What To Do After A Relapse

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  • What To Do After A Relapse: A Complete Guide To Helping You Get Back On Track
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To get back on track after a relapse, make the effort to learn as much as possible from the setback. Repair any relationship damage, and remove negative influences and enablers. Set realistic expectations of yourself, and celebrate wins, no matter how small. Continue building small positive habits that support the bigger picture lifestyle of recovery.

Being a recovering addict can feel great, with your life finally back under your control again. However, being a recovering addict does come with one extra thing. Fear.

There is this underlying fear of relapsing.

As a recovering addict, it is expected that you would be fearful of your recovery not lasting forever.

It is actually more common than you may think to relapse during recovery. As a matter of fact, it is actually considered to be so common that it is often referred to as part of the journey to lifelong recovery!

This does not mean that it is not feared, though. No one wants to see their hard work disappear, so it is only normal to worry about it.

That being said, it is not the end of the world when someone does relapse. Even when a relapse does occur, it is totally possible to get back on track.

Our guide, today, will help you understand what you can do, if you should relapse.

What Is A Relapse?

what is a relapse

Relapsing is something that happens when a person goes back to using alcohol or drugs after they have had a period of being sober. A lapse would be where a person ‘slips’, and uses alcohol, but then immediately stops.

However, a relapse is when the person makes a full return to drinking again.

A majority of people who are recovering from an addiction do face a very high likelihood of relapsing.

This is because chronic abuse of alcohol (or drugs) can result in alterations of the mind which persist beyond when being sober first occurred.

Note that a relapse can also be trading in one addiction for a different one. You might take up drinking alcohol instead of using drugs. Or you could engage in behaviours which could be just as harmful, such as substance abuse.

Relapses can be any addictive behaviours to cope with stress or mental health. So, essentially relapsing is a return to harmful coping mechanisms while recovering from addiction.

3 Stages Of Relapse

3 stages of relapsing

There are notably 3 stages of relapse. Yet, there are 2 main types of relapsing. Before we move onto the 3 stages of relapsing, we want to note the 2 types of relapse.

A relapse can be traditional or a ‘freelapse’. Traditional relapse is when you consciously make a decision to drink alcohol. A freelapse is an accidental relapse, in which the use of alcohol is unintentional.

Freelapsing might not sound very likely. However, you can be heading towards a relapse long before you do so, making freelapsing highly likely for those who are unaware they are doing so.

This is where the 3 stages of relapsing come into play. These will usually happen whether you traditionally relapse, or if you were to freelapse.

There are certain thoughts, feelings, and events which can trigger a craving for alcohol use. Should these things not be managed effectively, the chances of a relapse increase.

Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapses are a type of relapse in their own right. This is because a relapse can occur well before a person even picks up a drink.

In this stage you will likely find yourself struggling or failing to deal with your emotions and feelings in a sustainable and healthy manner.

It may be the case that you are bottling up how you feel, denying that your problems exist, isolating yourself from those around you, and neglecting self care.

It is even possible that you may not even be considering relapsing at this stage.

However, the simple act of ignoring your emotions, and the difficult circumstances that you are dealing with can actually be the primary stepping stone to relapsing later on.

You need to manage your emotions more effectively in order to cut out this stage. Later on, we will discuss how this stage is preventable.

Mental Relapse

mental relapse

After this, should you not have effectively managed your emotions, there will likely be a mental relapse.

You will be aware that you hold some feelings which are conflicting in relation to being sober.

Part of you may wish to remain sober, and will see the benefits. However, there will also be another part which is finding it increasingly difficult to battle your cravings, and may be secretly considering a relapse.

You may even be thinking about ways to relapse.

Mental relapses can also have you glorifying your past alcohol, or drug use. You may minimise the negative aspects, the consequences that come with using, or even consider it could be different if it happened again.

You may consider opportunities, ways to use, or you may actively seek out opportunities to start using.

Physical Relapse

A physical relapse is exactly what it sounds like. It is the action. This means you actually start using again, be it drugs or alcohol.

It will start out as a minor relapse, just one drink, or one incident of taking a drug. This can then very easily spiral into a full-blown relapse.

A full-blown relapse will be when you have little to no control over your use.

The physical relapse is the actual act of starting to use again, and is the result of your emotional and mental relapses not being dealt with in a healthy manner at the time they occur.

You can prevent a physical relapse. To do so, you need to identify what could cause a relapse for you.

This is what we will look at next.

What Can Cause Relapse?

what can cause relapsing

There are a plethora of factors which can cause a relapse to occur. In order to prevent relapses from occurring it is ideal to pinpoint what these are for you. It could be one primary thing, or a multitude of factors.

