Struggling with an addiction means the possibility of experiencing relapse at some point over the course of recovery. Although relapses aren’t uncommon, the process of moving forward after a slip is difficult. Preconceived ideas of what a relapse means can put added stress on the recovery process and ultimately hurt one’s chance to stay sober in the long run. Understanding how and why relapses occur can help you to forgive yourself or a loved one and move toward a healthy recovery process. Many people say that they learned a great deal from these failures and that it was this that finally gave them the ability to quit for good. 

Are you or someone you loved dealing with a relapse during recovery? Are you wondering if relapse really is a part of recovery? Where does the line between helping and enabling begin? Read on to learn why relapse doesn’t mean failure. And how to put yourself back together after a slip. 

Is Relapse Part Of Recovery?

Why Relapse Doesn’t Mean Failure

Relapse may seem like a failure, but it is actually a part of the recovery process. The two are not at odds with one another. Although relapse is a part of recovery that many people experience, it is the opposite of sobriety. Relapse means the individual was not sober after a period of abstaining from drug or alcohol use; yet it does not mean the individual has given up on recovery or is a lost cause. 

The majority of people who go through detox and rehabilitation programs will have at least one relapse before they can remain sober for a longer period.If you are in treatment for addiction, it is important to know that relapse and recovery can occur together as part of an ongoing journey. Studies suggest that approximately half of all individuals who try to get sober return to heavy use, with 70 to 90 percent experiencing at least one mild to moderate slip. In other words, not many people say, “I want to get sober,” walk into a treatment center, and never use drugs again.

It is important to see relapse as a pothole on the road to recovery, but not as a total roadblock. Although it is true that many people experience relapse and still successfully achieve sobriety, that does not mean it is okay to fall back into old habits. Relapse is a very serious pitfall that could derail your journey and have other serious consequences.

Why Does Relapse Happen? 

Relapse can feel like a failure of willpower, but, in fact, it is far more complicated. Addiction has a major impact on the brain, which is why many organizations that study drug abuse describe it as a brain disease. Researchers Terence T. Gorski and Merlene Miller identified a set of warning signs or steps that typically lead up to a relapse. Over the years, additional research has confirmed that the steps described by Gorski and Miller are reliable and valid predictors of alcohol and drug relapses.

 Looking at addiction from this perspective can make it easier to understand the complex nature of addiction and recovery. If you are working toward long-term sobriety and want to avoid having a relapse, it is important to recognize the following warning signs. If you can identify them, you can take action to keep them from progressing into a full-blown relapse.

Signs that may predict an upcoming relapse include but are not limited to:

  • Not making sobriety your number one priority.
  • Change in attitude.
  • More stress than usual.
  • Loss of structure. 
  • Lacking the necessary support system.
  • Quitting for someone other than themself.
  • Beginning life post-treatment unpaired. 

The Danger Zone

Study after study shows the first ninety days in recovery are when the greatest percentage of relapses occur. This is because drugs of abuse rewire the brain, and it takes a significant amount of time away from drugs to repair and/or overcome this rewiring. Unfortunately, cravings usually get worse before they get better. In fact, the longer an addict stays clean, the higher his or her response will be to contextual cues. In other words, it’s actually harder to not pick up at sixty days than it is at six days.

The Danger Zone represents the grey area between active use and recovery. When you are in the danger zone, you are not directly participating in the behaviour you wish to abstain from, but you are also not in a healthy state of mind. Without a treatment intervention, the Danger Zone may quickly give way to the Active Zone.


For example, a recovering alcoholic could be in the Danger Zone if she begins to walk down the alcohol aisle of the grocery store during each visit, to wish she had wine in the house after a stressful day at work, or simply to struggle with negative self-talk, which often used to be a precursor to her drinking binges. In short, anything that has the potential to compromise one’s sobriety is a behaviour that belongs in the Danger Zone.

 It is incredibly important during initial treatment (and early aftercare) that addicts learn to recognize their triggers because relapse is much harder to prevent when you don’t see it coming. 

#PROTIP: A slip is a chance to learn how to recognize a new trigger. Understanding this can lead to actively dealing with the deeper problem. While at the same time being on guard for other relapse triggers.

How to Get Back on Track

Recovery involves creating a sober lifestyle and completely changing past habits, and it is understandable that there may be relapses during the course of building a new life. If a relapse does happen, it is not the end of the world. If it happens, it is important that you get back up, dust yourself off and get back on the path to recovery.

Addiction experts explain that changing your life is the first step in the recovery process, and this involves avoiding people you used drugs with as well as the places you went to use drugs. Building a new life also requires changing unhealthy thought processes associated with substance abuse. 

Relapse is extremely common in recovery, but it’s not the end of the road. If you took a step in the wrong direction, there are steps you can take to get back on track and back into a life of sobriety.

  • Brace yourself. For many after a setback, a person’s guilt, shame, and humiliation come back tenfold. Prepare yourself for these feelings. Commit to using them as motivation to get back on track rather than as an excuse to hide away.
  • Create healthy goals, and hold yourself accountable for reaching them. It’s important to have goals you’re constantly working toward. Consider what you want your life to look like five years from now. One year from now, weeks from now, tomorrow. Make plans to realize that vision. And start taking steps forward today.
  • Get back into attending meetings. Gravitate toward others who are on the right track. You’ve heard a hundred times by now that recovery is not a solo sport. If you weren’t attending meetings before, now’s the time to start. If you were, now’s not the time to stop.
  • Pay attention to your past and learn from it.  What steps did you take to enter recovery in the first place? Pull out that plan and review it. Get back to the basics you started with. They were good ideas then, and they’re good ideas now.
  • Look on the bright side. A slip may feel like the end of the world. But really, it’s an opportunity for growth and reinforcing basic life skills that need more work. Many people emerge from relapse with a fresh scare regarding what they are up against, as well as a deeper commitment to becoming sober. This renewed motivation can help you come back from a relapse even stronger than you were before.

Do You Need Help with Relapse or Recovery?

Have you have suffered a full relapse? Realize it is common, get back on track, and take what you have learned to inform your future actions. A relapse does not mean you have failed. But rather that you need to return to treatment or make some adjustments in your treatment plan or lifestyle. Recovery is possible, and relapse should not undermine your hope for the future. 

As a nationally-accredited substance abuse treatment center, we understand that the one size fits all approach to treating someone who is suffering from addiction will not cut it. Each patient has his/her own story, making a tailor-made rehabilitation treatment plan a top priority. Learn more about our devotion to your sobriety online, or contact one of our team members today. We are here to help you take the step towards your best life. 

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