The Warning Signs of Relapse [GUIDE]

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Content Medically Reviewed by:

Dr. Patricia S Sullivan, MD MPH

Article Overview

Warning Signs of Relapse

What are the warning signs of relapse? When you are getting clean and sober, relapse may seem like the worst thing that can happen, but I’m going to share a little secret with you. Many people in long-time recovery have gone through a relapse. Recovery happens this way. It comes with highs and lows that you have to learn to navigate. Navigating it wisely and consciously usually comes through experience.

At times, it can seem that everything is under control, and it’s all no worries. When life gets difficult (trust me, it happens), recovery can easily be jeopardized, especially with little vigilance. It’s times when you experience relationship loss, losing a job, and the many other disappointing and downright painful life events where maintaining recovery is anything but easy. Using drugs or alcohol to soothe the pain and numb the experience becomes a huge temptation.

If you relapse, though, it’s not all over. You must remember the old saying, “It’s not how many times you get knocked down that count; it’s how many times you get back up.” Cliche, of course, but true. The most important thing you can do for yourself is learn from your experience, identify your triggers, and keep moving.

It may seem like the most obvious assumption, but you will know how to prevent a relapse in the future if you know yourself; it’s all about identifying the warning signs.

Article Contents

What is a Trigger?

In order to understand the warning signs of relapse, you need to know what a trigger is. More importantly, you need to know what your unique triggers are.

In terms of addiction, a trigger is a form of external or internal stimuli that causes you to want to use or drink. That could be a memory, a friend, or just the sight of an old area where you spent a lot of time drinking or using.

Triggers can cause complex problems in recovery. For example, if you spent a lot of time in active addiction at home, being in your home may initially trigger you, especially in early recovery.

In a case like this, it doesn’t mean that you can never live at home; it just means that you may need to work with your therapist to develop a strategic relapse prevention plan.

Relapse prevention is about realistically identifying your triggers and being prepared for the day you meet them.

In situations where you willingly place yourself in a negative environment surrounded by your trigger, you’re basically walking in to fight an unnecessary battle. However, many do make these mistakes.

Take a look at this scenario: Say a couple of your old friends want to hit the bar after a long day at work. You feel secure in your recovery and the work you’ve put in to maintain it, so you agree. You go to a bar down the street that you frequently visited in active addiction [trigger]. When you walk in, old memories of fun nights out with friends come rushing back [trigger]. As you settle at the bar with your friends, you watch as the bartender fills the glasses [trigger], you watch your friends drink, and it seems a wave of relief washes over them [trigger]. Everyone around you is having a good time. You like the atmosphere of the place, and you feel comfortable. People offer to buy you a drink, welcome you back, tell you about upcoming events, and as each moment passes, you feel your willpower diminishing. Finally, you can’t take it any longer, and you convince yourself that you can have just one drink.

People in early recovery should never put themselves in these situations, but it happens. This is an example of a trigger. If you are reacting to triggers in an intense way, this could be a warning sign of relapse.

Stopping Participation in Recovery

Maintaining your sobriety without help can be difficult, maybe impossible. For one, humans are (mostly) social creatures. We need our friend’s support, and we need to feel like we have people we can turn to talk about our struggles.

Having others who have fought the same battle to inspire, listen, and offer support is important when overcoming your addiction.

It’s often been said; you can’t make recovery on your own. So don’t talk yourself into trying.

At the same time, recovery is different for everyone, but everyone must have a recovery plan. Whether you choose 12 step meetings, church, a spiritual path, SMART Recovery, or other methods out there, you must stick to it and plan on making it a part of your life.

Because it’s widely popular, we’ll use the 12 steps as an example scenario.

The 12-steps were designed to help you maintain a clean and sober life by taking it one step at a time and finding a relationship with God as you understand him. When you stop working a 12-step program because you think you can do it alone, you run the risk of losing your recovery.

It usually starts with not going to meetings. You think to yourself, “since I don’t have the desire to drink or use, why do I need to go to meetings?”.

