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The Different Stages of Relapse

An important facet of working through addiction treatment is the understanding that relapse is a part of recovery and doesn't equate to failure. While each patient in a recovery program is urged to avoid relapse and given the tools to do so, addiction is a chronic disease, which indicates that relapse is always possible. The things that can lead someone to relapse greatly vary, whether it be stress, boredom, cravings, etc., but it rarely happens out of the blue. Recognizing the stages of relapse that begin to occur before the actual event is essential for prevention and provides an indispensable guide for patients and their loved ones.

Emotional Relapse

The first phase of relapse is tricky and often occurs before any kind of cravings or thoughts strike. Often patients who are entering emotional relapse deal with anxiety, irritability, and anger. When these feelings become overwhelming, sometimes newfound coping mechanisms from substance use counseling don't seem to do the trick or aren't effective in soothing the negative state of mind. People in this phase often exhibit signs they are struggling, such as:

  • Abandoning counseling sessions

  • Irregular sleep pattern

  • Sudden social withdrawal and isolation

  • Erratic eating habits

  • Questionable hygiene

  • Quick to anger or "fly off the handle"

Recognizing emotional relapse will sometimes be observed by others before the patient realizes their situation, making this phase particularly volatile. A loved one's concern may be perceived as doubt or unwarranted suspicion and anger the patient further thusly, requiring a careful approach.

Mental Relapse

Upon emotional relapse, the mental relapse phase begins, bringing about ideas of substance misuse. They often entertain the idea of using again to help alleviate their emotional distress or because they feel nostalgic about previous times when they've been under the influence, usually a romanticized version. The most dangerous part of this phase is when patients begin to bargain with themselves, further planning potential substance misuse telling themselves things like:

  • "If I just do it once or twice, I'll return to my program, and no one will know."

  • "I just need to relax; I know how to control my use now and can stop when I want."

  • "My tolerance is low, so it won't take much to feel good; it will be easy to stop."

The mental relapse phase is critical, and without support, patients can quickly succumb to their ideas of substance use. However, many will also feel a bit of a rude awakening as they entertain thoughts of using again and reach out to trusted people to let them know they're struggling. A solid relapse prevention plan can be of great influence in these moments.

Physical Relapse

The final phase of relapse is when a patient physically returns to drug or alcohol misuse, including taking all of the active steps to acquire and ingest the substances. After making this choice, things can go very differently depending on the patient's access to a support network and treatment facility where they may require detox or medication. Some relapse cases are considered a "slip," where the patient returns immediately to their recovery plan, while others, unfortunately, can spend weeks, months, or even years struggling to reroute back to sobriety.

Long-lasting recovery from addiction is possible, and there has never been a better time to enroll in substance use disorder treatment. People who wish to stop the cycle of sobriety and relapse don't have to do it alone. RSONM offers comprehensive recovery programs that involve medication-assisted treatment and substance use counseling that provide the necessary tools to get relapse under control and achieve a life free of substance use. To learn more, call or message a local RSONM clinic today.


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