relapse prevention

Relapse prevention is key in successful, long-term recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. Before we get into detail regarding relapse prevention, let’s define the term ‘relapse’. A relapse is when an individual returns to the use of drugs or alcohol following a period of sobriety. It is common for recovering individuals to face a high risk of relapse. This is due to the structural and functional brain changes caused by chronic substance use. 

Relapse tends to occur as a process rather than an event. It can begin in less than detectable ways, while increasingly getting worse. Developing a relapse prevention plan for the recovering individual is crucial. But, to understand relapse prevention, one must first understand the stages of relapse. 

What is Relapse Prevention?

Relapse prevention means putting together a plan to help you successfully recover in the long-run. Relapse prevention calls for some self-awareness. You must recognize that you’re undergoing emotional and mental changes that will be tested outside of treatment. Be honest with yourself about how you feel and don’t be afraid to ask for help. 

It’s natural to experience triggers and feelings of doubt during the addiction recovery process. The goal is to lessen the chances of a relapse occurring through a relapse prevention plan. 


The Three Stages of Relapse

The three stages of relapse are emotional, mental, and physical. Awareness of these three stages is immensely beneficial when creating a relapse prevention plan. The three stages of relapse are explained below:

Stage 1: Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse is the first phase that puts a recovering individual at risk. During the emotional relapse stage, the individual is not actively thinking about using drugs or alcohol. However, their emotions and behaviors may be setting them up for a relapse in the future. It’s common for people to get stuck in their emotions and thoughts without realizing it. Relapse prevention helps by addressing the emotional relapse stage, helping people learn how to navigate through it. 

It’s also helpful to educate yourself on the warning signs of emotional relapse. Some of these warning signs may be:

  • Bottling up your emotions
  • Not attending recovery meetings
  • Social isolation from loved ones 
  • Unhealthy eating habits
  • Poor sleeping patterns 
  • Not addressing anxiety, anger, or other emotional issues in a productive and healthy manner
  • Defensiveness
  • Mood swings
  • Refusing to ask for help 
  • Not participating in sober activities/hobbies

Stage 2: Mental Relapse

If an individual chooses to ignore the warning signs of the emotional stage, a higher risk of transitioning into the second stage of relapse occurs. An important aspect of relapse prevention is understanding the symptoms of each stage and being honest with yourself about where you are. The mental relapse stage can feel like an internal battle going on in one’s mind. 

Individuals will feel tempted to use, while also hanging on to the motivation they have left to stay clean. Fantasizing about using is a common effect of this stage. As the mental relapse stage deepens, cognitive resistance begins to lessen, while the urge to escape increases. It’s worth noting that fleeting thoughts of using are completely normal. Lingering thoughts, however, are potentially problematic.

Feeling triggered at times will happen and that is okay. Mental relapse becomes a serious issue when these thoughts are not merely coming in and out of your head. Rather, it becomes an internal debate about whether or not one should begin using again.

Some of the warning symptoms of mental relapse include:

  • Cravings/Temptations
  • Physical and psychological urges to use the chosen substance
  • Ruminating about people, places, and things associated with drug or alcohol use
  • Surrounding oneself with old friends who continue to use 
  • Minimizing the consequences of past use or glamorizing past use
  • Bargaining – This is when an individual starts to think of scenarios in which it would be acceptable to use. For example, they may try and rationalize using alcohol or drugs once or twice a year during the holidays or when visiting family.
  • Lying
  • Thinking of schemes to better control substance use
  • Imagining drug or alcohol use 
  • Planning your relapse

Stage 3: Physical Relapse

Physical relapse is the final stage. This is when the individual gives in to their temptations and urges. After ignoring the warning signs of the first two stages, the individual will feel overwhelmed with the choice of substance use. This is why understanding the three stages is crucial to preventing a relapse from occurring. The more familiar you can become with the warning signs, the better you can be prepared to work through them. 