Here are 9 common factors which can cause a relapse to occur.

Lack Of Planning When Leaving A Treatment Facility

When leaving a treatment facility, most people will end up being reintroduced into the same environment which caused the substance abuse to begin with.

It might be that the person has friends who encourage risky behaviours, or unsupportive family, or even emotional/physical/mental abuse scenarios.

It is necessary to remove oneself from this type of environment to prevent relapses.

Upon leaving a treatment facility, ensure that you are not re-entering an environment which may trigger you to relapse.

Lack Of Support

Having people around you who are supportive and want to help you to remain sober is very important.

A positive support system will be very crucial to your recovery in the long term.

If you have a limited support system, or even a negative support system, such as one which may involve peer pressure, or abuse, this can make it much harder to cope effectively without turning to a coping mechanism.

Just as it is important to avoid environments which are risk factors for a relapse, it is also important to avoid people who are risk factors.

Ineffective Aftercare Plan

You need to have an effective aftercare plan when you leave a treatment facility. Recovery does not end when you leave treatment, it continues for a very long time after.

This means that your aftercare is just as important as the care in a treatment facility.

An aftercare plan should ensure that you feel supported, and have somewhere safe to turn when you feel unsafe, or get feelings about relapsing. It should also ensure that you have a good support system, in your family and friends.

Your aftercare plan should be decided upon prior to leaving a treatment facility.

Not Treating A Dual Diagnosis

It is not surprising to learn that oftentimes addiction will come hand in hand with mental health issues or behavioural issues. This is something typically referred to as a dual diagnosis.

A great deal of people who may have a mental health issue or behavioural issue will be likely to self medicate. This is often a leading cause of addiction.

This means that when the issue in mental or behavioural health is not treated, relapses are more likely to occur.

This is a prime example of when the cause needs to be treated for the problem to be resolved.

Failure To Face The Challenges That Follow Recovery

Facing challenges post-recovery and doing so well is determined by how you view your path to full, lifelong recovery. If you set unrealistic expectations, then you will end up being more likely to fail.

This stands for before you enter treatment and after you leave it. If you enter treatment with unrealistic expectations you will be disappointed and frustrated. The same is to be said for post-treatment.

It is important to remember recovery is a marathon and not a sprint.

When you do not set realistic expectations, you will not anticipate the challenges you face after treatment either. Any recovering addict will face many challenges after treatment, things that will test you and shake your resolve.

While in recovery, you will need to plan ahead for the stresses you will face, so that you can manage them in a healthy way.

Exposure To Triggers

Exposure to triggers

A trigger can be a social or an environmental cue which reminds you of alcohol or drugs. Social cues could be being a friend who is a user, or seeing a drug dealer, perhaps even a bartender you knew well as an alcoholic.

Environmental triggers can be smells, objects, situations or places that you relate to alcohol or drugs. These can produce very intense cravings, thus leading to relapses.

Stress & Anxiety

Should you suffer with high stress levels, and have poor coping skills as well, alcohol or drugs may be what you instinctively turn to in order to get some relief. The same can be said if you are anxious, or depressed as well.

Negative emotions like stress, anxiety, depression, anger, and even boredom are increasing risk factors for relapsing.

The most common stresses likely to lead to relapses are work stresses and marital problems, which are well known for contributing to relapses. Family or social stresses are also common contributing factors.

Peer Pressure

peer pressure

Being around friends and family who are alcohol or drug users can put more pressure on you to use drugs or alcohol as well.

Simply being around others who are drinking or are using drugs can bring about powerful urges to use, which increases the likelihood of you relapsing.

This can result in having friends or family members who are users making you even more likely to relapse.

Furthermore, if you have friends or family members who urge you to have ‘just one’ in social situations, this can make it harder to stay sober, as there is often guilt or shame involved.

Low Self Confidence

Having a low sense of self confidence can cause you to self-damage. If you have a low confidence in your ability to succeed in particular areas, then you will have a higher chance of relapsing.

If you have little faith in your ability to succeed, or do not feel confident in being able to stave off temptation or get through the stressful moment, it sets you up to relapse.

Those who have a lower sense of self-efficacy will be more likely to relapse. Whereas, the people who have a feeling of confidence or mastery over their own sobriety have a higher likelihood of coping effectively with challenges.

Warning Signs Of Relapse

warning signs of relapsing

Relapses are not something that will happen at the very moment that a person picks up an alcoholic beverage, or the minute they touch a drug. Relapses often start long before the physical act of relapsing occurs.

It typically starts with emotions, and intense negative feelings. Being stressed, sad, anxious, depressed, angry and so on can often be an early sign that a relapse is likely.

