Relapse in Addiction Recovery: Dealing With Setbacks


Dealing with setbacks and relapses during recovery is never easy, and a relapse can feel like a significant step backwards. However, setbacks are a common part of the recovery process, and with the right strategies and support, they can be managed effectively. This page will explore various techniques and approaches to help you navigate this challenging path, emphasising the importance of resilience, self-compassion, and proactive planning.

At CATCH Recovery, we specialise in the treatment of alcohol and substance use disorders as well as behavioural addictions and mental health issues. We offer a comprehensive range of therapies designed to support individuals at every stage of their journey. Whether you’re new to recovery or have been in recovery for some time, we offer additional therapeutic interventions to help strengthen healthy coping mechanisms and support networks.

What is a Relapse?

In the context of addiction, a relapse is categorised as a return to substances after a period of abstinence. Typically, a relapse is preceded by identifiable warning signs. Establishing a relapse prevention plan for yourself or someone you care about is the key to sustaining long-term recovery.

At any stage of recovery, there is a risk of relapse, so it’s crucial to know and understand relapse prevention skills.

Some of the most common triggers of relapse include:

  • Boredom
  • Stress
  • Money problems
  • Relationship issues
  • Certain sights and smells
  • Specific people or places
  • Falling into old habits
  • Anger

Having tools in place and a deep understanding of how to manage triggers and prevent potential relapses is key to maintaining abstinence once you leave alcohol or drug treatment.

Relapse Prevention

Rooted in the cognitive behavioural approach (CBT), relapse prevention is aimed at helping individuals identify and cope with high-risk situations that could lead to relapse.1 It supports people in maintaining their desired behavioural changes. It is a strategy designed to reduce the likelihood and severity of relapse. 2. It’s a process that often begins with emotions and thoughts and can also include cravings.

The three stages of relapse include:

  • Emotional
  • Mental
  • Physical

Discover in detail what each stage of the relapse entails and how to recognise the early warning signs of a potential relapse.

The Stages of Relapse in Addiction

Relapse is often a gradual process that unfolds in distinct stages, each characterised by specific thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.3 The three main stages of relapse in addiction are:

1. Emotional Relapse:

At this stage, individuals may not be actively thinking about using substances, but their emotions and behaviours are setting the groundwork for a potential relapse.

Signs include experiencing anxiety, mood swings, isolation, not attending support meetings, poor self-care (e.g., not eating or sleeping well), and bottling up emotions.

2. Mental Relapse:

This stage involves an internal conflict; where part of the individual wants to use substances, and the other part resists. The desire to use starts to become stronger and more prominent.

Signs of the mental stage of a relapse include:

  1. Thinking about past use: Reminiscing about people, places, and things associated with previous substance use.
  2. Glamorising past use: Focusing on the positive memories of using substances while ignoring the negative consequences.
  3. Lying: Being dishonest about thoughts and behaviours related to substance use.
  4. Fantasising about using: Daydreaming about using substances again.
  5. Planning relapse: Making plans to use substances, often around other people’s schedules to avoid detection.
  6. Thinking about controlling use: Contemplating ways to use substances in a controlled manner.

Identifying this stage is crucial because recognising and addressing these thoughts early can prevent a full relapse. If you have experienced a relapse or someone you know is exhibiting signs they might relapse, CATCH Recovery can help. Call us to find out how we can help you avoid or manage a relapse, offering professional guidance and personalised care to ensure sustained recovery.

3. Physical Relapse:

Physical relapse is the stage where an individual returns to substance use after a period of abstinence. This stage often begins with a “lapse” (initial use) and can escalate into uncontrolled use (full relapse).

Indicators of a physical relapse include resuming substance use and frequenting environments where substance use is prevalent. Individuals may lose the ability to control their consumption once they begin. Observable signs of a relapse include secrecy, withdrawal from friends and family, and neglecting responsibilities at work. Physical withdrawal symptoms may also reappear, leading to further use to alleviate discomfort. Behavioural changes such as increased irritability, isolation, and defensiveness about substance use are common during this stage.

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What to Include in a Relapse Prevention Plan

Relapse prevention plans should be both accessible and realistic. They can vary in complexity, from simple lists of reminders written on a note or mobile app to more detailed journals or workbooks. These tools help identify risky scenarios and outline the steps to maintain sobriety.

  • Someone to call
  • A safe place to go
  • A list of personal reasons for staying sober
  • Examples of stress-relief strategies
  • A schedule of local support group meetings 4
  • Hotline numbers or crisis lines
  • Locations of emergency services

What to do When a Person you Know Relapses

If someone you know has relapsed, there are a few solutions you can offer that address both immediate needs and long-term behavioural changes.

What to do When a Person you Know Relapses

Seek medical support

If the person is experiencing unusual or severe symptoms, especially if they haven’t used the substance in a long time and you suspect they may have overdosed, seek medical assistance immediately. 5

Ensure safety

If you are not with them, make sure they have support nearby to keep them safe.

Reach out

Contact the person’s support network. This might include friends, family members, or a sponsor.

