The Types of Relapses and What to Do in the Wake of Them 

Anyone who battles with substance abuse knows that recovery is a lifelong process. Awareness is a crucial part of recovery because, without it, we may become susceptible to relapse without even realizing it. The beginning of our recovery journey can be particularly difficult because of the common fear of relapse, which tends to be perpetuated with stigma as well. Relapse involves experiencing a recurrence of symptoms of a disease after a period of improvement. Many people who are afraid of relapsing or who have already relapsed, are scared that they failed. Relapse is truly a normal part of the process and, in many cases, it’s a lesson that can be learned – but we must get over the fear of relapse itself before we can approach it with a clearer mind frame.

There are three main ties to relapses – physical, mental, and emotional. 

Emotional relapses don’t always necessitate a physical relapse, but they could put someone at risk for one. If a person is feeling anxiety, intolerance, anger, defensiveness, mood swings, isolation, is missing meetings, is eating or sleeping poorly, or is refusing help, they could become more susceptible to relapsing – but over time in recovery, awareness of these emotions can help a person prevent one from happening.

Mental relapses occur when an individual begins fantasizing about using, even though they may be working towards sobriety. When this happens, the person experiences fleeting thoughts of using, and they can’t seem to stop. A few characteristics of this may be lying to the people closest to them, romanticizing using the substance/drug in the past, dwelling on people, places, or things that tie directly to the addiction, spending time with people that they used to engage in the addiction with, etc. Individuals often find it difficult to remain sober at this point because their mind has become very convinced that substance abuse is what’s needed/desired.

Physical relapses may involve a person reverting back to old substance abuse behaviors either one time or as a longer series of events. Recovery from relapse is still possible –  but the minute a person has realized they’ve relapsed, they should try to seek out their 12-Step sponsor or another strong form of social support so they can get back on track.

Relapsing does not mean that we have failed. It simply means that we are learning more about how to work with the thoughts, feelings and environmental situations we experience on a daily basis. This may also present an opportunity for us to enter back into inpatient treatment, or to increase our meeting attendance. Millions of people have relapsed and recovered from it. If we can view this as a learning opportunity and grow from it, we can make the most of our journey through recovery.

A relapse prevention plan is crucial for addiction recovery as it gives you all the tools that you need to respond to relapse triggers and cravings. Despite it being stigmatized as a sign of “weakness” or a “moral failure”, relapse can be a huge moment for learning and growth. For instance, a person in recovery may discover what’s been working and what hasn’t been working for them in recovery – and that gives them a chance to reinforce or correct what’s needed as part of their treatment program.

There are many tools that you can incorporate in your prevention plan, depending on what works best for you. Relapse prevention plans vary depending on the person, as it’s up to the individual to discover what helps and what doesn’t over time.  However, the following are some excellent tools that may become part of your prevention plan:

  • Mindfulness – Learning to tune into the present moment and become increasingly aware of thoughts and feelings. When this happens, it then becomes easier to recognize when a relapse might occur – and prevention can be dealt with quickly.
  • Social support – Previous studies have shown the importance of having people around us to lift us up and help us in times of need. Call up a friend or family member. Rely on your 12-Step sponsor or call your therapist. Seek out help from someone – because you’re not alone.
  • Lifestyle – eating healthy, getting adequate sleep and exercise, avoiding caffeine, taking prescribed medications and joining a support group can all benefit your recovery and reduce your chances of relapse.
  • Distracting yourself – Watch a movie, read a good book, exercise, start a new hobby – these are all examples of healthy ways that you could distract yourself if you find that you’re heading down the road towards relapse.
  • Cognitive processes – Don’t allow yourself to forget the consequences of reverting back to previous substance abuse patterns. Many people feel that, once in recovery and they’re more confident, they’re able to have “just one drink” – but that’s never the case.


Healing is possible, and there is a team of people who care about your health and wellbeing. For more information on overcoming mental health challenges, addiction, and substance use problems, please call True Recovery at (844) 744-8783 or visit us online.