Relapse Prevention

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relapse-preventionRelapse prevention planning is a crucial component of any successful addiction treatment program. During therapy, each person learns to identify and recognize their own unique addiction triggers and behaviors.

Once individual attitudes, thoughts and behaviors are recognized, work can begin on creating a customized relapse prevention strategy designed to help the recovering person remain sober over the long term.

Why Are Relapse Prevention Plans Necessary?

It’s common for many people to believe that a recovering addict only needs to get through a few days of potentially painful detoxification process in order to be somehow cured. In reality, detox does nothing to treat the underlying psychological triggers behind addictive drug or alcohol abuse.

Just like many other chronic relapsing diseases, recovery from addiction requires ongoing maintenance. In order to avoid potentially returning to a cycle of self-destructive behaviors, it’s important that each person learns new skills and healthy habits designed to maintain sobriety over the long term.

In order to reduce the risk of relapse, it is crucial that a strong prevention strategy is put into place. The person is taught new coping skills and habits designed to help them avoid temptation to return to self-destructive behaviors.

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stages-of-relapseWhat are the Stages of Relapse?

Relapse is not an isolated event. Rather, it’s a series of stages that can begin weeks or even months before the person actually succumbs to physical relapse.

The stages to watch for include:

1. Emotional Relapse
Throughout the early phase of relapse, the person may not be thinking about using at all. In fact, the person may remain motivated to stay sober. However, underlying emotions and behaviors may be leading to a potential relapse.

Emotions, attitudes and behaviors to watch for include:
  • Anxiety
  • Uncontrolled stress levels
  • Defensiveness
  • Mood swings
  • Isolation
  • Not asking for help or support
  • Not attending meetings
  • Deteriorating eating habits
  • Trouble sleeping
2. Mental Relapse
During the mental relapse phase, a part of the person’s mind begins thinking about using again, although another part wants to remain on the road to recovery. Signs to watch for include:
Signs to watch for include:
  • Fantasizing about using
  • Thinking that relapse might be easier than struggling through sobriety
  • Reminiscing about ‘the good old days’ of using
  • Hanging out with old friends associated with using
  • Planning a relapse around other people in order to avoid getting caught
3. Physical Relapse
Once a recovering addict starts thinking about relapse, it can be very difficult to stop the process. By that time the pull of addiction is so strong the person is likely to begin using again.
It’s important that a person in recovery learns to recognize the early stages of relapse and implement some of the prevention strategies learned in rehab before reaching the physical relapse stage.

What are the Benefits of a Relapse Prevention Strategy?

When a person leaves a rehab treatment center, they should have created an individualized relapse prevention strategy to address their own unique addiction triggers. Counseling sessions also help to instill healthy coping skills for living a sober life after rehab treatments end.

However, while the person may have the knowledge and the tools available to prevent returning to a cycle of addictive substance abuse, there are times when new challenges may arise that need additional support.

Ongoing attendance to group meetings, such as 12-step programs like Addictions Anonymous or alternative meetings like SMART recovery, provide peer support. Group support meetings offer the opportunity for social interaction among like-minded peers facing similar challenges and experiences.

By increasing social interaction, it’s possible to reduce feelings of isolation, stress, and anxiety associated with the recovery process. Meetings also help to forge new connections and friendships that create feelings of accountability for remaining clean and sober.


  1. McLellan, A. T., PhD, Lewis, D. C., MD, O’Brien, C. P., MD, PhD, & Kleber, H. D., MD. (2000). Drug Dependence, a Chronic Medical Illness Implications for Treatment, Insurance, and Outcomes Evaluation[PDF]. American Medical Association.

Last updated on June 21st, 2017 at 04:30 pm

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