How to Stick With Substance Use Recovery When Life Happens

How to Stick With Substance Use Recovery When Life Happens

Updated on 12/12/23

When a person returns to their day-to-day life after completing substance use disorder (SUD) treatment, maintaining sobriety can be a challenge even in the best of times. When “life happens” moments arise, whether expected or unexpected, staying sober can become a bigger challenge. Even though it is sometimes difficult to stick with recovery when life happens, it is not impossible. With help and support, it is possible to maintain sobriety and continue on the path of recovery.

What Is Relapse Exactly?

Relapse is a process rather than one event. Many health care providers and people, in general, think of substance use relapse as when someone who stopped using drugs or alcohol returns to using. The main focus is on the actual consumption of the substance. Consumption is the last stage in the relapse process. There are three stages in this process:

  • Emotional relapse: A person does not want to relapse, but emotions and behaviors pave the way for relapse. They may be in denial of the high risk of relapse.
  • Mental relapse: There is a struggle between the desire to use and remain sober at this stage. During this time, a person may have cravings, exaggerate positive aspects of use, minimize consequences, and plan ways to use while maintaining control.
  • Physical relapse: At this stage in the process, a person returns to using substances.

Some people differentiate between a lapse, the initial use of a substance, and relapse, the uncontrolled use of a substance. It is important to avoid letting this distinction lead people to downplay the seriousness of a lapse’s impact.

What Are Some “Life Happens” Events that Can Increase the Risk of Relapse?

Life is full of surprises, changes, and challenges. Sometimes these moments can be even more challenging to face for people who have become accustomed to coping with drugs or alcohol but are now in recovery. It can make staying the recovery course more challenging than usual. Some life  events that make recovery difficult are:

  • Illness
  • Injury
  • Job loss
  • Changing jobs
  • Moving
  • Eviction
  • Divorce
  • Death of a loved one, including a beloved pet
  • Disasters

Negative things generally come to mind when people think about “life happens” moments that can trigger a relapse. However, it may come as a surprise, but positive “life happens” events can also trigger a relapse. Some of these events are:

  • Going on vacation
  • Getting into college
  • Earning a promotion
  • Starting a new relationship
  • A new baby
  • Building a new home
  • Holiday celebrations

Why do positive events carry a risk of relapse? Like vacations and holiday celebrations, some of them put a person in situations where they may be surrounded by other people using drugs or alcohol. Situations like starting a new relationship and earning a promotion can leave less free time and less time for attending 12-step meetings and self-care. A new baby or building a new home can cause financial stress, and a new baby can completely change parents’ lives. Babies require time and attention, leaving parents tired and with less time for therapy, meetings, and bonding with each other. A new baby can be a source of joy but also worry, which triggers a relapse.

Strategies for Sticking with Recovery During “Life Happens” Moments

With careful planning and support, it is possible to stay sober even during challenging life events. It is important to keep all scheduled therapy and psychiatry appointments. If lack of time is a problem, virtual appointments may be an option. Online support meetings help when time is limited.

Having a support system is essential for maintaining sobriety during the challenges that life throws our way. This network of friends, other people in recovery, a sponsor, peer support specialists, and mental health professionals can help in various difficult situations.

A person’s employee assistance program (EAP) and health insurance can help during life’s challenging times. Insurance companies may offer case management, peer support services, and services for pregnant or new mothers. Case managers assist with locating additional resources in the community, while peer support specialists can provide additional support. They are in recovery and trained to help others who are still using substances or who are in early recovery. Services for pregnant women and new mothers can help link these women with additional resources. EAP programs offer more than mental health and substance use assistance. Some offer budgeting or financial planning help and legal resources.

When “life happens” moments arise, it is important to maintain basic self-care to help prevent relapse. Eating well, exercising, taking any prescribed medications as ordered, keeping medical appointments, maintaining personal hygiene, and staying in contact with friends and loved ones are important self-care activities.

If Relapse Does Happen

Sometimes despite best efforts, relapse happens. It does not indicate failure. Reach out to Casa Palmera and get back on your recovery journey.

Life happens. Unexpected events arise, and difficult challenges are part of life as well as recovery. The staff at Casa Palmera understands this, and we are here to help if an unexpected event has led to a relapse. We will help you explore the factors that underly substance use and relapse. We acknowledge that people are complex and more than just a disorder and their presenting symptoms. For this reason, we work with our patients to heal on all levels: mind, body, and spirit. Our experienced and caring staff will work with you to build a treatment plan that addresses your unique, individual needs using a balanced approach of evidence-based western medicine and holistic complementary treatment. Substance use disorders do not occur in a vacuum, so we will also bring your family and other supports into treatment. Call Casa Palmera at (855) 508-0473 and find out more about how to get the help you need.


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.