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Recovery Basics: Recognizing the Stages of Relapse

Simple Path Recovery on March 5, 2018

What causes a relapse? Deciding to drink or get high after having clean time can have tragic consequences. In the aftermath, the addict’s loved ones may wonder what happened or if they had missed signs. Sometimes the addict isn’t even sure where they went wrong. A key part of preventing these issues is understanding and recognizing the stages of relapse.

Truth About Stages of Relapse

Many people, including addicts and alcoholics themselves, consider relapse to be one event: the act of getting high or drinking. The truth is that there are stages of relapse, and it usually happens over time. Many people have relapse as a part of their story. For most, it isn’t accurate to say that one day they just decided to start using again. There are a few stages of relapse, some obvious and some subtle. Many occur way before someone ends up returning to drugs and alcohol.

Some addiction experts say that relapse is a process, not an event. Others use this metaphor: relapse may seem like jumping straight into the deep end of a pool, but it’s more like floating down a river, unaware that just out of sight is a waterfall. We can be so unaware that we are in relapse mode that it shocks even the addict when they pick up.
Fortunately, understanding the stages of relapse can help prevent them. For friends and family of the addict, being able to recognize the signs can help them to hold their loved one accountable before disaster strikes.

How Relapse Happens

There are different theories about the stages of relapse. One common idea is that it occurs in three parts: emotional, mental, and physical. Here’s how it works:

1. Emotional- at this point, the addict or alcoholic is experiencing painful emotions and not dealing with them in a healthy way. This can mean that they’re going through a break-up and isolating, or that they aren’t treating conditions like depression. No matter the details, the emotional relapse usually happens first.

2. Mental- this is the stage at which the addict or alcoholic starts to experience a return of addictive thinking. They may have cravings or begin to obsess about using again. They may begin to obsess over outside addictions, like food or sex. At this point, the brain starts operating like the addict brain, rather than the recovering brain.

3. Physical- this is what many people consider the be the “actual relapse”, when the addict or alcoholic starts drinking and using again. Prior to this, the emotional and mental relapse have taken over and driven the individual to return to their addiction.

At any point during this process, there are choices the addict can make to avoid relapse and get back on track.

Stopping the Stages of Relapse

Recognizing the stages of relapse is the first step to stopping the process. At different stages the addict or alcoholic will have different symptoms to watch for. For example, during the emotional relapse, someone may isolate or experience crying spells, increased anxiety, or bursts of anger. The mental stage can be harder to identify, but it can include distraction or obsessive focus on risky plans. The addict isn’t thinking clearly at this point, and they may have some “euphoric recall”- thinking back on their old using days and focusing only on the good times. Physical relapse can have many symptoms, ranging from money problems to missing work. Identifying some of the signs of relapse before someone picks up is the best chance at helping them.

As someone goes through the stages of relapse, the following actions can help them refocus on recovery:

  • working with a sponsor in a twelve-step program
  • seeking therapy to help manage emotions
  • reaching out to sober supports and positive friends
  • spiritual practices like prayer or meditation
  • getting involved in a hobby they enjoy
  • “playing the tape”, or thinking about the risks of a relapse
  • using mindfulness or other coping skills

Long-Term Recovery

Identifying the stages of relapse is part of having a solid program of recovery. To be successful, most addicts and alcoholics need a strong foundation that comes from getting quality treatment. At Simple Path REcovery, we can help. Call us today at 954-532-9201 to get started.

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