How to avoid relapse

Relapse is often part of recovery, but it happens gradually. By recognizing the early warning signs of a relapse you can give yourself the support you need to stay on the path to recovery.

emotional relapse
mental relapse
physical relapse
Decline of self-care Fighting the urge to use Using drugs or alcohol
You're not actively seeking to use, but you're not taking care of yourself, either. Part of you really wants to use, but you’re still fighting the urge to do so. You may feel like you're at war with yourself. You use drugs or alcohol. It could be just a lapse, or it could be a relapse.


Emotional Relapse → The decline of self-care

During the first stage of relapse, you probably aren’t thinking about using drugs or alcohol. But you probably aren’t taking care of yourself as well as you might. Lack of self care can increase emotions and behaviors that may set you up for a relapse down the road. And because you’re not consciously planning on using, you might be in denial about how what you’re feeling can affect your sobriety. 

Some of the warning signs of emotional relapse are: 

  • Poor eating, sleeping or exercise habits
  • Bottling up your emotions
  • Not going to meetings, therapy, or aftercare
  • Focusing on others instead of yourself


To keep from getting stuck in emotional relapse, check in with yourself and how you’re feeling. One way to do this is to use the HALT method: Are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired? By making sure you’re eating regularly, getting enough sleep, reaching out to avoid isolating, and dealing with anger as it arises, the easier it is to stay in recovery.  

Use your support system

Check in with a therapist, sponsor, or friend to make sure you're being kind to yourself, having fun, and aren't exhausted. It can also help to compare how you're feeling with how you've felt in the past. Is what you're feeling familiar? How have you dealt with your feelings in a positive way in the past?

When you don’t take care of yourself and your own emotional needs, you start to feel uncomfortable in your own skin: irritable, frustrated by your inability to change other people or situations, restless, and irritable. And as this tension builds, using starts to seem like an option to feel better.

Mental Relapse → Fighting the urge to use

In mental relapse, you might start considering drinking or using drugs. And you might feel like you’re at war with yourself; part of you really wants to use, but you’re still fighting the urge to do so.

Some of the warning signs of mental relapse are:

  • Craving drugs or alcohol
  • Glamorizing what it was like when you were using
  • Minimizing the consequences of your past use
  • Lying
  • Looking for ways to use and thinking of schemes to control using
  • Planning a relapse

In this stage, you’re more susceptible to triggers, which are emotions, memories or even experiences that remind you of your substance use. For example, being at a bar or a nightclub might stir up your desire to have a drink. A trigger can also be difficult but unavoidable situations that you previously coped with by using substances, like being around family members or even the stress of your job or school. 

Mental relapse may also involve bargaining, or starting to think of scenarios in which  it might be okay to use, like  on vacation or at a party. Another form of bargaining is thinking you can use periodically in a controlled way, like during the holidays.

To avoid a mental relapse, you can:

  • Play the tape through: If you’ve been glamorizing what it was like to drink or use drugs, focus on what the consequences were, and remind yourself that the same things will happen if you use now. 
  • Check your feet: Look where they are and assess. Are they on the floor in your counselor’s office? If so, you’re good. But if they’re hanging off a seat at a bar, or walking down the street where you used to score, then your sobriety may be in danger.
  • Talk to someone: Remember you’re not alone. Millions of people have experienced what you’re experiencing.
  • Wait half an hour: Most urges are very intense for about 30 minutes. If you can occupy your time until the urges pass, you’re more likely to avoid physical relapse.

Physical Relapse → Using drugs or alcohol

Finally, physical relapse is when you drink or do drugs again. This is what comes to mind when most people think of a relapse, but it doesn’t happen without the first two stages.

When you get stuck in a pattern of not taking care of yourself, and then imagining what it would be like to drink or use drugs, it’s very hard to avoid using. Physical relapse isn’t just suddenly giving into cravings (which are normal and happen throughout recovery)  — it’s a process that can be interrupted.

Relapse is a setback, not a failure, and is a process of learning about yourself and your relationship with drugs or alcohol. It can take a while, and the road to recovery might be winding. If you relapse, be gentle with yourself.

Practical steps to deal with relapse are:

  • Reaching out for help. Contact your sponsor if you have one, a counselor, or a trusted loved one. These people will help you stay accountable and will support you..
  • Consider going to treatment. Maybe you’ve been to treatment before and could use extra support from an outpatient program. There are many different types of treatment, so a relapse could mean you need a different level of support.
  • Find different ways to cope with triggers. Practicing mindfullness helps a lot of people, but for others sitting still can feel like torture. Find what works for you and stick with it.

If you relapse, please remember you are not alone. Relapse does not erase all of your progress; rather, it teaches you how to overcome difficult situations as they come. 

Teen talking to a therapist

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