Why Relapse Begins Before the First Drink

Many people understand relapse as being the physical return to alcohol or substance use. In reality, however, relapse is a multi-stage process that entails a gradual change in habits, behaviors, emotions, and attitudes. Understanding the progression of common relapse symptoms can help those in recovery take action well-before physical relapse actually occurs.

Throughout the first year of recovery, relapse rates are fairly high. Not only are people still getting used to their new sober lives, but their brains and bodies are still healing. It’s important to note that with alcohol use disorder, the risk of relapsing never actually goes away. Although it will gradually lessen over time as cravings and temptations become less intense and far less frequent, it’s always important to actively maintain recovery as a top-priority. People who experience long-term success in recovery typically:

  • Attend sober meetings one or more times each week
  • Have sober sponsors or accountability partners
  • Diligently manage any co-occurring disorders they’ve been diagnosed with

When completing an inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment program, people are encouraged to have long-term strategies like these in place. As soon as a person stops engaging in these preventative actions, they’re actually in the very first stage of relapse. The good news is that it’s always possible to pull back from a developing relapse by getting the right habits back in place, seeking outside help, and making targeted lifestyle changes as needed. Moreover, if physical relapse does occur, it doesn’t have to be the end of the road. In addiction recovery, every day offers a brand new opportunity to start fresh.

What Are Some Common Causes of Relapse?

With alcohol, it takes quite a long time for the brain to rebound from prolonged, heavy drinking. Although the physical withdrawal symptoms that occur during a person’s alcohol detox usually abate in under two weeks, psychological symptoms such as:

  • Low motivation
  • Depression
  • Insomnia
  • Vivid dreams or nightmares
  • Anxiety
  • Malaise

can last for months or even years. These secondary and largely psychological withdrawal symptoms are known as post-acute withdrawal symptoms or PAWS. PAWS often leave newly recovering addicts wondering if they’ll feel miserable for the rest of their lives. Without intervention, PAWS can even make people question whether they’re able to actually feel happy without alcohol. These feelings and experiences are common. More importantly, they also have a definite end. As the brain rebounds from addiction and its chemistry normalizes, it’s often easier to maintain mood balance and a general sense of emotional well-being.

PAWS are not the only catalyst for relapse. In addiction recovery, over-confidence can be devastating. After completing full-length treatment programs, many people feel as though they’re ready to return to their regular lives. Although new and healthier coping skills are taught in addiction treatment, these techniques do not make people impervious to relapse when:

  • Going to bars, nightclubs, or other venues where alcohol is present
  • Hanging out with people who drink or who abuse alcohol themselves
  • Exposing themselves to toxic relationships and living environments

For these and other reasons, many people choose to follow inpatient or outpatient treatment up with time spent in sober living facilities. Although feeling confident is a good thing, confidence that encourages you to test your will in high-risk settings is detrimental.

One of the greatest causes of relapse is insufficient treatment or treatment that doesn’t meet the needs of the individual. This is especially true for those with co-occurring disorders. If you’ve been diagnosed with:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • General anxiety disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

or believe that you may have an underlying mental health disorder, attempting to stay in recovery without the benefit of dual diagnosis treatment will prove challenging. For people with co-occurring disorders like these, having both alcohol use disorder and secondary mental health issues treated simultaneously creates the highest likelihood of success.

Understanding the Three Stages of Relapse

Relapse occurs in three distinct stages. These are:

  • Emotional
  • Mental
  • Physical

Emotional relapse is often tied to PAWS. During this stage, people may begin distancing themselves from others, struggling with boredom or depression, or battling a general sense of unhappiness. In emotional relapse, people often stop attending sober meetings, support groups, or taking part in other post-treatment activities. In mental relapse, it’s common for recovering addicts to romanticize drinking, bargain with themselves, and imagine buying or consuming alcohol. If no interventions are made, mental relapse will eventually become physical relapse which is when the very first drink is taken.

What to Do if You or Someone You Love Is Entering Relapse

Understanding the different stages of relapse makes it infinitely easier to recognize the warning signs of a developing problem. No matter what the underlying cause of relapse may be, seeking additional support or additional treatment is often the best bet. If you want to know more about relapse prevention programs, options in post-treatment support, or ways to get dual diagnosis treatment, we can help. Call us today at 732-392-7311.

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