Relapse Stages: Mental, Emotional, and Physical Relapse

Last Updated: September 25, 2023

Getting clean and sober is an amazing journey. Recovery is a lifestyle and must constantly be tended to for the benefits to stay intact. It takes hard work and determination, but the rewards can be well worth it.

Many people experience better health, more energy, clarity, and an overall sense of well-being and peace in their recovery. However, sobriety is a daily choice and if not managed carefully, can become a slippery slope.

Anyone who enters into treatment should be mindful of the potential for relapse. It is a very serious process that happens gradually over time and can be very sneaky.

Why Is Relapse A Concern?

In a survey reported by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and The New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) show that “10 percent of all American adults, ages 18 and older, consider themselves to be in recovery from drug or alcohol abuse problems. These nationally representative findings indicate that there are 23.5 million American adults who are overcoming an involvement with drugs or alcohol that they once considered to be problematic.”

These numbers subsequently suggest there are 23.5 million Americans at risk of a relapse in their recovery, which can sometimes lead to a fatal overdose.

In addition to the statistics, an article written by The Huffington Post also explains, “It can take up to a year for the areas of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotion regulation to return to normal functioning.”

This alone puts a person in recovery at great risk when they return to the environments where they were using. If not properly educated and prepared for how to handle life on new terms, a relapse is a common and unfortunate occurrence.

Understanding the stages of relapse can be pivotal for a sustainable recovery. This article will explore mental, emotional, and physical relapse and how aftercare involves going through the different phases that address each stage of relapse.

Emotional Relapse

The emotional stage of relapse is, perhaps, the trickiest of them all. Most people are unaware that it’s even happening. Emotions can lead the brain down paths of all too familiar triggers, which can lay the foundation for reverting back to drug or alcohol use. Some types of emotions to be aware of in this stage include:

  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Irritability.
  • Anger.
  • Frustration.
  • Mood swings.
  • Changes in diet or sleeping patterns.
  • Feelings of isolation or loneliness.

It is important at this stage to seek help and support if you are feeling these emotions and to stop the relapse from happening early on.

Mental Relapse

The mental stage of relapse is the part where the mind begins to take your unhandled emotions and rationalize them. This is a priming process for returning to old coping mechanisms. Often in this stage, a person may experience the following:

  • The mind will romanticize about using or drinking.
  • Glamorizing how escaping reality would feel so good.
  • Risky behavior such as hanging out with old friends or at old places.
  • Planning how and when you will pick up the drug or drink again with methodical rationalizations.

This stage of relapse is very hard to turn back from so it is critical to talk to an addiction counselor, therapist or sponsor who can help you get back to clear and calm thinking before these thoughts of relapse are made manifest.

Physical Relapse

As you can imagine, the final stage of relapse is the physical activity of using or drinking again.

In this stage, emotions have gotten the best of someone through triggers that went unnoticed or unmanaged. This, in turn, brought justifications into the mind’s eye that essentially have the power to “talk someone into using,” by making the ritual of indulging in substances an appealing choice.

These phases act like dominos as they lead someone into a relapse situation. This is why it is crucial to recognize early on that the potential for relapse is strong when emotions or drifting thoughts begin to lead a person down a path they’ve already chosen and worked hard to leave.

Aftercare’s Role In Relapse Prevention

The goal in developing an aftercare plan is to aid in the prevention of relapse after the hard work of detox and treatment have been completed.  Aftercare is considered one of the most critical components of rehab for substance abuse and is essential for a successful transition back into a new lifestyle. Some aftercare plans include:

The ultimate purpose of aftercare is to offer support to people to help them stay fully engaged in their recovery.

Getting Help

Recovery is a lifelong journey. At Orlando Recovery Center, we start planning for this phase as soon as you’re welcomed into one of our programs. Support is available to your or your loved ones in many different forms.

You don’t have to do it alone. Contact us today to understand how we can assist you with aftercare as well as relapse prevention.


Survey: Ten Percent of American Adults Report Being in Recovery from Substance, Josie Feliz, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids,, March 2012

When Relapse Turns Deadly: What You Need To Know About Drug Overdose, David Sack, M.D., The Huffington Post,, July 2013

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