Being able to recognize the warning signs of a potential relapse can help to take preventative measures early on, and prevent the relapse from occurring if at all possible.


Stress is often an indicator of a relapse being around the corner. Oftentimes, a recovering addict will start to feel the emotions that led to the addiction in the first place.

Stress around family, marital issues, work, and so on can often be a sign that a relapse will occur. Many addicts are likely to turn to coping mechanisms when dealing with stress.


Depression is a very powerful emotion which can easily take a toll on how a person feels. Being depressed, especially often or for a long period of time can draw previous addicts back into addiction to feel better.

Negative feelings like depression require positive management, however, many sufferers turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. If a recovering addict is suffering with depression, they may be more likely to relapse.


Anger suggests a cause. Whether the cause is stress, depression, poor quality of sleep, struggling to deal with recovery, or something else.

Anger is an emotion that suggests there is something causing distress or emotional strain on the person.

Alcohol, drugs, or other addictive behaviours are often sought out as a coping mechanism to deal with anger and its causes.


There are plenty of addicts who use alcohol or drugs as a way to ‘sleep’ when they are suffering from insomnia. This is often used as an excuse for using.

However, insomnia often has a root cause, and this can be a sign that there is something else wrong.

Therefore, insomnia can lead the person to seek out coping mechanisms to help them sleep better, but it is important to remember that it does not actually help, not in the long term. They are also usually interconnected.

Poor Judgement

Being able to make sensible and educated decisions can help to prevent you from making decisions that are self destructive.

Poor judgement is putting oneself into situations that make it easier to relapse. Poor judgement often comes hand in self destructive behaviours. It could be as simple as ‘just one drink will be fine’.

Difficulty Focusing

Difficulty focusing is associated with various mental health problems. Issues with concentration often means that the persons’ mind is unable to stay focused and is sporadic.

This could be due to various mental health issues, or it could also mean that the person’s brain is finding it hard to focus without the coping mechanism of alcohol or a drug.

Substance abuse affects the way the brain functions and works, with difficulty focusing being a key symptom of withdrawal and cravings.

12 Tips To Help You Get Back On Track

12 tips how to get you back on track

When a person has relapsed, it is not the end of the world, and it is totally possible to get back on track even after the event.

Since relapses are so common in recovering addicts, there is much that has been done to look into how these people can get back on the path to recovery after a relapse has happened.

In many cases it has been seen as being a part of the recovery process to relapse.

1) Take Responsibility

It is up to each individual to take responsibility for their own actions. It does require practice to be responsible and apply this type of thinking, it is essential in the event of a relapse.

It is imperative to accept that you made a mistake, you cannot understate it. You have to admit that you have started using again, and accept that it is on you.

Being able to accept that you made this mistake will help you to stay motivated during the beginning stages of relapsing. You have to accept that you need help in order to actually get the help that you require.

2) Seek Support

seek support

Once you have accepted that you made a mistake, and that you need help, you can seek out the help you need. Seeking support can be in the form of friends, family, a therapist, or treatment facility.

Each individual will likely need a different kind of support, however, identifying the area in which you need help is key. If you are struggling with mental health and this causes your relapses, therapy might be the support needed, for example.

Getting the right support and aftercare will determine exactly how well a person will cope after the event of recovery.

3) Identify Your Triggers

Knowing what will trigger you to reach out to addictive coping mechanisms is crucial to stopping relapses in the future.

Whether you suffer with an addiction caused by situational triggers, or mental health related triggers, it is important to identify what they are.

Knowing what your triggers are will better help you fight them and find a way to minimise them.

It is possible that you may be unaware of what triggers you have. So, sitting down and figuring out what triggers you to crave alcohol/drugs, can help you avoid the triggers, face them, or get help to combat them.

4) Start Recovery Actions

When you are able to focus your mind on recovering, with having taken responsibility for the relapse, reaching out to a sponsor should be the next step.

You should share your experience honestly. Remember not to judge yourself, and remain positive about the opportunity that you have to regain your sobriety, making it your focus.

When you work with your sponsor to begin your steps to recovery once more, it can seem like you are starting all over. You may wish to skip some steps, but you can find and learn things even doing the same thing again.

5) Get Professional Help

Having a good support system is very beneficial, helping to be a cheers quad, per se. However, they won’t be able to do everything, you will need professional treatment to help you really get back on track.

While nothing can replace the care, knowledge, and individual planning that a professional can give you, a specialist will be able to help you to design a treatment plan that will meet your needs specifically.

They can also provide support, and adjust your plan as needed, and help to organise family counselling if needed to ensure you have stability at home.

They will encourage empowerment and the ability to be self-reliant. They can also advise on aftercare and have an open discussion about your progress.