Reassure the person

Relapse is common and doesn’t mean failure. They may begin to experience feelings of guilt and shame, and open communication can help them refocus on their journey towards sustained sobriety.

Encourage learning

Help them see relapse as a chance to learn more about their triggers and how to manage them better in the future.

What Should I Do if I am About to Relapse?

Recognising the signs of an impending relapse is crucial, as early intervention can prevent it from escalating.6 Here are several strategies to help you stay on track:

  1. Identify Early Signs: Understand and be aware of the common indicators that you may be on the verge of relapse. These can include emotional triggers, changes in behaviour, or increasing thoughts about alcohol. By recognising these early signs, you can take steps to address them before they lead to a full relapse.
  2. Reach Out for Help: Don’t hesitate to contact someone you trust who understands the challenges of recovery. This could be a family member, friend, or sponsor who can offer immediate support and guidance. Sometimes, just talking about your feelings and concerns can help you regain perspective and strength.
  3. Communicate Your Concerns: Share your worries with a key worker, doctor, therapist, or another trusted individual. Professional support can provide you with strategies and coping strategies to deal with the urge to relapse. It’s important to be open and honest about your struggles, as this can lead to effective solutions.
  4. Plan Ahead: Proactively discuss the possibility of relapse with trusted individuals before it happens. Having a plan in place can significantly impact how you handle the situation. This plan might include specific actions to take, people to call, and steps to follow to manage cravings and stress.
  5. Make Healthy Choices: Find activities that can distract you from thoughts of relapse and provide positive reinforcement. Exercise, hobbies, or spending time with supportive friends can help shift your focus and reduce the temptation to drink.
  6. Utilise Support Networks: Engage with support groups or recovery communities such as CATCH’s Recovery Club. Being part of a group where members share similar experiences can provide additional encouragement and accountability. Regularly attending meetings and group therapy sessions can help reinforce your commitment to sobriety and strengthen your recovery journey.
  7. Practice Self-Care: Take care of your physical and emotional health. Ensure you are getting enough sleep, eating well, and engaging in activities that reduce stress and promote relaxation. A healthy body and mind are less susceptible to the pressures that can lead to relapse.

Following these steps can help you build a strong defence against relapse and maintain your commitment to recovery. Remember, asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. If you feel you may be about to relapse, take action immediately and utilise the resources available to you.

Relapse Prevention Tools

The goal of these tools is to empower individuals to recognise and address potential relapse triggers, manage cravings and stress effectively, and stay on track with their recovery journey.

1. Build a Support Network: Build and maintain a strong support network of friends, family, and healthcare professionals who understand your situation and can offer help and encouragement.

2. Establish Healthy Routines: Establish and stick to daily routines that include healthy activities like exercise, proper sleep, and balanced meals to keep your physical and mental health stable.

3. Manage Stress: Implement holistic wellness approaches such as mindfulness, meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga or mindfulness-based therapies to reduce possible stress triggers 7

4. Avoid Triggers: Identify and avoid situations, places, and people that trigger cravings or remind you of substance use.

5. Create Your Relapse Prevention Plan: Create a personalised relapse prevention plan that includes coping skills for high-risk situations, reminders, and emergency contact information. Keep this plan easily accessible and share it with those in your support network.

Recovery at CATCH

At CATCH, we understand that recovery is unique for each individual and setbacks are a part of the journey. That’s why our specialised team of therapists is dedicated to supporting you through every phase of the process. Continuing care is a vital component of our programme, providing ongoing support and resources even after the initial stages of recovery.

This extended support system helps reinforce the skills and strategies learned during treatment, ensuring you remain resilient when faced with challenges. With our one-to-one recovery coaching programme, you will have a dedicated therapist, committed to helping you build a solid foundation for a healthier, addiction-free future.

Our Re-Engagement Programme is specifically designed to support individuals seeking additional help to get back on track. Whether you are dealing with the emotional aftermath of a setback or looking to reinforce your coping strategies, our team of experienced therapists is here to help. Call us today to find out more about how we can support your recovery.

  • References

    1, 2: Marlatt GA, Witkiewitz KMarlatt GA, Donovan DM. Relapse prevention in Alcohol and drug problems Relapse Prevention: Maintenance Strategies in Treatment of Addictive Behaviours 2005

    3. Melemis SM. Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. Yale J Biol Med. 2015 Sep 3;88(3):325-32. PMID: 26339217; PMCID: PMC4553654.

    4. Al-Ziadat MA. Do social support and self-efficacy play a significant role in substance use relapse? Health Psychology Research. 2024;12. doi:10.52965/001c.94576

    5. Brady KT & Sonne SC (1996) The role of stress in alcohol use, alcoholism treatment and relapse. Alcohol Research and Health23(4) 263-271.

    6. Alcohol or Drug Relapse Signs and Symptoms, VeryWell Mind, 2023 https://www.verywellmind.com/warning-signs-of-an-alcohol-or-drug-relapse-67895

    7. NPS MedicineWise (2015) Chronic pain: limited evidence for opioids. New South Wales: NPS MedicineWise.

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