What does it mean to be sober? The most commonly-accepted definition of sobriety is to remain free from any mood- and/or mind-altering substances. For some people, it takes many tries and years of support to attain long-term recovery. Unfortunately, relapse can be a part of this process – but it does not have to be.
Relapse is often thought of as an event when an addict or alcoholic picks up a drink or a drug after remaining abstinent for a period. While relapse includes this piece of the puzzle, it is more often a process than a single event. For most people in recovery, suddenly drinking or using out of nowhere is unlikely. It is usually the result of a long process involving a change in thoughts, high-risk behaviors and triggering events. Most people in recovery don’t relapse when they are mentally, emotionally, and spiritually-stable. Rather, it happens after weeks, months or even years of regression. To prevent relapse, it’s important to recognize these signs while at a drug treatment center.
So how does the relapse process work? For most, it starts with a change in thinking patterns or is triggered by an emotional issue. Shifts in thinking can be an indication that someone is in this phase of the relapse process. Examples include cognitive distortions or intrusive thoughts. For instance, if someone in recovery notices that they are experiencing extremes black-and-white thinking such as, “I missed a meeting; I’m a failure,” it can be a sign of mental relapse. Emotional triggers and intrusive thoughts can also be elements of this shift. For example, experiencing frequent crying spells and feelings of hopelessness are a serious warning sign. A return of intense cravings, or even fleeting thoughts of drinking and using, can be signs that a relapse is on the horizon.
If the relapse process isn’t addressed at this point, it can progress to behavioral changes. At this point in the relapse process, someone’s actions may shift back into a negative and maladaptive direction. They could start missing meetings, failing to call their sponsor regularly or begin lying about small aspects of their day. Other examples may include risk-taking behavior, such as hanging out with people who drink or use drugs or spending time at bars. Everyone’s recovery is different, and so is each individual relapse process. The important thing to watch out for is drastic changes in behavior or mood that could indicate that someone is on the road to relapse.
Once a person has started regressing in emotional and behavioral areas of their recovery, a trigger can put a relapse in motion. Experiencing a break-up, a loss of a friend or simply being exposed to one’s drug of choice can tip the scales toward relapse when someone is already vulnerable.
The skilled staff of a drug treatment center know what signs to look for. Other signs that a relapse may be coming (or already under way) can include:
– Rapid or frequent mood swings with no underlying medical/psychological cause
– Engaging in behavioral addictions, like pathological gambling, shopping, or sex
– Abusing medications or refusing to take them as prescribed
– Not following through with commitments or disengaging from a usual routine
– Risk-taking behavior
– Lying, manipulating, isolating, or experiencing feelings of denial such as, “I can drink because alcohol wasn’t my drug of choice.”
So how does one stop the relapse process? The first step is identifying the signs. Once someone in recovery at a drug treatment center can recognize that they are at risk of drinking or using, there are a few things they can do to prevent a relapse and get back on track.
One of the most effective ways to prevent a relapse is to consistently develop and use a sober support system. This can include a sponsor, sober friends, members of a religious faith one belongs to or peer or their therapist in their drug or alcohol treatment program. A sober support system provides accountability as well as a group of people who can offer healthy suggestions or simply an ear when times get tough.
In addition to a sober support system, having a recovery routine is essential. Meetings, therapy sessions, spiritual practices, and self-care all offer structure, an outlet for emotions and opportunities for fun in sobriety and an additional layer of accountability. If you have a set routine and friends start to notice that you’re missing some elements of it, they can help you get back on track quickly. Many other aspects of recovery are vital to preventing relapse. Medication compliance, for example, can help treat symptoms of co-occurring disorders such as depression. Making sure that every aspect of your health – physical, mental, and emotional – is key to avoiding a relapse or the urge to self-medicate.
Ultimately, preventing relapse depends on a comprehensive plan and a commitment to sobriety through anything life throws your way. Recognizing the signs early and relying on a healthy routine and coping skills can mean the difference between sobriety and the path to relapse.