Maintaining Sobriety: How to Create a Drug Relapse Prevention Plan

It’s not easy to become sober. It’s even harder to stay sober. Given the many challenges facing recovering addicts, it’s hardly surprising that relapses are a frequent occurrence. Sometimes returning to old habits seems inevitable. Yet nothing is written in stone. There are ways to prevent the slip back into addiction.


Even if a relapse does occur, it’s possible to beat back the disease and regain control over your life. The first key is to stick with an outpatient addiction treatment program. The second is to create a comprehensive relapse plan. A well-conceived strategy can guide you through the toughest of times and put you back on track. As long as you have a map, you’re more likely to find your way back to the road that leads to sobriety.

The Prevalence of Drug Relapse

Blonde Woman Outside Staring at SunsetThe National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that anywhere between 40 to 60 percent of all recovering drug addicts will relapse at some point.1 That puts drug addiction in a class with other chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, and hypertension, all of which are difficult to manage and all of which come with high rates of regression.

Those seeking sobriety for the first time are even more likely to fall back into former patterns. According to addiction specialist Terence T. Gorski, two-thirds of all people who attempt attain sobriety for the first time will relapse. The good news is that roughly 50 percent will go on to achieve permanent sobriety. Given the high levels of recidivism among recovering addicts, relapse prevention ranks as a top priority for outpatient drug treatment centers and their patients. In many cases, a plan can mean the difference between permanent sobriety and repeated relapses.


A Drug Relapse Plan Is Your Greatest Weapon Against Addiction

Relapse prevention plans are increasingly common. More people are creating them and more outpatient treatment programs are recommending them. In spite of this increasing acceptance, some people are still wary. When we contemplate the possibility of relapse, aren’t we thinking negatively? Aren’t we giving in to pessimism?

To the contrary, when we look reality in the face and prepare to meet it head-on, we are taking control of our future. We are refusing to surrender to unconscious habits and long-held behavioral patterns. Creating a strategy that will help us overcome potential challenges is, in fact, a remarkable act of optimism.

Drug Relapse Prevention Plan with CheckmarksThe goal of a relapse plan is threefold:

  • Prevention
    • Recognize the warning signs.
    • Manage high-risk scenarios.
  • Intervention
    • Spot a relapse quickly.
    • Intervene to nip the problem in the bud.
  • Treatment
    • Call on the support network to initiate a thorough intervention.
    • Intercede to prevent a relapse from spiraling out of control.

They say planning is the key to success. If that’s true for business leaders, athletes, and anyone else who wants to beat the odds, then it’s also true for people struggling with substance abuse problems. You make a relapse plan when times are good, when you feel strong and stable. You use it when times are rough, when it seems as if your strength has abandoned you and you’re no longer in control of your own destiny. In the end, it’s your greatest weapon against addiction.

The First Goal: Prevention

Wooden Bridge with Step Ladder into lakeMost relapses take people by surprise. A lapse is, according to Gorski, an unconscious unfolding of events. Unwanted sensations or feelings sneak up on you. Denial follows. You return, by habit, to the apparent safety provided by your drug of choice. By the time you realize your dependency, it’s too late. Addiction has gripped you once again.

When you make a plan, you become conscious of what was previously unconscious. You bring long-hidden behaviors, thoughts, and feelings into the light. By exposing your own weaknesses and anticipating your own actions, you stand a better chance of thwarting a relapse. Such prevention requires at least two actions:

  • Understand patterns of use and behavior. In order to plan for the future, we need to take a hard look at the past. Were you a frequent user? A social user? What were the triggers? Did you tend to use when you were depressed and alone? Or when you were partying with others? Did alcohol or drugs help you overcome loneliness, anxiety, grief, pain, boredom, social awkwardness, or a combination of all of these factors? Have you ever relapsed before? Only by confronting your past honestly can you move forward successfully.
  • Know the warning signs. Often, a relapse seems to come out of nowhere. It can hit you unexpectedly. If you take the time to list the possible warning signs, you have a better chance of preventing a relapse before it occurs. Experts cite three common triggers:
  • Stress
  • Reminders or “cues” (e.g., feelings, moods, places, people, objects)
  • Exposure to drugs or alcohol2

If you finished step one and took an inventory of your own patterns, then you can also create your own customized list of warning signs. Do you rely on substances when you feel depressed? Then you can formulate a strategy for those moments when you’re feeling down.

If you’ve noticed that you tend to sleep poorly around the time of a binge or relapse, then you can give yourself a heads-up when you start tossing and turning. If you seek refuge in drugs or alcohol when confronted with loneliness, then planning regular social events and staying in touch with friends or family can be a critical part of the recovery process.

The Second Goal: Intervention

While prevention is your first defense, you need to be prepared for moments of weakness. If you do suffer from a momentary lapse of judgment or strength, then an intervention strategy is of paramount importance.

  • Put in place an emergency plan. What are you going to do if you relapse? Will you authorize a family member or counselor to step in and take control? Who will take the responsibility of driving you to an outpatient drug rehab center? It’s important to remember that no plan is the same. Each one reflects the unique challenges and inclinations of the individual who created it. Tailor your rehab prevention strategy to your own condition and lifestyle, and you’ll have a higher chance of success.

You don’t necessarily need to write your plan down. It’s perfectly fine to discuss your ideas with your support group and form an oral agreement as to how you will proceed. That being said, a written plan can guide you through the rough moments when both your life and your mind are in disarray.                                                                                      

The Third Goal: Treatment

Man in the water with sunset in backgroundThere are least two methods for maintaining long-term sobriety in the face of countless temptations:

  • Form a strong support network. Every substance abuse expert agrees: A support network is crucial. Very few people achieve sobriety on their own. No matter who you lean on—friends, family, counselors, therapists, or fellow recovering addicts—you need a network of people you can trust. When your own inner defenses fail, these people will be there to offer a helping hand. They will be your conscience in times of carelessness and your strength in times of weakness.

At the same time, it can be just as important to stay away from people and groups that reinforce unhealthy behaviors. By replacing harmful friendships with supportive relationships, you’ll increase your chances of staying sober.



  • Create an overall wellness program. The best way to prevent relapse is to handle the root problems that caused addiction in the first place. That means prioritizing your mental and physical health. Seek professional help from a qualified psychologist or counselor. Take up a physical activity such as yoga, hiking, or horse-riding. Add skills and hobbies such as cooking, gardening, or painting to your repertoire. Meditation is also a great stress reliever. Any positive lifestyle change can help you progress toward sobriety.

Tips for Creating a Drug Rehab Plan

Before sitting down to craft a plan, it’s important to take a few things into consideration. First, no relapse plan will be successful without taking those first few steps toward sobriety. Detoxification and stabilization are key. Without a clear mind, it will be difficult to review your past, assess your current situation, and create a workable strategy for the future.


Man alone on mountain sideSecond, you shouldn’t create your plan in isolation. Instead, sit down with an outpatient rehab counselor or advisor and work through the details in tandem. When you collaborate with someone else, you not only gain the benefit of their wisdom, you also create a partner who understands your thinking and can guide you through the struggle of relapse should it occur.

No matter what stage of recovery you’re in, a RECO Intensive outpatient treatment program can help you attain sobriety. Whether you need to take the initial steps toward withdrawal and detox, or whether you’ve been sober for years and need to create a relapse plan, our experienced staff can guide you on the path. Call us at (855) 799-1035 or visit our website to submit a confidential message.


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.”
  2. Ibid.

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