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Relapse Prevention: What It Means and How It Works

One of the scariest things a person in recovery can face is relapse. Relapse can mean different things to different people, but generally, a relapse is continuing or restarting the cycle of addiction after being abstinent for some time. Some view “relapse” as any exposure to an addictive substance. 

According to the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, the three stages of relapse are emotional relapse, mental relapse, and physical relapse.

Stage #1: Emotional  Relapse

Emotional relapse might best be described as a fear of the future relapse and displaying behaviors that echo that fear. The patient doesn’t want to use and focuses on avoiding what happened the last time they relapsed. Signs of emotional relapse include:

  • Bottling up emotions
  • Isolating
  • Going to meetings but not sharing
  • Stopping attending meetings altogether
  • Focus on others’ problems or how others affect them
  • Poor eating or sleeping habits

With this fear of relapse, the patient displays a lack of self-care and self-esteem. To stop emotional relapse, the patient should remember that they need to take care of themselves. Relapse can be a consequence of a prolonged lack of self-care. Remember the acronym HALT: hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. If you notice yourself following this pattern of emotional relapse, think about how you can give yourself the self-care you need. 

Stage #2: Mental Relapse 

Mental relapse is a war in the patient’s mind between the desire to use and the resistance to using. During this time, the patient’s conscious effort to resist using dwindles, and the need for an escape increases. Some signs of mental relapse include:

  • A craving for addictive substances
  • Thinking about people and places that instigated past use
  • Forgetting the past consequences of use or glorifying use
  • Bargaining
  • Lying
  • Thinking of ways to control substance abuse
  • Looking for opportunities to relapse
  • Planning relapse
  • Significant warning signs of mental relapse are a change in personality or insistence as well. 

It can be hard to stop the train at this point, but you can still prevent an actual relapse by recognizing that you’re in a mental relapse phase. The bargaining part is monumental — one example would be if you’re allowing yourself to use for a trip or a weekend. Thoughts of need and cravings for addictive substances are normal. It’s okay, but be aware of the signs above. Ask yourself, “Am I just experiencing an intense craving, or am I planning for a relapse?” 

Stage #3: Physical Relapse

Physical relapse is the actual use of an addictive substance for its intoxicating effects. This relapse stage can be a “lapse” (a one-time use) or a “relapse” (continued abuse of the substance). Both are detrimental to one’s recovery, as a temporary lapse can easily lead to a relapse. Signs of relapse are the same as the signs that accompany substance abuse, depending on the substance.

Physical relapses often occur due to a window of opportunity. The patient thinks that they won’t get caught, so they use. For relapse prevention, patients should practice healthy exit strategies set by a medical professional and their support system.

Seeking Help 

Many people seek help to avoid relapse, which is a healthy step toward growth and personal safety. The most important part is to learn the stages of relapse early so that you can seek help in recovery. The following are four strategies for preventing relapse are rooted in cognitive therapy:

  • Terminate fear: Though fear is healthy, the fear that you’re not good enough, you can’t do it, or you’ll relapse eventually can stop your growth.
  • Redefine fun: As patients cope with everyday stressors, they may shift into mental relapse, longing for the “old days” thinking they were fun. They forget about the positive effects of their sobriety. Redefine fun for yourself and find new ways to relax and enjoy life.
  • Learn from setbacks: Even if you have setbacks, no matter how minor, don’t be afraid to share them with your support group or therapist. Bottling up these feelings will only feed into the stages of relapse. Create coping and exit strategies with yourself and your therapist.
  • Get comfortable with being uncomfortable: Although it may seem like people who aren’t in recovery have fewer problems, this isn’t a reason to end your sobriety. Remember those positive effects, and stay positive in your outlook on sobriety. Your discomfort won’t be chronic, and you will thrive again!

With help, you can learn to live and trust yourself again as you recover. No matter what, you’re worth the work.

Caution: Do not think that because relapse prevention methods are working, you should be able to ease back into addictive habits. The point of prevention is that you stop the dangerous habits you once had completely. Identifying emotional relapse and mental relapse can help you before it gets to physical relapse. Don’t get complacent with your recovery. Instead, prioritize relapse prevention and stay on track with your support team and peers. At RECO Intensive, we understand that relapse is scary, but we want to help. RECO Intensive offers cognitive therapy and peer groups that can help you feel supported and understood. Our expert staff and experienced alumni can coach you through your early stages of relapse and come up with exit strategies that are personalized to you. RECO Intensive offers individualized care and the knowledge that relapse prevention is possible. Let’s get back to a brighter future. Call RECO Intensive today at (561) 464-6533. 

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