Why Addiction Relapse Does Not Mean Failure

Last Updated: September 25, 2023

For many on the road to sobriety and recovery, relapse is part of the journey. Though at the time of a relapse it may feel like a failure of sorts, it doesn’t have to be. Many people in sobriety come back from a relapse and are able to maintain continuous sobriety afterward. Like anything else in sobriety, it’s just about having the right knowledge and tools.

What Is A Relapse?

In short, a relapse is when a person has stopped using drugs or drinking for a period of time but then returns to using that substance. A relapse can be a one-time event or can go on for years. In some cases, such as if a person has been sober for some time and their tolerance has declined, a relapse can be very dangerous.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “People recovering from addiction often have one or more relapses along the way. For some drugs, a relapse can be very dangerous—even deadly. If a person uses as much as they used to before quitting, they can easily overdose. An overdose occurs when the person uses too much of a drug and has a toxic reaction that results in serious, harmful symptoms or death.”

How Does A Relapse Happen?

Sometimes a relapse is sudden and impulsive, but other times it may happen slowly. When it begins to happen slowly, it’s important to know the signs so you can take steps to redirect yourself on the right path. The following are the three stages of relapse.

An Emotional Relapse

This is the beginning stage of relapse, so a person isn’t necessarily thinking about using drugs or drinking alcohol. But in a way, their actions could be setting them up to relapse. There are certain symptoms that can take place during this stage, including anxiety, intolerance, anger, defensiveness, mood swings, isolation, failing to attend meetings and poor sleeping and eating habits. These are also symptoms of post-acute withdrawal, which happens after physical withdrawal. It includes mental and emotional withdrawal, rather than physical ones.

According to Addictionsandrecovery.org, “Post-acute withdrawal occurs because your brain chemistry is gradually returning to normal. As your brain improves the levels of your brain chemicals fluctuate as they approach the new equilibrium causing post-acute withdrawal symptoms.”

A Mental Relapse

In this stage, a person’s mind has ventured to using again. It’s a battle of sorts, as one part of the person wants to use or drink, while the other part wants to continue with recovery. Mental relapse can include often thinking about your past, going places you used to use, spending time with people you used with, and minimizing your use. In most cases, the addict is the only person who can recognize this stage of relapse, since the thoughts are internal. This is why it is important to be aware of what those thoughts may look like. If you recognize that you are going through a mental relapse, you should call someone to talk through your thoughts. It may also help to think ahead, thinking about what would happen if you were to pick up a drink or use a drug. Sometimes simply thinking about the future can reset your mind and help to make the right decision.

A Physical Relapse

Sometimes, the above strategies don’t work, and people end up using again. This is referred to as a physical relapse and is the stage where a person makes the active decision to use drugs or drink alcohol. For some, this may be a one-time occurrence, while for others, it opens the door back into their old lives.

How Is A Relapse Overcome?

Though it may be difficult to come back from, a relapse doesn’t have to be the end of recovery. If you want to put yourself back on the road to recovery, there are steps you can take.

Surround Yourself With The Right People

This is very important because you tend to be like the people you surround yourself with. So, if you’re spending time with people who use drugs and drink alcohol, you are more likely to do both. Instead, try surrounding yourself with others who are in recovery and are leading the type of life you’d like to lead.

Don’t Beat Yourself Up

While this is easier said than done, having negative feelings about yourself for prolonged periods of time is likely to do more harm than good. Recognize that you made a decision to use, but now you can make the decision not to. Focus on the positive behaviors you can work into your recovery. It does no good to dwell on the past. Instead, focus on moving forward.

Recognize What Lead Up To Your Relapse

For many people, there were signs of a relapse in retrospect. They may have been pulling away from the recovery community or becoming more negative about their self-image and self-worth. This varies for everyone, but it’s important to think about what lead up to your relapse and what you can do differently the next time you see those signs.

Though relapse may momentarily knock you down, it doesn’t have to be the end. If you make sure you’re informed and aware, you have a chance at making recovery work.


Post-Acute Withdrawal (PAWS). Addictionsandrecovery.org. Accessed 4 January 2017.

What is relapse? National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed 4 January 2017. https://easyread.drugabuse.gov/content/what-relapse

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