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Addiction Relapse : Understanding the Facts

Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will. Addiction relapse happens, but there are ways to help.

 Drugs change the brain in ways that make quitting hard, even for those who want to. Fortunately, researchers have found treatments that can help people recover from drug addiction and lead productive lives. Today we take a look at the science behind addiction, as well as the signs to look for in a loved one, and what to do if you suspect addiction relapse. 

The Science Behind Addiction

Historically, substance misuse has been wrongly viewed and mistreated as an acute, behaviorally-centered condition. Conversely, the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers recognizes addiction as:

  • A primary & chronic disease
  • A disease centered in the brain
  • A disease with psychological & social components

As a chronic and relapsing brain disorder, addiction (or “substance use disorder,” as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is characterized by the National Institute on Drug Abuse as “compulsive drug-seeking and use despite adverse consequences.” 

Chemical Reaction 

Drugs are chemicals that produce euphoria and disrupt normal brain communication by tampering with the way neurons send, receive, and process signals. Different drugs elicit different brain responses, and they may do this by:

  • Mimicking the brain’s natural neurotransmitters. Drugs like heroin and marijuana imitate natural neurotransmitters and trick the brain’s receptors into activating nerve cells. As the drugs latch onto and activate neurons, they send distorted or exaggerated messages to the central nervous system.
  • Flooding the brain’s “reward circuit.” Drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine cause a hyper-release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in the brain’s reward system. As drugs produce a surge of dopamine, they powerfully “reinforce the connection between consumption of the drug, the resulting pleasure, and all the external cues linked to the experience. Large surges of dopamine ‘teach’ the brain to seek drugs at the expense of other, healthier goals and activities.”
  • Disrupting brain circuits and chemical systems that govern learning, memory, judgment, behavior, stress, and decision-making. Even when a person understands the consequences of excessive drug or alcohol use, SUD leads them to ignore these consequences in the continual pursuit of drug-induced pleasure or the desire to fend off withdrawal symptoms.

Facts about Addiction and Relapse

  • Well-supported evidence shows that the addiction process involves a three-stage cycle: binge/intoxication, withdrawal/negative affect, and preoccupation/anticipation. This cycle becomes more severe as a person continues substance use and it produces dramatic changes in brain function that reduce a person’s ability to control their substance use. Addiction relapse falls into the cycle of substance abuse. 
  • Well-supported scientific evidence shows that disruptions in three areas of the brain are particularly important in the onset, development, and maintenance of substance use disorders: the basal ganglia, the extended amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. These disruptions:
    1. enable substance-associated cues to trigger substance seeking (i.e., they increase incentive salience)
    2. reduce sensitivity of brain systems involved in the experience of pleasure or reward, and heighten activation of brain stress systems
    3. reduce functioning of brain executive control systems, which are involved in the ability to make decisions and regulate one’s actions, emotions, and impulses
  • Supported scientific evidence shows that these changes in the brain persist long after substance use stops. It is not yet known how much these changes may be reversed or how long that process may take.
  • Well-supported scientific evidence shows that adolescence is a critical “at-risk period” for substance use and addiction. All addictive drugs, including alcohol and marijuana, have especially harmful effects on the adolescent brain, which is still undergoing significant development.
  • Relapse is common. Addiction relapse is a hallmark of addiction. It is common, even expected, that people who are attempting to overcome addiction will go through one or even several relapses before successfully quitting.
  • Relapse is a normal part of recovery. Despite the fact that relapse is a well-recognized aspect of recovery from an addiction, many people attempting to quit an addiction will feel they have failed if they relapse. They might abandon their efforts, feeling that quitting is too difficult for them. Even some treatment programs take a hard line on participants who relapse. Accepting that addiction relapse is a normal part of the process of recovery is a more helpful way of looking at relapse. Individuals and treatment programs that take this view are more successful, and in the long run, those who accept and work to try again after a relapse are more likely to eventually overcome their addiction.

Signs of Addiction Relapse

In order to understand how to prevent relapse, it is essential to first understand the relapse process itself. Relapse isn’t a sudden event; it is a process that occurs over a period of time which can range from weeks to even months. 

The stages of relapse include:

  • Emotional relapse: During this stage, people are not thinking about using a substance, but their behaviors and emotions might be placing them at a higher risk of future use. For example, they might be experiencing isolation, anxiety, poor self-care, and low social support.
  • Mental relapse: During this stage, people are thinking about using the substance and perhaps even missing the people and places they associated with their substance use.
  • Physical relapse: As the name suggests, this stage involves actually using the substance once again.

Knowledge is key to providing help with addiction relapse . Relapse begins as a mental setback before it becomes a physical one, meaning that there are a number of “tells” that an individual will display when they are falling back into old, unhealthy behaviors. 

Here are common signs of relapse that you and your loved ones should be aware of. 

  • Losing Faith in their Program
  • Increased Stress
  • Denial Returns
  • Isolation
  • Abandoning Structure
  • Neglecting Responsibilities
  • Growing Defensive when Questioned

If you suspect you are on the road to relapse yourself, keep an eye out for the warning signs, and reach out for help. 

  • You frequently feel lonely, depressed, bored, and unsatisfied.
  • You’re not going to your recovery meetings. (Or you’re going but not sharing.)
  • Your eating, exercising and sleeping habits have deteriorated.
  • If you have cravings for drugs or alcohol and start bargaining with yourself.
  • You are lying to your counselor or therapist.
  • You convince yourself that it’s okay to just have one drink.

What should you do if you suspect an addiction relapse? 

Whether you have experienced a relapse in the past or not, knowing how to deal with one can help you prevent future setbacks and recover if one should happen. Remember, no relapse is too big to recover from. 

If you or a loved one have suffered a relapse, consider taking action as soon as you can by:

  • Reaching out for help. Seeking support from family, friends, and other sober people can help you cope with addiction relapse. Surrounding yourself with positive influences can remind you that you are not alone, and sober friends may also provide advice and guidance about how to recover from a relapse.
  • Attending a self-help group. Twelve-step groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and SMART Recovery, an alternative science-based mutual-help group, can provide a non-judgmental place to talk about your relapse and an opportunity to learn about how other people have coped with similar situations in the past. There are usually meetings every day, so you should be able to find one the same day as your relapse or within 24 hours.
  • Avoiding triggers. Being around triggers shortly after a relapse can increase your cravings for drugs or alcohol. To prevent a relapse from continuing, it is helpful to remove yourself from as many triggers as you can, including people, places, and things that remind you of substance use. If some of your triggers cannot be avoided, consider minimizing contact with the trigger immediately after the relapse or at least until you feel more confident in your ability to cope without using.
  • Setting healthy boundaries. Boundaries are limits that we set for ourselves to protect ourselves from harm. Having weak or poor boundaries can lead to negative emotions, such as anger and resentment, and may pose dangers to your sobriety. Examples of setting healthy boundaries can include refraining from having contact with negative or abusive people and avoiding harmful situations. You can begin by setting boundaries with people who pressure you to use drugs or alcohol.

Addiction Treatment with Daylight Recovery Center

Maintaining a positive mindset is important following a relapse. It is normal to experience negative emotions, like guilt, shame, and disappointment, but it is helpful to remember that a relapse can be a learning experience. Taking the time to understand the events surrounding the relapse and making changes to reduce the chances of future lapses can help you get back on track toward long-term sobriety. The Daylight Recovery Team is here to answer your questions and help you any step of the way during your sobriety journey. Contact is today to learn more! 

Get Confidential Help 24/7

If you or a loved one are suffering with drug abuse or alcohol addiction, reach out to Flyland Recovery Network for addiction help.

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