Because of the nature of addiction, this kind of scenario can really hurt you. Although, it’s different if you’re leaving 12-step groups to seek another path to recovery.

If the 12-steps don’t work for you, they don’t work for you. Being honest with yourself is key here. Do they really not work, or are you headed for a relapse? It’s perfectly fine to change the direction of your recovery plan towards something that works better for you.

Your ability to steer clear from drugs and alcohol depends on maintaining emotional, physical, and spiritual health.

Recovery is about continuous self-improvement. If you neglect your recovery, you’ll likely start justifying old behaviors and start inching towards a relapse.

Your recovery needs to be grounded in good recovery soil, and it takes commitment to tend to that soil. No one can do it for you.

Engaging in Old Behaviors

Once you break with your recovery, you can lose your peace. Lose your peace, and it can go downhill from there – you start acting as you did in your addiction. When this starts happening, you’re looking at a major warning sign of relapse.

When you work a recovery program, it doesn’t just keep you from using; it changes your outlook on life. And throughout time, it reinforces that outlook, which is beneficial to your mental health. You start to lose the negative thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors and exchange them for healthy ones.

As soon as you notice that these behaviors are coming back, it helps to take immediate action. Examples of these behaviors are stealing, lying, manipulating your loved ones, or not controlling your emotions.

Recovery isn’t just about stopping the use of drinking or using. It’s about stopping ALL negative, toxic, and unethical behaviors. It’s about becoming the best version of you.

If you distance yourself from recovery, negative behaviors can start to return, and sometimes it happens quickly. When those negative behaviors start to return, you should do everything in your power to prevent yourself from falling in line with them. Our attitudes and thoughts inform our actions.

Take preventative measures like calling a supportive friend, schedule an appointment with a substance abuse counselor, or attend a meeting. It’s hard, but if you decide to help yourself, it will get better.

Relapse Can Get Ugly Fast

If you relapse, things can get ugly fast. In fact, many who had relapsed later say that they were astounded at how quickly they got back to right where they were before they sought help.

You have to be open and honest with those in your support system. You have to make your way back to recovery.

Your perspective can change when you realize that relapse happens way before picking up and starting to use or drink. It happens in our mind and at first very subtly. Subconsciously, and then consciously.

A person in the midst of a relapse can look back over the days, weeks, and maybe even months leading to the relapse. Often, they can pinpoint the natural progression of relapse and how they slid right into it.

Sometimes it’s a clear event or series of decisions that can be pinpointed with ease; other times, it’s a result of ongoing negative unchecked thought life.

If you relapse, there’s hope and a way back into recovery. But if you haven’t relapsed yet and are concerned you will, you have the ability to make the right choices that keep you on track.

If a Relapse Happens

If you end up suffering a relapse, it doesn’t have to be the end of your recovery journey. Use your relapse as a learning experience. Lean into your support system harder than ever.

Don’t beat yourself up. Commit to your recovery with all your mind, heart, and strength.

A lesson can be pulled out of even the worst of situations. If you take those lessons, you become wiser and more equipped for long-term recovery.

Share your experience with those who are in the beginning stages of recovery. Let those who need it most hear from you because sharing your experience can save lives.

If you see signs of a potential relapse in a loved one, be honest with them. Tell them what you see.

No matter your situation, you can reach out for help and get answers to your questions by calling us at 1 (888) 906-0952. We will give you a no-obligation confidential consultation.

We can discuss your situation with you and the best route to take to get the help you or a loved one needs!

About the Author

susana spiegel photo
Susana Spiegel

Susana’s passion for helping people affected by substance abuse has led her to ABTRS. She has 5 years of experience working in the medical, substance abuse, and mental health fields. Using her gift for researching and writing, she seeks to craft content that brings valuable insight, information, and, most importantly, a positive impact. Susana is currently in her senior year of a Bachelors’s Degree in Christian Studies at Grand Canyon University. She currently resides in Phoenix, AZ, and is a wife and mother of 3.

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