What To Do After a Relapse: 9 Action Steps You Can Take

Last Updated: April 30, 2024

Even when you commit to getting sober, relapse is a very real possibility. According to an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) survey, 75% of people relapse during their first year of recovery. Half of cocaine addicts will relapse within a year of completing detox. In general, 40-60% of drug users will relapse at some point during recovery.

Women are particularly susceptible to relapse. A 2013 study showed that 71.9% of women relapsed within two months after completing a three-month treatment program, compared to 54.5% of men.

Even though these statistics can seem daunting, understanding them is important. Recovery is a process of learning a new way to live and relapse can be a part of it. However, there are ways to deal with the anger, depression, and negativity that come after relapse, as well as steps that you can take to reduce the risk of relapse in the future.

What is a relapse?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, relapse can be defined in several ways:

  • Resuming substance use after a period of sobriety.
  • Going back to higher levels of substance use.
  • Becoming addicted again.
  • A process during which external and internal factors (such as unexpected stress or mental illness, respectively) and an addict’s fallible responses to those factors result in substance use.

While the first three definitions are certainly valid, the last is the most useful for helping you understand why relapses occur, how to deal with them, and how to avoid them.

Why do people relapse?

The reasons for relapses are as varied as the reasons for addiction, but some include:

  • Living or socializing with other people who have substance use disorders.
  • Living by yourself.
  • Going to places where you used to use.
  • Experiencing a traumatic life event (death, unemployment, ending a romantic relationship, etc.)
  • Lack of belief in yourself.
  • Feeling constant and/or high levels of anger.
  • A history of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD).
  • Lacking a support system of people who promote and believe in your recovery.
  • Lacking unselfish life goals.
  • Not prioritizing relaxation, good eating habits, and/or exercising.
  • Thinking you’re “cured,” and that you no longer have to work at recovery.
  • Believing that relapse is a complete, unfixable, and/or personal failure.

Obviously, avoiding as many of these factors as possible is helpful when you’re in recovery, but some (like mental illness or trauma) are out of your control. Others can be difficult to control, especially when you’re already in a vulnerable emotional state (i.e. combating addiction).

That’s what makes recovery difficult. It seems like there are so many factors working against you. However, addiction can be treated and sobriety is possible. Handling a relapse well is one of the best ways to ensure a speedy return to the healthier, happier life you’ve chosen.

Self-care after relapse occurs

If you relapse, you’re bound to experience negative emotions. You might feel angry or disappointed with yourself. You might see yourself as weak or out of control. You’re bound to experience guilt or the feeling that you’ll never fully recover.

However, these lines of thinking are defeatist, unhelpful, and often untrue. In order to move on from a relapse so that you can resume recovery, there are several things you can do to help yourself:

Remember that relapse is common.

Most addicts will relapse at some point, but it’s equally important to remember that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines recovery as “continual growth and improvement in one’s health and wellness that may involve setbacks.” Recovery is a continuing process, not an end-goal. Relapse can be part of that process.

Remind yourself that addiction is a disease, not a character flaw.

The American Society of Addiction Medication defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” Addiction affects neurotransmission, as well as the interactions between various structures in the brain. Frontal love morphology from an early exposure to substance abuse is a significant factor in developing an addiction. Accepting that addiction is a chronic disease and not a character flaw can help you move on from a relapse.

Reach out to your support system.

Whether this includes a sponsor in a 12-step program, a doctor or therapist, a treatment facility, or loved ones, being honest about relapse is a healthy way to accept what occurred and receive reminders that you’re not a bad person for experiencing a setback.

Try to reframe this relapse as a learning experience, not a failure.

Relapse means that something is missing in your recovery plan. Now is the time to evaluate what led up to this incident of substance use and what you can do in the future to prevent it.

Preventing future relapses

There are many methods to guard against relapsing in the future. Some, like re-entering a treatment facility, are immediately obvious for long periods of substance use, but when you experience a short-term relapse, what can you do?

Some actions you can take include:

  • Practicing Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or entering an MBSR program can help you cope with traumatic life events and reduce anger.
  • Forgiveness Therapy (FT) can help combat feelings of guilt, disappointment, and anger after a relapse. It can also restore hope in yourself so that you can resume the process of recovery with a positive mindset.
  • Treatment for co-existing mental illnesses can reduce states of depression, anxiety, and mania that can trigger a relapse.
  • Nurturing healthy relationships with people who practice sobriety or are also in recovery ensures that when an urge to use comes on, you have people to contact for help.
  • Joining a 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, etc. can give you a structured support group that helps you feel both supported and directed toward continued sobriety.
  • Family therapy can help you and your family determine both the best practices to help you with recovery and ways for them to avoid enabling or codependency.
  • Conducting a personal inventory, or a process of thinking about what you’ve been through and what you want your life to be in the future, helps you to remember the negative effects of addiction and the positive results of sobriety. It can also help you learn the warning signs of an impending relapse and develop a plan to deal with them in the future.
  • Cultivating other healthy habits, such as exercise, playing with your kids, eating well, volunteering, and getting enough sleep helps you to feel better overall. In turn, these practices guard against the negative mindset that often precedes relapse.
  • Raising your self-efficacy (the feeling that you can manage stressors and triggers without relapsing) can be done through therapy. Your therapist will work with you to develop a better sense of self-esteem, to build coping skills, and to break down large tasks into manageable chunks so that you’re less likely to get overwhelmed.

Moving on after a relapse can seem daunting, but there are ways to rethink what relapse means, why it occurs, and what you can do to avoid it in the future. Referring to your recovery plan often and making changes as necessary with the help of your caregivers and support system can help you stay the course.

Remember: recovery is possible, but it is a continual practice. Relapse is not the end, but an opportunity to rededicate yourself to the life you want.


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