How to Move Forward After Drug or Alcohol Relapse


Updated on 09/18/23

Recovering from a substance use disorder (SUD) is a process. It can be joyful and rewarding, but it can also be hard work and there can be missteps and setbacks. While relapse is not necessarily a given during recovery, it can and does happen. However, relapse does not have to derail your entire recovery process and it can be a learning opportunity. 

What Is a Relapse?

Relapse is not a bad or dirty word. It means to return to a former state. In the case of someone in recovery, it means that they have used substances again, going back to previous levels of use, after a period of abstinence. Relapse is more common during early drug or alcohol recovery, but it can happen at any time, even years into recovery. 

Substance Use Relapse by the Numbers

Does being in recovery for a longer period of time provide some protection from relapse? During an eight-year study on 1,200 people struggling with SUD, it was discovered that longer periods of abstinence do predict long-term abstinence. In the study, it was learned that: 

  • Only about a third of people who are abstinent less than a year will remain abstinent.
  • For those who achieve a year of sobriety, less than half will relapse.
  • If you can make it to five years of sobriety, your chance of relapse is less than 15%.

Sometimes when people relapse after an extended period of abstinence, it is because they stop engaging in the recovery practices that worked for them during their earlier sobriety. Staying engaged with the recovery community in some way may help prevent relapse for those who have been sober for an extended period. 

Reasons for Drug or Alcohol Relapse

Relapse happens for a variety of reasons. The reasons people have SUD are personal and the reasons for relapse are equally as personal. People who relapse are not weak. Relapse is just a return to old, ineffective coping patterns. These ineffective coping patterns need to be replaced with effective, healthy coping skills. It can take time and several attempts to find the coping strategies that work best. 

Multiple reasons might cause a person to relapse, including:

  • Tempting situations, including circumstances or places where the person would previously have used alcohol or another drug
  • Triggers that cause a person to use substances as a coping mechanism, such as insecure housing, setbacks or social pressures
  • Exacerbation of mental health issues
  • Medical problems, especially if a person is in pain
  • Guilt caused by lapsing after a period of abstinence 

Overdose Risk During Relapse

When a person is actively using substances, they develop tolerance and must use increasing amounts of the substance to get the same effect. After a period of abstinence, tolerance to the substance drops. If the person tries to use the substance at the same dose, it could be too much for the body and they could overdose. 

Managing Substance Use Relapse

Part of recovery is learning to manage relapse if it happens. Here are some ways to effectively manage a relapse and return to sobriety:

  • Seek medical assistance immediately if experiencing unusual or significant symptoms.
  • Ensure that support people are nearby if possible.
  • Engage a support network, if one is available, including friends, a family doctor or 24-hour counseling services.
  • If disengagement from recovery-based activities contributed to relapse, re-engage with those activities as soon as possible.
  • It can take five or six attempts before a person successfully maintains abstinence. Keep in mind that relapse is not uncommon.
  • View a relapse as an opportunity to learn more about triggers and take the time to analyze those triggers without self-judgment.

Strategies for Relapse Prevention

When relapse happens, it is important to immediately start managing it in order to stop using substances again. Long-term relapse management is focused on prevention. Some of the ways you can prevent relapse:

  • Maintain participation in the recovery community. It keeps the focus on abstinence and helps provide some accountability. 
  • Look at challenges as learning opportunities instead of failures or obstacles. Plan a positive future and think about what that future will look like without substances. Set goals that support recovery.
  • Stay away from people, places and situations that trigger cravings or the desire to use substances.
  • Become engaged in enjoyable activities, taking your mind’s focus off substances and into the present moment. 
  • Try to stay hydrated, eat healthy foods, get plenty of sleep, exercise, and get sunshine and fresh air. Lack of care for the body and mind can trigger cravings for substances.
  • Incorporate a holistic view of recovery by including practices like yoga, tai-chi, breathwork or mindfulness, along with mainstream western treatment such as medications and therapy, can provide balance and be calming. This can be helpful since stress is a trigger for relapse. 

Relapse is not an inevitable part of the recovery process, but it does happen. If it does, the best thing to do is rally all available support and resources and immediately go back to a lifestyle that supports sobriety. For some people who have relapsed, attending more support group meetings or scheduling additional visits with a therapist will be all that is needed to help them return to sobriety. Other people who relapse will have to enter a more structured treatment setting and, if that is necessary, Casa Palmera is here to help. For more information on our unique, holistic approach to substance use treatment, call us today at (855) 508-0473.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.