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Relapse has a lot of misconceptions and stigma. The truth is relapse isn’t the end and it isn’t a mark of failure. More importantly, it isn’t set in stone and it’s entirely preventable if you know what to look for. Relapse happens in three stages with clear characteristics and methods of prevention. Let’s discuss them.
What are the 3 Stages of Relapse?
Most people think of relapse as the physical event of returning to substance use after a period of abstinence. But the truth of the matter is that relapse is a process that begins long before the return to substance use. The stages of relapse include emotional, mental, and physical responses that may happen over the course of days, weeks, or even months. These stages all have their own characteristics and prevention strategies.
Why is it Important to Recognize These Stages?
It’s important to catch these stages as early as possible. The earlier you notice a relapse, the easier it is to implement prevention measures. If relapse reaches the physical stage, engaging in substance use, a return to sobriety will be all the more difficult. Many people feel that after a full relapse, they are back to starting from square one. However, even though a relapse is a setback, it is not the end of recovery.
The first stage of relapse is the emotional response where negative feelings begin to resurface. Often this stage occurs even before an individual begins to feel cravings for substance abuse again. As emotions run high, individuals feel compelled to abandon newfound coping skills in favor of falling back into old, reliable habits. Some telling signs of emotional relapse include:
- Abandoning routine
- Not going to meetings or therapy
- Poor hygiene
- Mood swings
- Defensive behavior
- Eating poorly or irregularly
Prevention at the emotional relapse stage is all about introspection and assessing your behaviors and needs. Ask yourself:
- Am I getting enough sleep? The CDC recommends 7 hours of sleep for adults aged 18-60.
- Am I drinking enough water? The Mayo Clinic recommends 8 cups of water a day to stay hydrated.
- Am I eating healthy food on a consistent schedule? A balanced diet with low amounts of processed sugar and preservatives will help to elevate your mood and energy levels.
- Am I exercising regularly? 30 minutes of vigorous activity a day not only relieves stress but will help you maintain a sleep schedule.
- Am I socializing enough? Research shows that 5 to 6 hours of social interaction is recommended for the average healthy adult.
- Am I going to meetings? This is a time to be honest with yourself a recognize any avoidant behaviors you may be developing. Meetings, support groups, and therapy are important to recovery because they keep you focused and offer support for precisely these situations.
- Am I advocating for myself? Has something or someone been adding stress to your life recently? Speak up about the things that may be adding unnecessary stress to your life. If you feel that people shouldn’t have to accommodate you, remind yourself that the people in your life want to see you succeed in recovery.
With the weight of unmanaged emotional stress, an individual graduates into mental relapse. This stage is where a person begins to romanticize previous substance use and rationalize or bargain for a return to substance use. Some of these thoughts may sound like:
- “If I could stop before, I can stop again after this one time.”
- “No one will know, it’s just one drink.”
- “It doesn’t count if I’m on vacation.”
- “I’ve been under a lot of stress lately and nothing else is helping.”
This isn’t to say that these thoughts won’t occur in regular recovery. In fact, it’s expected that a person in recovery will contemplate past substance use and acknowledge cravings. The difference is that these thoughts are coupled with support and healthy coping skills. An individual should be vocal about these thoughts instead of keeping them bottled up where they can snowball into physical relapse.
Since mental relapse is all about a hypothetical return to substance use, it’s time to explore. Think about not only the simple act of returning to substance use but the ramifications of that return. How did it go last time? What was your life truly like at the height of your past substance use? What was your friend group like? How was your job going? How did you feel about yourself? Play the scenario of substance use through in your head and remind yourself why you’re in recovery. This is commonly referred to in recovery as “Playing the Tape.”
Physical relapse is the final stage in which a return to active substance use occurs. This could even include contacting a previous dealer, driving to a bar, or otherwise acting upon the urges that have been building through the previous stages. Physical relapse has very limited prevention options because usually this stage happens quickly and quietly. Personal intervention and self-control are essentially the only options.
Additional Actions You Can Take
- Call someone and tell them you are going to a meeting tomorrow and be sure to name a specific time. Ask them if they can come with you. Research indicates that publicly announcing your goals out loud makes you more likely to follow through on your intentions. The more specific you are, the better. Additionally, having someone attend with you keeps you accountable to follow through.
- Be transparent about your urges. Tell a friend, family member, sponsor, or someone else you feel comfortable confiding in that you’re experiencing cravings. There is no shame in these feelings and there is no shame in asking for help.
- Give it 30 minutes. Tell yourself you’re going to wait 30 minutes and set a timer. Watch a TV show, go for a walk, or start an activity. These cravings can be fleeting and pass after a period of time.
Detox With Briarwood
Briarwood Detox Center offers detox treatment for alcohol, opioid, methamphetamine, prescription drugs, and much more. Our experienced clinical staff provides round-the-clock monitoring throughout the detox process and our therapy team provides support to help manage the emotional response to treatment. Additionally, we have detox facilities located in Austin, Houston, and Colorado Springs with state-of-the-art amenities.
Briarwood is dedicated to facilitating a healthy and safe environment that empowers people to make significant and lasting changes in their lives. We look forward to supporting you or your loved one on the journey to recovery. Call (512) 277 – 3103 today for more information on our programs and admission process.
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