You may be humming along in recovery for months (or even years) when, seemingly without warning, you find yourself returning to the substance you had vowed never to use again.
The word “seemingly” is key, as relapse is most often a process, not a momentary event. In fact, there were probably warning signs evident prior to the actual relapse.
For many, even those with a solid, long-term recovery under their belt, the disease of alcoholism can begin to reemerge incrementally. If the warning signs are not heeded, the risk for relapse grows steadily. By being aware of the early signs of a relapse, you are better equipped to recognize the dangers and to act on them.
What Are the Three Stages of Relapse?
Most relapse scenarios follow three stages prior to reengaging in alcohol use. It is a chain reaction, where one stage leads to the next, and eventually, the relapse happens if the process is not halted.
The three stages of relapse include:
Emotions, such as feeling depressed or anxious, can act as powerful triggers that may trigger the relapse process. At this stage, the disease begins to reassert itself in response to negative emotions associated with loneliness, boredom, sadness, stress, and anxiety. Being vigilant about conducting an honest self-review of current mood and emotions can help you identify the threats to sobriety so you can take proactive steps.
When emotions are ignored, the mental phase of relapse begins. This stage includes fantasizing about drinking, intensified alcohol cravings, and the beginning of making a plan to obtain and use the alcohol. It is still possible at this stage to stop the relapse in its tracks as long as proactive measures are taken.
The final stage happens when purposeful physical steps were taken to obtain the alcohol and drink again. This stage involves deep feelings of shame and guilt, as well as embarrassment and disappointment. Making an effort to redouble efforts to reinforce relapse prevention methods and recommit to working the program can still stop the relapse event. Without those efforts, the relapse is imminent.
It is important to realize that a relapse doesn’t just happen suddenly, although it may seem that way. Remember that the sooner you recognize the signs of an impending relapse, the sooner you can guide them toward needed support sources.
Pay attention to these eight red flag warnings:
1. Not attending meetings.
A common sign of relapse is neglecting the usual recovery efforts that had become routine. When meetings or a sponsor are avoided, it is often a sign of relapse or impending relapse.
2. Ignoring obligations.
The person begins to neglect their personal obligations, such as work-related or family commitments. They may miss appointments or forget to pay the bills.
3. Changes in mood or attitude.
You may notice a sudden change in their demeanor or attitude, such as increased moodiness, irritability, or negativity. This could be an indication that they are about to relapse.
4. Finding substances.
You might come across alcohol in their immediate possession, such as in their home or car, suggesting a relapse is being planned or has occurred.
5. Becoming defensive.
If you check in with them and they respond in a hostile way or angrily, this can be a sign that they are about to relapse (or that they already have).
6. Abandoning healthy routines.
When they suddenly lose interest in working out and eating a healthy diet, it could be a sign that they are losing interest in their new healthy lifestyle. This is a sign that a relapse might be in progress.
7. Withdrawing socially.
When the person begins to exhibit isolating behaviors, avoiding contact with friends and family members, it is a warning sign for relapse.
8. Hanging out with the former crowd.
If they have returned to socializing with these individuals, it may indicate a relapse.
When you catch yourself in the early stages of relapse and respond proactively, you have a good chance of avoiding the relapse.
Here are some tips for reinforcing recovery:
>> Refine your relapse prevention plan. Flesh out any and all sources of stress or potential triggers and make a list of actionable steps to take. This relapse prevention plan acts as a blueprint for keeping yourself accountable to your recovery.
>> Add additional protection. Be proactive and add additional layers of protection. This can be living for a few months in a sober living community. Maybe you need to hire a sober companion to assist you for a while. Some may benefit from naltrexone to help reduce cravings.
>> Be honest with yourself. Check in and do an honest inventory. Are you missing meetings? Have you been hanging out with old friends who drink? Have you deceived yourself into believing you can have that one drink?
>> Increase participation in meetings. Recommit to daily meetings for a month or two. Engage more openly with your sponsor, and if you don’t have one, get one. Volunteer to serve in some capacity at meetings or sober events.
>> Reestablish healthy routines. Lapsing back to bad habits, such as eating junk food, not getting enough sleep, or not getting exercise, are signs of impending relapse. Acknowledge that you have let these things fall by the wayside and rebuild your healthy routines.
>> Find new passions. Another protective measure is to revisit old passions or to discover new ones. Find hobbies or activities that touch your soul, and incorporate these into your weekly life. Just focusing on activities that make you feel good can be an excellent diversion from thinking about substance use.
>> Reduce stress. Stress is a huge trigger for relapse. Take steps to reduce stress in your life. Add some wellness and self-care, such as massage, yoga, meditation, or keeping a journal to help you learn to relax.
Relapse is, unfortunately, prevalent in early recovery. Be ever-vigilant and put these preventative steps to good use to protect your recovery.