Preventing Relapse by Understanding Relapse Triggers 

Relapse triggers are what cause a person to crave drugs or alcohol, thus eventually leading to a relapse. Addressing triggers helps prevent a relapse from occurring. Each recovering individual will face triggers outside of treatment. This is not only normal, but it is also expected. The key here is to plan and use your tool kit of skills learned in rehab to effectively work through the temptations. 

There are two main types of relapse triggers: 

Internal Relapse Triggers

Internal relapse triggers consist of feelings, thoughts, or emotions relating to addiction. They are often more challenging to address than external triggers. These triggers can lead to behavior that the individual will end up regretting after acting on heightened emotions. Internal triggers include:

  • Negative feelings
  • Normal feelings 
  • Positive feelings 
  • Stress

External Relapse Triggers

External triggers consist of people, places, activities, and objects that provoke thoughts or cravings relating to addiction. These triggers take on many different forms. So, recognizing the different types is a helpful tool in relapse prevention. Choosing to stay away from the dangers of external triggers is crucial. Relapse prevention means creating an action plan to avoid triggers that remind you of substance use. External relapse triggers take on the forms of:

  • People 
  • Situations 
  • Places
  • Objects

Aftercare Treatment for Relapse Prevention

Aftercare planning helps prevent a relapse from occurring by creating a plan that can help the individual outside of the recovery center. Once the core components of treatment have been completed, the patient will transition back into their normal life. Preventing relapse can be effectively done through therapeutic services and continuing support.

Aftercare can take place in a variety of different ways, depending on the individual’s unique needs. In some cases, attending recovery meetings once a week gets the job done. In other situations, a step-down form of treatment is more necessary. Together, we’ll create an aftercare plan that’ll target relapse prevention. 

There are many different options when it comes to aftercare.

Some of the main options include:

  • Outpatient treatment: Outpatient treatment is the level of care with the most flexibility. Members will travel to our recovery center for treatment with the ability to return home after. If you have responsibilities outside of treatment such as work or taking care of a child, then outpatient treatment may serve your needs best. In standard outpatient programs, recovering individuals can create a treatment schedule that works for them. Together with our team, our clients can develop a personalized relapse prevention plan that suits them. This can mean attending treatment sessions once a week or it can mean going daily. 
    • An intensive outpatient program (IOP) is a more intensive option in outpatient treatment. Patients in IOPs will commit to about 9 hours of treatment weekly based on their scheduling needs. 
  • Group therapy: Recovering individuals in group therapy can openly share their thoughts and feelings, as well as develop social and coping skills in a group setting.
  • Individual therapy: Individual therapy consists of one-on-one sessions with a therapist. The exact type of therapy will depend on the individual’s needs and can include a combination of evidence-based therapies. 
  • 12-step programs: Recovery meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) provide a judgment-free and supportive space for recovering individuals.

Additional Aftercare Components

There are a variety of aftercare components that are helpful to know. Each aftercare program will be created before the patient’s discharge. Aftercare can mean transitioning into a lower level of care or it can mean attending weekly recovery meetings. In either case, we will be here to support you from day one at our recovery center in North Jersey. 

Many aftercare plans will include:

  • Relapse prevention strategy created before discharge, as well as a rehearsal to build confidence
  • Consistently scheduled outpatient follow-up treatment sessions with an addiction counselor for continued therapy
  • Living arrangements post-treatment, such as sober living homes
  • Recommended or required drug testing

Learn More About Relapse Prevention Today!

Developing a relapse prevention plan is a crucial part of the addiction recovery process. Following treatment, our priority is to set you up for long-term success. Together, we will work to develop an aftercare plan to lessen the chances of a relapse happening. No matter what stage you’re in, we can show you the potential you’ve always had.

We can guide you from beginning through the end of your treatment process, as well as your relapse prevention plan. If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at North Jersey Recovery Center. We’re waiting for your call!

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Laura Riley

Laura-Riley-Cropped-ProfileLaura Riley, MA, LCADC, CCS is an Administrator with North Jersey Recovery Center.