Experiencing a relapse can bring up so many different feelings. You may be feeling shame, guilt, self-pity, or hopelessness in response to a relapse. You might even find yourself thinking that you won’t be able to reach your recovery goals or that you’re a failure because of your relapse.
The truth is relapse is a common occurrence in recovery from a substance use disorder1. Many people will experience at least one relapse on their road to recovery. Relapse is not a failure and is not a reason to abandon your recovery efforts.
While a relapse isn’t ideal, understanding how to respond after a relapse can help you strengthen your recovery, avoid future relapses, and prevent a spiral back into the cycle of active addiction.
What is a Relapse?
Research has shown that the relapse process is progressive and is generally broken down into three different categories: Emotional Relapse, Mental Relapse, and Physical Relapse2.
Emotional relapse is usually the first stage of the relapse process. During this time, the individual has become distinctly uncomfortable – this could include emotional, psychological, or physical discomfort. This phase of relapse is also characterized by a lack of interest in recovery focused activities, mildly impulsive or erratic behaviors, and mood swings2. Generally, the individual is not actively considering a return to substance use and probably won’t be experiencing any using thoughts or cravings, but they are also disengaging from the recovery process2.
Without appropriate intervention or a re-commitment to recovery, mental relapse will follow an emotional relapse. Thoughts of using, cravings, and romanticizing use may all occur during a mental relapse. The individual may feel stuck and see themselves as a victim to life’s circumstances. This change in perspective can lead to relying on unhealthy coping mechanisms to manage life’s stress. While the person in recovery may not be fully ready to return to active substance use, they are seeing a return to using as a solution to their on-going discomfort2.
Physical relapse is the final stage of the relapse process. As the name suggests, a physical relapse does include the decision to return to active substance use. While some people may experience a brief episode of physical substance use, the risk of falling into a long-term physical relapse is high1.
5 Ways to Strengthen your Recovery after a Relapse
- Understand Your Relapse
If you’ve relapsed, understand that there have been a series of events that have led up to the physical relapse. Like we mentioned above, relapse is a process, not a singular event. Gaining greater insight and understanding into the causes of your relapse is crucial in effectively preventing future setbacks. Reflect on your thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and perspectives leading up to the relapse. Do you notice any changes in your commitment to recovery or in your lifestyle? Identifying your relapse process will be beneficial in determining the best ways to bolster your recovery plan moving forward.
- Forgive Yourself
Experiencing feelings of grief, guilt, or shame following a relapse is common. However, allowing yourself to wallow in these feelings will not help you move forward towards your recovery goals. While relapse is dangerous to our health and well-being, it is also an opportunity for us to learn and grow. Acknowledge the relapse occurred and commit to making the necessary changes to strengthen your recovery. It’s healthy to allow yourself to experience whatever emotions come up, just be sure to practice compassion to yourself. Relapse is a set-back, but it does not mean we’ve lost all of the knowledge or experience we gained prior to picking up.
- Examine Your Recovery Plan
Relapse is an indication that something in our recovery plan wasn’t working. In order to move forward after a relapse, you will need to remain focused on your recovery goals and how to achieve them. At some point in your recovery, prior to your relapse, you likely developed a recovery plan. This plan probably included elements such as treatment, 12-Step Recovery meetings, therapeutic interventions, exercise schedules, dedicated time for self-care, and relapse prevention strategies. Go over what areas of your recovery were lacking before you relapsed and develop a plan to add additional support in those areas.
- Ask for Help
Talk to your sponsor, attend a meeting, reach out to your support system, call your treatment provider – just connect with anyone who can help you stay on track. Shame and embarrassment can follow a relapse, but don’t allow those feelings to keep you from reaching out. Get honest about your situation and how you feel. Allow those around you to support you while you’re working through the relapse. In some cases, entering a treatment program following a relapse might be necessary. Just know that you aren’t alone and there are a lot of people who want to see you succeed.
- Take Action
Take it one day at a time – even one minute at a time if you need to. Focus on putting one foot in front of the other – make that one meeting, go to bed on time, answer when your support system calls. Simple, but consistent action will have amazing results for your recovery and your mindset. You may need to rebuild healthy habits slowly, just make sure you’re moving towards your recovery goals.
Relapse can be a stepping-stone to long-term recovery. Remember, relapse is not a failure and recovery is still possible. Moving on after a relapse may feel overwhelming, but you don’t have to do it alone. Greenbriar Treatment Center offers specialized care for those struggling after a relapse. Contact us today to learn more about our comprehensive treatment options.
- Miller, W. R., & Harris, R. J. (2000). A simple scale of Gorski’s warning signs for relapse. Journal of studies on alcohol, 61(5), 759–765. https://doi.org/10.15288/jsa.2000.61.759