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relapse prevention

Relapse Prevention for our Loved Ones

Table of Contents

You likely feel pride and relief when you have a loved one in recovery. However, relapse prevention is something they’ll have to focus on probably for the rest of their life. As their loved one and ally, understanding recovery and relapse prevention can be helpful to them. 

You don’t have control over someone else’s substance abuse or recovery, but you can be a positive support system for the people you love.


What is a Relapse?

People recovering from an addiction or substance use disorder of any type will often experience at least one relapse, based on data gathered by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). While relapse is frequently part of a long-term recovery journey, it’s not inevitable.

  • Drug and alcohol use disorders are chronic diseases, so relapse is a possibility. 
  • While experiencing a return to drug or alcohol use is more likely earlier on in recovery, it can happen even after a long period of abstinence.
  • If a relapse does occur, getting back to treatment as fast as possible is essential.

A relapse is when someone isn’t maintaining their goal to reduce or avoid alcohol or other substances.

  • Experiencing a relapse is different from a lapse. 
  • A lapse is a temporary departure from sobriety, where the person then quickly returns to their goals. A lapse is a brief period, while a relapse isn’t.
  • There are a lot of things that can contribute to a relapse. Factors increasing the likelihood of returning to drug or alcohol use can include emotional or psychological problems, work problems, financial hardship, or changes in relationships.
  • Relapsing doesn’t mean someone is weak, nor does it mean they’re a failure. It can mean their treatment plan needs to be revisited and potentially evolve with their changing needs.
  • The overall relapse rate for drug and alcohol addiction is 40-60%. This rate is similar to other chronic health conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma.

There is a particularly dangerous element of relapsing, particularly on certain drugs like heroin. When you’re in recovery, your tolerance to drugs or alcohol decreases. If you relapse and use the same dose or amount you were using before when your tolerance was much higher, it can lead to overdose or death. 

Being sober for even a brief period of time can lead to changes in your tolerance.


How to Make a Relapse Prevention Plan

Having a relapse prevention plan is so important for someone in their recovery. If a person goes to a treatment program, they should work on a relapse prevention plan with their treatment team. Creating this type of plan is also something your loved one might do on their own.

A relapse prevention plan helps someone recognize the signs of relapse and their triggers. There are concrete steps outlined to prevent a return to chronically abusing substances.

Elements of creating a successful prevention plan include:

  • A prevention plan should include a history of the person’s use of drugs or alcohol. They might think about whether there were times or settings they were more likely to use or if there were people often involved. Thought patterns that made someone more likely to use substances are included in this assessment. To prevent future relapse, it’s important to avoid the high-risk situations and potential triggers that initially caused drug or alcohol abuse.
  • When someone creates their prevention plan, they’ll go over the scenarios that could lead to a relapse. They’ll list the warning signs of relapse for them.
  • The plan should include specific steps for action. If someone is experiencing what they know is a trigger, they can look to their action plan to determine how they’ll handle it instead of turning to alcohol or drugs. For example, rather than drinking, maybe a person decides they’ll go to a 12-step meeting. Instead of using drugs, the person might have a list of people close to them who they’ll call.

More specifically, things to include in these plans for a recovery process are:

  • Relapse triggers: When determining triggers, a person will consider the addictive thoughts, places, people, times of the year, and feelings linked to their potential to relapse.
  • Managing cravings: A list will include plans to confront cravings without relapsing.
  • Tools for prevention: This list of relapse prevention strategies should include things that help someone in their path to recovery, like exercising or journaling.



The Three Stages of a Relapse

If your loved one is in recovery, you may not realize it, but there are actually three stages of relapse. Experiencing a return to addictive behaviors is often a gradual process. By understanding these stages, you may be able to help your loved one before they’re actually in a full-blown relapse. So, what are the 3 steps to relapse prevention? These phases include:

  • Emotional relapse: During the emotional relapse stage, the person might not be experiencing cravings. Instead, negative emotions could start to arise, like anxiety or anger. On the outside, this stage could look like not following the typical routine, not attending therapy or self-help groups, or unhealthy eating or sleeping patterns. Changes in mental health could also represent a relapse risk. 
  • Mental relapse stage: When someone is experiencing the mental stage of relapse, they’ve moved onto a point where they’re actively considering using substances to help alleviate their emotional distress. For example, signs of risk for relapse could include glamorizing past substance use or spending time thinking they can use again without it becoming a bigger problem.
  • Physical relapse: This final stage of the relapse process is when the actual return to using an addictive substance occurs. The physical relapse phase can also include the steps taken to get drugs or alcohol, like calling a dealer or buying liquor.


How Can You Help Your Loved Ones with Relapse Prevention?

One of the best things you can do to help someone avoid returning to drug or alcohol use is simply being a support system. Be an active part of their life in recovery. Listen when they need someone to talk to. You don’t have to offer advice or solve their problems for them.

When someone in recovery surrounds themselves with supportive people who are a positive influence, it greatly reduces the likelihood of relapsing.

  • You can also encourage your loved ones to choose healthy distractions and activities in their life.
  • For example, maybe you invite them to go on a daily walk or attend a yoga class with you as healthy alternatives to lower the risk of relapse. 
  • You can get together to cook healthy meals or see a movie.
  • Little things can go a long way if someone is experiencing any of the phases of relapse and supporting recovery maintenance. 

If someone does return to using drugs or alcohol again, encourage them to seek treatment as soon as possible. The sooner they can get the situation under control, the better.

If your loved ones need help with drug or alcohol abuse and you have questions or want to learn more, call 800-630-1218, The Right Time Recovery team is available to talk.