stay sober, while the irrational part just wants to use it again and escape reality.

Occasional thoughts of using again are common in addicts and considered normal but, in the mental phase, addicts will let their imagination run riot and start to fantasize about using. This leads to them not only thinking about using but rather thinking about making the actual choice to use again.

There are many signs an addict is going through the mental phase, including:

  • Not recognizing the consequences of prior instances of substance abuse.
  • Showing physical and psychological urges and cravings to use again.
  • Lying and imagining using again.
  • Thoughts of switching to other substances to replace past addictions.
  • Remembering and reliving past experiences of substance abuse.
  • Spending time with fellow addicts from the past.
  • Planning to relapse.
  • Searching for opportunities to relapse.
  • Thoughts of using rarely.
  • Thoughts of using in a controlled manner.
  • Allowing themselves to use in moderation.

These thoughts, feelings, and actions during the mental phase and the constant battle in addicts’ minds increase their urges causing a mental trigger that forces them to relapse. This brings them to the third and final phase of relapse.

Physical Phase

In this phase, addicts usually give up thoughts of resistance and physically relapse at the first chance they get. This is mainly because the emotional stress and mental conflict have taken a toll on them and escape in the form of substance abuse seems like the only option.

They abandon their treatment plans and medications to instead escape reality, relive past experiences, and start using again. The important thing in case of a physical relapse is to immediately recognize the problem and get help before it becomes even more difficult to treat.

You can learn more here about ‘What Happens If I Relapse’.

 Causes and prevention of drug relapse

Recovery From Drug Addiction Relapse

A relapse is by no means the end of a person’s journey toward sobriety. It is simply a mistake and addicts should be encouraged to recover from relapsing. Everyone makes mistakes and a single relapse should not define an addict’s recovery process.

The important thing is to recognize mistakes and take action toward correcting them. If the relapse was a single, isolated event and the addict is committed to recovering then it may not be necessary to go back to an inpatient facility.

They may simply need to analyze the reasons for the relapse, address the issues, and update their treatment plan according to their needs. Along with following their new treatment plan, addicts can prevent relapsing by:

Creating a support system

A support system will help addicts overcome feelings of stress and anxiety by sharing their feelings and thoughts. They require people who do not judge them and whom they can rely on during difficult times of their recovery.

The support system can help encourage the recovery process and make it easier for addicts to not feel bad about themselves.


Relapse can feel like a major failure or setback to addicts and leave them feeling hopeless and helpless at times. Remaining optimistic about recovery and sobriety can help them stick to their treatment plan and resist thoughts of using again.

Staying Busy and Positive

Relapsing can easily cause depression among recovering addicts and finding ways to stay positive and busy during recovery will help them avoid another relapse. They can fill their day with activities that bring them joy, for example:

  • Exercise.
  • Learn a new skill or language.
  • Take up a hobby.
  • Volunteer and help others in need.

Sobriety should be the first priority for recovering addicts, and everything else should come second. The goal is to stay sober, enjoy life, and keep working for a better tomorrow. Every positive change an addict makes toward recovery gives them strength and has a positive ripple effect in their lives.

If however, they do not recognize the problems that caused their relapse and continue to use drugs then it is time for them to get back into a rehabilitation program. You can learn more about how to prepare for rehab.

How long does it take to recover from a relapse?

Drug addiction recovery and relapse recovery are an ongoing process for recovering addicts and stopping substance abuse is only the first step of this process. The recovery often takes a long time and prevents addicts from using again.

Depending on their needs, relapse recovery can last anywhere from 30, 60, or 90-day treatment programs in facilities to a lifetime of maintaining sobriety. Recovery has no limitations and addicts should not confine themselves to a set time limit as this may cause them to relapse again after that time ends.

Click here to learn more about treatment lengths at inpatient facilities.

Causes and prevention of drug relapse

How to prevent a relapse in drug addiction.

“Prevention is better than cure”

This is especially true for recovering addicts and preventing a relapse before it happens is the best treatment for any addict. Prevention of relapse or substance abuse should be seen as a day-to-day process of personal growth.

