Relapse Awareness Guide

Three Stages Of Relapse

This is the first in our series of three Blogs relating to relapse. Relapse does happen but not in the way that many people think – that’s what we’ll deal with here. Our following Blogs will discuss what to do following a relapse and later we’ll look at one alcoholics personal story.

How Does A Relapse Occur?

Not in the way you might think! It seems obvious to say that a relapse happens when someone picks up a drink or uses again. That’s not the full story – it’s a process which begins often months prior to someone finally succumbing to the urge to drink or use again.

It’s also important to recognize that in some people a relapse is a part of their journey to achieving long term sobriety. Statistics from the USA show that 40% to 60% of people relapse at least once during their recovery, with the largest number of people relapsing being those who did not seek professional help.

Relapse doesn’t happen to everyone – however, if you do relapse it does not mean failure. Relapse is a learning experience and should not result in giving up.

There are often warning signs prior to a relapse – if you are noticing any of these occurring in yourself or another, talk about it. Find out what’s going wrong and how to get back on track – you may need some professional help to do so – and that’s okay!

Here are the three widely recognized stages of relapse:

Stage 1: Emotional Relapse

During this stage a person is not actively thinking about drinking or using. However, they may emotionally be setting themselves up for a relapse further down the road.

Some warning signs of emotional relapse include:

  • Bottling up emotions.
  • Isolating yourself from others.
  • Not going to recovery meetings.
  • Going to meetings but not sharing.
  • Focusing on others and their problems.
  • Poor eating and sleeping habits.

These symptoms of an emotional relapse could be due to any number of reasons. If you are identifying with some of the symptoms above, tell someone in your recovery group, talk to your sponsor and consider reaching out for professional help.

Stage 2: Mental Relapse

Take note of the symptoms that were mentioned above – many of them are strong indications of a lack of self care. The transition between emotional and mental relapse is a natural consequence of poor self-care for long periods of time. They start to feel restless, irritable and discontent. It’s in the natural course of events that the longer these feelings persist the higher the chance of a relapse.

Whereas in the emotional relapse stage the person is not thinking about drinking or using, in a mental relapse they are actively having thoughts and going between whether to drink or use or not. This is a very confusing time – especially if the person isn’t able to identify why. Part of them will want to use or drink and the other part wants to stay sober.

Some warning signs of a mental relapse include:

  • Cravings for drugs or alcohol.
  • Thinking about people, places and things associated with past use.
  • Minimizing the consequences of or glamorizing past use.
  • Bargaining with yourself – “I can drink if I just have one and get back into meetings later”.
  • Thinking of ways to control using “I will just use over the weekend”.
  • Looking for relapse opportunities such as parties or events.
  • Planning a relapse.


What To Do When Mentally Relapsing

When someone is going through a mental relapse it is still not too late to turn things around. There are several ways to cope with the cravings, stay sober and get back on track. If you identify with the above then here are some suggestions:

  1. Call someone: Explain how you are feeling and try to get to the root of what is causing it.

  2. Self care: Take a look at what you have been neglecting to do to take care of yourself and find a way to rectify it. Even if this means taking a day off work – do it! 

  3. Wait: When you experience a craving wait for 5 – 30 minutes and it will usually pass. Use the time to think about why you might be experiencing cravings and what you need to do. 

  4. Play it forward: Think about what would happen if you did drink or drug – in the next 5mins, 10mins, 2 hours, tomorrow etc.

           One day at a time: Remind yourself that your only goal is to stay clean and sober for today.

Stage 3: Physical Relapse

The physical relapse stage occurs when you act on your cravings and use drugs or drink. Whether the drinking or drugging continues or there is a realization that it wasn’t the right thing to do depends on the individual. For those who continue to drink or use, the length of time for which they continue to do so is also variable.

The main point to focus on is that it doesn’t have to continue. This does not have to signify a complete failure. Try to focus on sobriety and getting immediate help.

If you are currently struggling with any of the stages above (or know someone who is), seeking help is the best solution. The sooner you reach out the sooner you can get back on track to better and healthier living.

If you need advice or guidance on issues relating to relapse, contact us today and speak with one of our experienced recovery team.

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