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Is Relapse Really Part Of Recovery?

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Is relapse really a part of the recovery process? While relapse can be part of recovering from substance and alcohol abuse, it doesn’t have to be! Some people who become sober never pick up a drink or drug again. Although relapse statistics for substance abuse disorders (SUDs) and alcohol use disorders (AUDs) vary widely, what is known about relapse is that it is common. 

It’s important to note when discussing relapse, that just because a person relapses, does not make him/her a failure. Nor does it mean that an individual is hopeless and beyond help. Many people who have relapsed from alcohol and drugs—even multiple times—eventually go on to experience continuous and healthy recovery

At Futures Recovery Healthcare we understand the complexity of addiction and relapse. To help those with SUD and AUD, we base our recovery program on the principle of “meeting people where they are,” by offering multiple pathways for recovery. Part of tailoring SUD treatment to what works best for each individual includes exploring specific relapse triggers and helping find personalized preventative solutions.

Our ultimate goal is to help provide gentle guidance and comprehensive support to enable lasting, quality recovery. 

Now, let’s take a deeper look at what relapse means when discussing addiction and recovery, and learn more about relapse-prevention strategies. 

Taking a Look at Relapse and Recovery Statistics 

When talking about SUD and AUD relapse statistics, it’s important to note that they can vary from publication to publication and even in terms of percentages of relapse among populations. This variation in relapse statistics has much to do with people—even addiction experts—perceiving the meaning of “relapse” differently. 

The simple Merriam-Webster Dictionary meaning of relapse is “The act or an instance of backsliding, worsening, or subsiding,” and “A recurrence of symptoms of a disease after a period of improvement.”

Similarly, an evidence-based study provides this descriptor of relapse: “Although there are many definitions of relapse, it is generally considered as a return to previous pattern of substance use.” 

While most people agree on the premise of relapse as “returning to a pattern of substance use,” where relapse becomes complicated is when defining abstinence as it relates to recovery. For example, if a person has been treated for heroin addiction and has six months of abstinence, but then decides to start drinking —does this constitute a relapse? 

Some people say yes because a substance is a substance. Others argue that because heroin was the individual’s “choice of substance” and not alcohol, that this is not considered a relapse. 

Regardless of how you define relapse or different ways that studies demonstrate incidences of relapse, there are many things that are definitively known about relapse.

Using the blanket definition of relapse as “returning to a pattern of substance use,” what studies clearly demonstrate is that: 

“The chronic nature of the disease means that relapsing to drug abuse is not only possible but also likely, with symptom recurrence rates similar to those for other well-characterized chronic medical illnesses—such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma.” —National Institute on Drug Abuse

Here is a comparison, to help better illustrate how close relapse rates are among chronic illnesses

  • SUD 40-60%
  • Hypertension 50-70%
  • Asthma 50-70%

Higher Relapse Rates for Individuals with Co-Occurring Mental Disorders 

Just like we definitely know that substance abuse relapse rates mimic those of other chronic illnesses, research has—unequivocally—confirmed that persons with a co-occurring mental disorder have an elevated risk of relapse. 

Getting and staying sober is difficult without having a pre-existing mental illness. It requires patience, hard work, dedication, and ongoing vigilance and support. Recovery compounded by mental illness can make recovery that much more challenging to maintain. 

In fact, one study estimates that individuals diagnosed with bipolar or schizophrenic disorder and substance abuse have a relapse rate as high as 50%

Reduced Risk of Relapse with Professional Treatment

Another area of relapse with much-supporting evidence is how relapse rates are lower among individuals who undergo professional treatment. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “Most people who get into and remain in treatment stop using drugs, decrease their criminal activity, and improve their occupational, social, and psychological functioning.”

NIDA further explains that individual treatment results will vary depending on a person’s specific circumstances. Again, a person with co-occurring disorders may need additional services to address the mental illness side of their condition. Their willingness and success in doing so can impact their ability and willingness to remain sober. 

A common assumption can be that when a person does complete a treatment program and relapses, that the experience was a failure. It’s important to realize, as we initially mentioned, that this is simply not the case. A person can relapse one, two, three-plus times—but, it does not mean they will continue to do so or are unable to successfully remain sober in the future. 

Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of Addiction Relapse

Another important aspect of SUD and AUD relapse to recognize is that a person often “mentally” and/or “emotionally” relapses before they physically relapse. Sometimes this is referred to as “checking out.” Signs of emotional and mental relapse include:

  • Keeping emotions and feelings inside
  • Refusing to share at meetings or in therapy sessions
  • Isolating from friends and family
  • Focussing on other people’s problems and issues
  • Blaming frustrations, problems, and issues on others instead of owning and taking responsibility
  • Exhibiting erratic behaviors in eating, sleeping, interacting with others
  • Neglecting self-care and personal hygiene
  • Craving and/or discussing drugs and alcohol
  • Thinking about, planning, or even visiting unhealthy places (bars, partying locations from the past)
  • Lying 
  • Glamorizing past unhealthy behaviors
  • Considering ways to try “controlled” use of substances
  • Hanging out with “old playgrounds and playmates” from past days of using substances

Once a person moves from emotional and mental relapse to physical relapse, it means he/she has started to drink alcohol or use drugs again. 

The danger in physical relapse is that there is a very real concern of overdose—especially with certain drugs. When people who have stopped taking drugs pick up again and use the same amount they did prior to quitting, it can lead to overdose. The body is simply no longer accustomed to processing that amount of drug, leading to serious health consequences, including death. 

Relapse Prevention Strategies 

Because relapse is a process, rather than an “event,” there are a number of strategies to help prevent a physical relapse. One of the first important steps for a person in the initial stages of relapse is to recognize they are there. To do that, it helps to have an accountability partner or trusted friend with whom you can always be honest. A therapist, sponsor, and close confidant who knows you are in recovery can help point out if they see you exhibiting any of the signs and symptoms of relapse. 

One of the ways accountability partners can help you identify relapse characteristics is by asking simple questions: “Are you experiencing HALT (hunger, anger, loneliness, tiredness)?” “Is your self-care at a level where it should be?” “Have you been isolating yourself to avoid something/someone?”

These questions can also be helpful to ask yourself on an ongoing basis as part of a self-sobriety appraisal.

Other ways to help prevent relapse include:

  • Knowing triggers. It can be difficult to identify relapse if you don’t know what your personal drinking/drug use triggers are. In addition to the relapse symptoms listed above, you may have your own specific triggers—places, people, even foods or drinks that trigger negative emotions. Knowing what these are can help you with finding solutions to minimize irritation, anger, etc. (instead of picking a substance up).
  • Identifying solutions. Just as you have personal triggers, you can have personalized solutions for those triggers. For example, if you know a certain friend tends to make you feel worse rather than better during times of anxiety, sadness, and frustration, take a mini-break from them until you feel more at ease. 
  • Remaining connected. Maintaining relationships with trusted friends, family, recovery groups, therapists and other support systems helps reduce the likelihood of you isolating. And, many times it helps you remain accountable to your recovery if you can be open and honest with your support system. 
  • Staying active. When people continue attending regular 12-step meetings, group and individual therapy sessions, and other recovery-oriented activities, it keeps them “active” in their sobriety. Often, these types of outlets also have a component of “giving back” and helping others with the same affliction. When you’re helping someone else with addiction, it can help you keep accountable to your own recovery, and even bring you joy. 

Sometimes, simply shifting gears—reading a great book, watching a comforting movie, cuddling with a pet, volunteering at a food shelter, or taking a walk can help change your mindset and move you away from relapse-oriented thinking. 

More Ways to Prevent Relapse

Relapse may be part of the recovery process, but it doesn’t define it. Rather, it is something to be wary of —and learned from should it happen—but never should it be looked at as a failure. 

If you or someone you love is showing signs of relapse or in active addiction, Futures can help. 

We specialize in finding the right pathway of recovery for each individual. Thousands of people get help every day and go on to live happy, vibrant lives. And so do those who relapse. 

We are ready to meet you, exactly where you are!

Contact us confidentially online or by phone at 866-804-2098. 

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