Early Signs of Relapse to Substance Use

When you completed your rehabilitation treatment program for substance abuse, you probably felt confident and positive, ready to tackle life in recovery head on. But as the months went on, you may have hit some bumps along the way—perhaps you’ve dealt with a lot of stress at work, or you’ve had trouble navigating relationships. If those bumps kept adding up, you may have felt the urge for a drink or drugs so strongly that you teetered on the edge of using again. The risk of disrupting your sobriety can cause even more stress and anxiety, and increases your risk of relapse. What can you do?

Relapse is a Common Risk of Recovery

The first thing to realize is that relapse is a common risk of recovery. We know that addiction is a chronic disease of the brain; there is no cure, but there are treatments available to help manage it, much as you would with other chronic health conditions. And if you relapse, you are not alone: The relapse rate for substance abuse is between 40% and 60%, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In fact, the institute says those percentages are a little lower than the rates of relapse for hypertension and asthma (50% to 70%). 


So once you know how common relapse can be, the other thing to know is how to recognize the early signs of relapse so you can get help and modify your treatment plan for some course corrections. The temptation to relapse can actually be a valuable tool to recognize where your recovery plan needs extra work so that you can move forward even stronger than you were before. But it’s only valuable if you act on it. Relapse carries the danger that comes from losing your sobriety and renewing your substance abuse, which can include the loss of career and relationships, health problems and even overdose. Avoiding these risks is another reason why it’s important to know the early signs of substance abuse relapse. 

The Early Signs and Stages of Relapse

The triggers that can lead to relapse are different for each individual, so it’s wise to work with a therapist to recognize those stress points and get the tools to manage them. For some people, it can be as simple as feeling hungry, angry or tired. For others, they may be stuck in relationships with people who encouraged their substance abuse and they find it hard to break free. It can also be tempting to think your addiction isn’t a lifelong disease to be properly managed, but something you’ve “solved” and you don’t need to keep up with the tools you’ve learned in recovery. 


While the triggers may be unique to each person, there are certain symptoms that should serve as warning signs to everyone. Usually, they first manifest themselves as emotional issues. You probably aren’t blatantly thinking about using again, but perhaps you’ve encountered a stressful situation you feel ill-equipped to handle. You may start to shut down—you stop talking about the issue or your feelings. In order to avoid talking about the subject, you may then stop going to support group sessions or socializing with friends, and you may pull away from family members. The subsequent loneliness can make you feel even worse, and you may start backsliding on healthy diet, exercise and sleep habits.


These emotional issues can then segue to mental ones. If you are feeling sad, depressed or anxious, you may begin craving the euphoria you used to feel when you were drinking or taking drugs. Because you are looking at your substance use through rose-colored glasses, you may start thinking about ways to use again, whether it’s how to purchase drugs or the number of drinks you can have without it “getting out of hand.” If you don’t act quickly, you can soon take the next step of making concrete plans to use again—and once those wheels are in motion, when you’ve moved towards the physical act of drinking or taking drugs, the risk of relapse can be at its highest. 

How to Avoid Relapse

The prospect of relapse can be disheartening and scary. That’s why it’s key to remember that relapse generally doesn’t happen overnight. There is a process leading up to it, and if you can stop it in the early stages, you can avoid a painful relapse. If you start to experience the emotional signs, it’s necessary to take care of yourself and treat yourself well with nutritious food, physical activity and the proper amount of sleep. Eat a nice meal, then take a walk after dinner, or plan a lunch with friends. 


That kind of social connection is key to combating both emotional and mental signs of relapse. There is no shame in telling a loved one, support group member or therapist that you are feeling cravings again. You will automatically feel less alone, and that can be extremely helpful. If you speak with a trained therapist or counselor, that can prompt a review of your treatment plan so it is adjusted accordingly and you get a refresher on your coping tools. For instance, you might work on re-learning relaxation techniques such as meditation that will help you get centered and take your mind off your urges. 


Those relaxation techniques can help break unhealthy thought patterns. So can hitting the pause button and keeping yourself busy until the urge passes, whether that is with exercise, a hobby or a phone call with a friend. Conversely, it may also be helpful to think past the craving for drugs or alcohol and consider what will happen in the aftermath of a relapse—how will you feel about yourself, how will others feel when they find out (and they inevitably will) and what will the impact be on your life? If you think truthfully about the negative ramifications a relapse will have, that can be enough of a deterrent to not use, and give you the time you need to get professional help to take you from the brink of relapse.


If you are in the relapse cycle, you don’t have to live in it alone. Casa Palmera offers professional and empathetic guidance in relapse prevention, providing you with tools and skills you can use every day to strengthen your sobriety. We’re here to help you get back on track. Should you find yourself slipping or you have already slipped, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us today. Addiction isn’t a choice but getting help is.