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Addiction Relapse: Detection & How to Recover

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The recovery process is a long and difficult one, so getting clean and sober is a big achievement. Yet sobriety can also include dealing with the fear and possibility of relapse. Despite this, relapse is avoidable and is something that can be recovered from if encountered.  This guide will provide important information about relapse detection and recovery.

What Is the Definition of Relapse?

A person’s return to using a substance following a period of abstinence is defined as a relapse. Relapse is a very high risk for many who are in recovery, and it can result in many long-term and possibly irreversible damages to brain function and structure.


A person is engaging in “traditional” relapse when they have made a conscious decision to start using a substance after a period of sobriety. Traditional relapse can occur when someone feels that the use of a substance is manageable, or they use it because they need to manage some kind of stress.


“Freelapse” is the term for unintentional substance use, such as when a person unknowingly ingests an addictive substance, such as an alcoholic drink they were told contained no alcohol.

How Relapse Progresses

Traditional relapse occurs in three stages: emotional, mental, and physical.

During emotional relapse, which can occur weeks, months, or even years before physical relapse occurs, the way in which you cope with your emotions may shift from healthy to unhealthy. For example, you may stop taking care of yourself or may withdraw from emotional conversations and social interactions.

Mental relapse occurs when you realize your thoughts and feelings about sobriety have become conflicting, even though you may feel, in part, that you do want to stay sober. Downplaying the consequences of returning to substance use, thinking about how you would relapse, and actively seeking opportunities to use are all signs of mental relapse.

Physical relapse is the actual use of a substance and is the final stage. Physical relapse can involve the one-time use of a substance, but it can also lead to bingeing, where there is little or no control over how much or how often a substance is used.

What Causes Someone to Relapse?

People relapse for a number of reasons, including stress and pain. When one or more of these relapse risk factors become of such high intensity that they lead to a return to substance use, they are referred to as “triggers.”

  • Stress, such as the kind experienced at work or in spousal relationships, can cause negative emotions like depression, anxiety, and boredom to surface. If a person’s coping skills are poor or non-existent, stress can be a trigger.
  • Insufficient or complete lack of support includes having an abundance of negative support for staying sober or no outlet to help cope with various challenges related to maintaining sobriety. Lack of support can also occur as the result of spending time around friends or family who use substances and apply peer pressure.
  • Not paying attention to positive emotions can be a “hidden” trigger; experiencing the good feelings that positive emotions generate can lead to the desire to intensify them by using one or more substances. Positive emotions can manifest at happy events like weddings or birthdays, as well as returning to environments where you previously engaged in substance use.
  • Being in physical pain due to medical problems or injuries may result in the prescribing of narcotics and other addictive pain management products. Difficulty with controlling use can lead to a relapse, as well as ingestion of higher doses than prescribed in an attempt to control pain.
  • Relationship conflicts with friends and family members can cause frustration, sadness, or anger that, if improperly managed, can lead to a return to substance use.

How to Avoid Relapse

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Understanding various risk factors and how they can affect you can help you avoid relapse, but it’s equally important to know about the steps you can take if you are experiencing difficulties:

  • Having a relapse prevention plan is key. This detailed plan should be updated regularly and include your triggers, at least three coping strategies that are effective for you, and the names and contact information of those people in your life who you can get in touch with for help.
  • A prevention plan is only as good as the actions taken. Reaching out to family, friends, or support groups and ensuring you’re surrounded by as many positive influences as possible are two proactive steps you can take.
  • If you are experiencing relapse, remove yourself from or minimize contact with as many triggers as possible, as soon as possible.
  • Self-care through engaging in pleasurable and non-harmful activities like eating healthily, exercising, or meditating can help you avoid returning to substance use and help you
  • Reflection can provide the opportunity to learn about what caused a return to using. Asking important questions about events that took place prior and what coping mechanisms you tried or didn’t try can help you gain a better understanding.

What to Do if You’ve Relapsed

Whether you’re experiencing the emotional, mental, or physical signs of relapse for the first time or have experienced it before, the reality is relapsing can place you in a high-risk situation. The risks of relapse can include mental health issues and also physical health issues, unless the process is interrupted by an effective substance abuse treatment program.

At Del Arroyo Recovery Center, we believe that anyone can succeed and thrive in sobriety with the right help. Our holistic and individualized addiction care includes recovery plans, detox, residential inpatient and outpatient programs, dual-diagnosis care, and much more.

Our intake specialists are understanding and judgment-free, and they help get you back on the road to recovery. Call to get started. (877) 535-0636.

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