Prevention requires identifying triggers and avoiding or overcoming them entirely. Addicts can gradually implement many other coping mechanisms and skills to prevent a relapse and progress with a sober lifestyle for the rest of their lives.

Let’s discuss some of these triggers and prevention skills.

  • Identify and Overcome Triggers

If addicts know and understand their triggers, they have a much lower chance of a relapse. The three relapse triggers discussed earlier can be identified and avoided by the following methods:

Emotional Triggers

An easy way to identify and address emotional triggers is through self-reflection. Self-reflection can include asking themselves questions like:

  • Am I busy or bored?
  • Am I happy or not?
  • Am I taking self-care or not?
  • Am I managing stress or not?

Addicts need to address their feelings, emotions, and thoughts every day. Identification through self-reflection will help them make changes in daily situations and overcome the emotional triggers of relapse.

Mental Triggers

When going through the mental phase of relapse, addicts can prevent mental triggers by:

  • Remembering previous consequences of substance abuse.
  • Talking to their support system to identify and dissipate urges.
  • Distracting themselves for long enough to overcome urges. Usually up to 40 minutes.
  • Meditating and relaxing to alleviate stress, anger, anxiety, tension, and urges.

Physical triggers

Physical triggers usually involve environmental causes that include:

  • Financial problems that increase stress.
  • Other situations of stress that trigger relapse.
  • Meeting people or peers associated with prior substance abuse.
  • Visiting or seeing places associated with prior substance abuse.
  • Seeing objects and hearing sounds or music associated with prior substance abuse.

The best practice for relapse prevention is to avoid these people, places, and things altogether to overcome a potential relapse through physical triggers.

  • Join a Support Group

As mentioned earlier, creating a support system can help recover from a drug addiction relapse. Similarly, joining a support group can help create a support system that prevents relapse in the first place.

Support groups like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) can help provide education, accountability, support, and the opportunity to meet other people who understand the road to recovery and are on it themselves. This helps avoid feelings of loneliness, isolation, and shame in addicts, all of which can trigger stress and eventual relapse.

  • Invest in Self Care

A big part of preventing relapse is to take care of yourself. Self-care will increase self-worth in recovering addicts which can otherwise cause depression and trigger urges and eventual relapse. When overcoming addiction and strong urges, the following self-care activities can also impact thoughts and cravings in a positive way:

  • Sleeping well
  • Staying clean
  • Eating healthy
  • Exercising
  • Quitting smoking
  • Accept Cravings

Cravings occur most frequently after initial treatment but can occur at any time during recovery. Recovering addicts and people who have been sober for years can also crave substance abuse because of any number of triggers.

Cravings are a natural part of recovery and accepting them as they come will help overcome urges to use again, preventing a potential relapse. Avoiding them by keeping busy is a good idea but long-term prevention requires addicts to gradually learn to accept them in order to mindfully prevent using again.

  • Meditation and Breathing Exercises

Learning and practicing meditation can help addicts control thoughts and urges that cause a relapse. It also helps reduce stress and anxiety which are key triggers for recovering addicts. Along with regular meditation, breathing exercises are an excellent way to detox the mind and body.

Most breathing exercises involve deep breathing which increases the oxygen level in the body and helps alleviate stress, lethargy, anxiety, and tension in anyone that practices regularly. Meditation and breathing exercises can improve awareness and act as a coping mechanism for addicts that they can use to calm down in any stressful situation that triggers them.


Drug addiction is very difficult to overcome and the road to recovery is filled with triggers and relapses. It cannot be stressed enough that relapses do not mean the end of an addict’s treatment or recovery.

Facing challenges on the way is part of the journey and recovering addicts should be mindful in their decision-making and not judge themselves harshly upon making mistakes. Utilizing every opportunity to overcome addictions and avoid using again should be the only priority for them.

Friends and family or support groups of addicts play major roles in their recovery process and should always be vigilant and proactive when it comes to matters of substance abuse. Addicts need all the support they can get without any of the judgments.

Always consult a professional and be mindful when dealing with substance abusers.

For more information, contact us directly by calling (805) 600-2149.