When people stop using alcohol or drugs, cravings, withdrawal symptoms and triggers can tempt them to start using again. When someone who has entered recovery returns to using or abusing substances regularly and chronically, it is called a relapse. Understanding the warning signs and potential triggers of relapse can help prevent one from occurring.

What Does It Mean to Relapse?

A relapse is the  return to regular misuse of alcohol or drugs after a period of sobriety. It is different from a slip, which is when someone uses a substance once then returns to their recovery goals. A relapse is a complete departure from one’s recovery goals, and the person often struggles to return to sobriety. During a relapse, substance use tends to return to previous levels or even worsens. 

Is Relapse a Part of Recovery?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, relapse is normal and a part of recovery. It becomes less common the longer someone is sober. Despite its normalcy, a relapse with certain drugs can have devastating consequences. If a person relapses using the same amount of drugs they did before pre-recovery, they have an increased risk of overdose. In addition, a relapse can make a person in recovery feel shameful, which can lead to isolation and more intense drug use.

The Three Stages of Relapse

Recovery is an active process, and it requires a daily commitment. While relapse may seem spontaneous, there are stages leading up to the event. 

Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse is the beginning phase of relapse that occurs when a person is not actively working on their sobriety. A person experiencing emotional relapse may not be attending to or managing their emotions, which puts them at risk of a mental and physical relapse. Examples of emotional relapse can include:

  • Isolation
  • Not attending or sharing at meetings
  • Not reaching out to support systems
  • Poor self-care 

Mental Relapse 

Mental relapse is the second phase, which can occur when one’s emotions are not being regulated in a healthy way. It is when someone is considering using alcohol or drugs. Signs of a mental relapse include but are not limited to:

  • Glamorizing past drug use
  • Hanging out with individuals who use
  • Having cravings
  • Planning situations in which it is acceptable to use
  • Looking for situations to relapse 

Physical Relapse 

If a person fails to confront and deal with their mental and emotional relapse symptoms, their risk of a physical relapse increases. A physical relapse is the intentional act of using drugs or alcohol. If this occurs, it does not mean recovery has irreversibly failed. You can seek treatment before the relapse becomes unmanageable, or even immediately after the point of physical relapse. 

Why Do People Relapse?

There are many factors that can lead to relapse. Many people with addictions turn to substance use to cope with challenges, whether it be work problems, interpersonal conflict, financial stress or mental health issues. Turning to substance use in times of stress, resulting in a relapse, is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it means that old coping mechanisms like substance use need to be replaced with healthier strategies. 

Potential Relapse Triggers

There are some relapse triggers that are more common than others. If you are in recovery and are experiencing any of these circumstances, it is important to use healthy coping strategies and reach out to your support system. These triggers include:

  • Physical health issues that require prescription medication
  • Intense or prolonged stress
  • Being in environments in which drugs are used
  • Housing insecurities
  • Guilt or shame caused by a slip

Signs of a Relapse

There are common warning signs of a relapse. If you notice any of these behaviors in yourself or a loved one, it is important to seek treatment before things get out of control. 

  • Isolation and social withdrawal: You might notice that the person in recovery has begun to isolate themselves, has stopped participating in sober activities, or has begun lying about their recovery and whereabouts. 
  • Romanticization of drug use: This is one of the most common warning signs of relapse. The person may minimize the negative effects of their previous drug use and view their memories in a falsely positive light. This is a sign of a mental relapse, which is only one step before a physical relapse. 
  • Sudden behavioral changes: If you notice any sudden behavioral changes in the person in recovery, it is likely a sign that they have relapsed. 

High Risk Situations for Relapse

Certain situations can put people in recovery at a high risk for relapse. These risks are generally either situational, emotional or interpersonal. Such situations include:

  • Attending events where drugs and alcohol are used or being pressured into engaging in substance use
  • Conflicts with friends and family, especially if they are your support system
  • Persistent feelings of sadness, boredom, or depression


What To Do After A Relapse

If you or a loved one has relapsed, you can get back on the right track by following these guidelines:

  • If necessary, seek medical support. If the person has not used for a long time, there is an increased risk of overdose. 
  • Reach out to the person’s support system or a treatment counseling service
  • Reassure the person that relapse is a normal part of recovery, and encourage them to view their relapse as a chance to grow. 

Relapse Prevention Plan 

Having a relapse prevention plan can provide structure and motivation for a person in recovery. Following prevention guidelines is essential for maintaining long term sobriety.  The following are key components of an effective relapse prevention plan:

  • Avoid triggers such as situations, places and people that pose a risk for relapse. 
  • Seek out and maintain relationships with your support systems and recovery networks. This includes continuing to attend support group meetings and therapy sessions even after completing treatment.
  • Engage in activities that promote a sense of community and positive self-perception. This can include a sports team, book club, or a volunteering event. 
  • Take care of your physical and mental health. Getting enough rest, exercising, journaling, and practicing gratitude are great ways to self-regulate emotions. 

Get Help for Addiction in Florida 

Relapse is not a sign of failure. In fact, it could be one step closer to a long-term recovery. If you or your loved one is battling addiction, consider seeking treatment at The Recovery Village at Baptist Health. We offer comprehensive treatment programs for both alcohol abuse and drug addiction, including detox programs. Contact us today to learn more about our programs or to begin the admissions process. 

  • Sources

    Alcohol and Drug Foundation. “Relapse.” Accessed July 18, 2022.

    Melemis, Steven. “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.” Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine,September 3, 2015. Accessed July 19, 2022.

    National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Treatment and Recovery.” July, 2020. Accessed July 18, 2022.

  • Medical Disclaimer

    The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.