6) Create A New Recovery Plan

If you have relapsed, there is probably a hole in your recovery plan. A relapse does not mean your plan failed, it just means it needs reworking. Now you need to work at working out the kinks in your plan, so it is effective.

With your support network and your specialist’s help, you can analyse why you relapsed and work your new plan to address your triggers and help you to prevent another relapse.

You can even decide to recommit to recovery and enter treatment again if this is something that you feel you need.

7) Repair Relationships

It is very possible that your relapse will have affected your friends, family and spouse. When you take steps to recover, you will need to readdress the relationships which may have suffered as a result of your relapse.

You will need to explain what happened, and the efforts you are putting into getting back on the path you want to be on.

Remember, a relapse does not mean you failed, it is part of a learning curve to ensure that in the long run your recovery works.

8) Learn From Your Experience

Part of making mistakes is learning from them. Relapsing may be a mistake you made, but learning from it is the most important thing you can do. Identify where the mistake was made, what part of your recovery plan had a hole in it, and so on.

Learning from this will enable you to make sure it does not happen again. Write down everything you learned from your relapse and consider how you can apply what you have learned to your recovery.

Remember not to see your relapse as a negative experience, but as a learning experience.

9) Expect Discomfort And Struggle

Whether you wish to go into intensive treatment, go into outpatient care, or otherwise, you will need to prepare yourself for discomfort and struggle. Coming back from a relapse will not be an easy thing to do.

It can be painful and uncomfortable emotionally and physically.

Your body will need to detox after a relapse, and you may feel shame or guilt as well as doubt, low self-esteem, fatigue, aggression, anxiety about being judged, and a lack of motivation as well.

Understand you will have to face these things.

10) Welcome New Challenges

Once you have reflected on the experience of relapsing you will have better scope to predict challenges you will face in the future.

Being able to predict and welcome these challenges gives you an idea of what to do to better deal with a potential relapse.

It will add another level of focus to how you commit to your recovery. It will help to handle triggers, emotional stress, physical illnesses, family pressure, emotional stress, social pressures, cues and so on.

If you are able to welcome these new challenges and predict them, you will be better able to handle them when they do occur.

You will have the tools to handle situations that would otherwise be triggering to you in a more constructive and healthy way.

11) Cut Out Any Negative Influences In Your Life

A major part of recovering from any unhealthy situation is to pinpoint what aspects of your life impact you in a negative way. Influences such as abusers, those who peer pressure you, home environments, work environments and so on.

Once you have pinpointed what these negative influences are, it is essential that you take steps to remove these influences from your life to build a more healthy lifestyle overall.

12) Focus On Creating A New Lifestyle

In the removal of these negative influences, you can create a new lifestyle. Starting over from scratch can help you to avoid any negative influences, or triggers that could cause a relapse.

Paint yourself a picture of how you would like your life to be. Think of things that will help you cope with stress more, hobbies you may wish to take up, and so on.

A new lifestyle can help you feel renewed in recovery, recreating yourself into the person you want to be, and saying goodbye to the person you were as an addict.

Doing so gives a sense of a renewed state of life, helping to prevent further relapsing.


A relapse is when a person turns back to a coping mechanism after recovering from an addiction. Relapsing can be any addictive behaviour, and it does not have to be the same as previous behaviour.

When relapses occur, they often begin before the physical relapse actually happens, often in the shape of stress, anxiety, anger, and other negative emotions.

Watch out for signs of a relapse and things that may trigger it such as stress, peer pressure, mental health problems, and so on.

After a relapse, look to rebuild and remember not to blame yourself, and see it as an opportunity to learn and recover better.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Do I Gain Confidence After Relapse?

Start off by setting yourself achievable small goals. It can be a good way to work your confidence back up.

Think about a time when sobriety felt good, even if it was your childhood and think about what made you feel good and confident, and work to be in that place once more.

Does A Relapse Reset Your Progress?

While relapses seem like they take you back to square one, they do not erase your recovery progress. It is not ideal to view it as a failure, instead, it is better to view it as an opportunity to grow and learn.

What Are The Symptoms Of Relapse

Symptoms of relapse include: a false sense of control, sudden behavioural changes, isolation, glamorising past alcohol/drug use, doubting recovery, not going to meetings or engaging in sober fun activity, hanging around people/places associated with substance use.

About the author

Laura Morris

Laura Morris is an experienced clinical practitioner and CQC Registered Manager with over twenty years experience, over ten of which have been as an Independent Nurse Prescriber.

She has held a number of senior leadership roles in the substance use and mental health sector in the NHS, the prison service and in leading social enterprises in the field.

Last Updated: March 27, 2024