Understanding Addiction Relapse: Stages, Risk Factors and Signs

Picture of Nicholas Conn

Nicholas Conn

Nicholas Conn is a leading industry addiction expert who runs the UK’s largest addiction advisory service and is regularly featured in the national press, radio and TV.

holding hands as support during alcohol relapse

Addiction is a complex and challenging condition that affects millions of people around the world. Whether it's drugs or alcohol, substance use disorder can affect all areas of your life, including your mental health, physical health, and general well-being.

When you begin your addiction recovery journey, you may experience setbacks on the way. One significant setback you may face is a relapse. But what exactly does this mean? What are the different stages to expect? And what are the risk factors for relapse? Find out here.


What is a Relapse?

A relapse is when you return to drinking or drugs after a period of intended sobriety. If you’re in recovery from addiction and you begin using the substance you are addicted to again, this is considered a relapse.

However, it’s important to understand that this is not a sign of failure - it’s a sign that you need additional support or a more comprehensive treatment programme. It’s a common occurrence in the journey to recovery and should be considered as an opportunity to learn and grow.


The Different Stages of Relapse

Relapse doesn’t always happen in the spur of the moment - there are several stages that may occur beforehand. Knowing these stages can help you to recognise the warning signs and take steps to prevent it.


1. Emotional Relapse

This is the first stage where you may not be consciously thinking about using drugs or alcohol, but your emotions and behaviours could lead to potential relapse. Some signs of emotional relapse include:

  • Isolation
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Anger
  • Poor self-care


This, in turn, could lead you to stop looking after yourself as well, you may start eating badly, drop your exercise routine or start slipping back into your old negative patterns of behaviour and stop asking for help.

These feelings are a normal part of the withdrawal process - specifically Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS). It's important to address these emotional triggers early on to prevent progression to the next stages.


2. Mental Addiction Relapse

The second stage in the relapse process is when you start to get urges to drink again. You may find yourself thinking about it more and fantasising in your head about how it would feel to have a drink.

This is when it is important to remind yourself constantly about what a negative downward spiral you were in when you were drinking and how disappointed you would be in yourself if you did relapse. Instead of pretending this is not happening to you, do not struggle alone.

Tell someone what is going on and seek help. Talk it through with your counsellor. You should try to keep yourself busy and distract yourself from the urges you might be feeling. Do not give in to them instantly - decide that you will wait half an hour and go and have a bath or do something else. Make relaxation part of your daily routine, and reassess your coping strategies.


3. Physical Addiction Relapse

This is the point that most people consider to be the actual relapse and once you return to drinking, it becomes much harder to stop again.

It’s the final stage where you may succumb to your cravings and engage in substance use. At this point, the risk of overdose and other adverse consequences is significantly heightened.

You should seek immediate help and re-engage with your support system and addiction treatment resources. However, if you can recognise the process that leads to this stage, you can minimise your chances of reaching this point.


Relapse Risk Factors

There are severe factors that can increase the risk of relapse. Understanding these factors can help you prepare and stay sober or drug-free for good. Some risk factors to be aware of include:

  • High-risk situations - being in environments or situations where drugs or alcohol are easily accessible can be a huge risk factor
  • Poor mental health - co-occurring mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, or trauma can make it harder to achieve long-term sobriety
  • Lack of support - the absence of a support system or support groups can make it tough to stay sober during challenging times
  • Lack of coping skills - not having effective coping strategies for managing stress, cravings, and triggers can leave you vulnerable to relapse
  • Physical health issues - untreated medical conditions or poor physical health can increase the risk of experiencing a relapse by increasing vulnerability and reducing resilience


Signs of a Relapse

Now you understand the risk factors, let’s explore the signs that you may be about to start drinking alcohol again. Knowing the signs is key for early prevention and preventing the issue from worsening. Some common signs include:

  • Increased cravings for drugs or alcohol
  • Changes in mood or behaviour
  • Withdrawal from social activities or support networks
  • Neglecting self-care and responsibilities
  • Justifying or rationalising substance use
  • Engaging in risky behaviours associated with substance use


Is Relapse a Part of Recovery?

In short - yes, for many, setbacks are just a part of the recovery process. While it's not inevitable, it's important to understand that setbacks can occur at any time during the journey to long-term sobriety.

Be sure to view setbacks as an opportunity to learn from mistakes, identify triggers, and strengthen your coping skills. This can empower you to persevere in your recovery.


What to Do After a Relapse

Experiencing a setback on your recovery journey can be discouraging - however, it’s important to respond with compassion and determination. Here are steps to take after you break your period of sobriety:

Seek support - Reach out to your support network, whether it's friends, family, a support group or an addiction specialist. Sharing your experience and receiving encouragement can provide much-needed reassurance and guidance.

Reassess your treatment plan - Work closely with your addiction treatment provider to evaluate your current treatment program and identify areas for adjustment or enhancement. This may involve exploring new coping strategies, relapse prevention techniques or medication options.

Identify your triggers - Reflect on the circumstances and emotions leading up to your return to drinking. Understanding your triggers can help you develop strategies for avoiding or managing similar situations in the future.

Practice self-care - Prioritise your physical and mental well-being by engaging in activities that promote well-being, such as exercise, mindfulness, and healthy eating habits.

Stay committed to recovery - Remember that recovery is a journey, and setbacks are a natural part of the process. Stay committed to your long-term goals and remain resilient.

Learn from the experience - Use the slip as an opportunity to gain insight into your addiction and strengthen your coping skills. Embrace the lessons you have learned and apply them to your ongoing recovery journey.

Consider returning to rehab - Understanding addiction relapse is key to reducing the risk and preventing it. Returning to rehab may be the best option if you’re struggling to return to sobriety. At Help4Addiction, we can connect you with the most suitable rehab provider for you.

You don’t have to deal with addiction alone; we can secure you a space at a quality, effective rehab clinic - whether you’re looking for residential rehab, outpatient rehab or online rehab.

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