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Why Do Drug Addicts Relapse?

by | Last updated Mar 18, 2021 at 11:09AM | Published on Jan 26, 2021 | Addiction Treatments, Relapse Prevention

addiction relapse

Over and over again, addicts hear statistics say anywhere between 40 to 60 percent of recovering addicts relapse after 30 days of leaving rehab. While true, these numbers can be incredibly misleading and discouraging to those in recovery. Still, there’s no doubt that drug addicts relapse for millions of different reasons. Some relapse shortly after leaving treatment, others years or even decades after completing treatment. 

The Truth About Chronic Diseases

First, when we look at substance abuse as a chronic disease, we can better understand why relapse is normal. Like other chronic conditions, once people stop following their medical plan, they’re likely to relapse. For example, hypertension and asthma carry a 50-70 percent relapse rate. Relapse is very much a normal part of recovery. 

However, with chronic diseases that involve chemical substances like drug and alcohol addiction, relapse is more complicated. Beyond not following the medical plan, those in addiction recovery struggle with psychological and physical withdrawal symptoms that make relapse more of a possibility. Relapse doesn’t come as a choice. Instead, it is the illness itself winning over the way the brain operates. 

chronic disease relapse chart
JAMA, 284:1689-1695, 2000.
Common Addiction Relapse Triggers

Why Do Addicts Relapse?

Similar to the fact that there’s no standard definition of addiction relapse, there’s no single reason why addicts relapse. Some people may only experience one or two stages of relapse, while others will struggle with a full-blown, physical relapse. Setbacks or relapses don’t mean the treatment didn’t work. Again, this is somehow part of the process. 

A relapse can mean:

  • Someone uses drugs or alcohol again after abstaining from them for some time. 
  • A person experiences a slip-up or uses it once and then returns to sobriety.
  • Someone goes back to drug or alcohol use after treatment and chooses to return to rehab.
  • A person experiences a full-blown relapse and goes back to their old habits and patterns without returning to a treatment facility.

A relapse doesn’t mean:

  • That the rehab treatment program didn’t work or that it can’t work. 
  • That the progress someone made in recovery is undone. 
  • Failure or lack of willingness to stay in recovery. 

Common Triggers of Addiction Relapse

An estimate says 85% of those in substance use disorders recovery will relapse after one year of leaving treatment. The reasons why this happens vary tremendously, and it’s impossible to pindown to a single cause. Whether triggers are verbal, physical, environmental, or behavioral, sometimes these might trigger a relapse.

These are some of the reasons most people relapse, in no particular order:

  1. Withdrawal symptoms
  2. Unresolved mental health issues
  3. Toxic or troublesome people in their lives
  4. Stressful environments
  5. Poor self-care practices
  6. Toxic relationships and intimacy
  7. Overconfidence
  8. Isolation or boredom
  9. Uncomfortable emotions
  10. Stressful life situations

Also, some drugs are more addictive than others and have different relapse rates. For example, less than 20% of those in alcohol addiction recovery stay sober for a year. A study showed that more than 90 percent of people treated for opiate addiction relapsed after drug addiction treatment. The first-year relapse rate among people who abuse heroin is between 80-85%

Other drugs with high potential for relapse include cocaine, methamphetamine, Xanax, and Valium. 

warning signs of relapse

Recognizing the Warning Signs

For recovering addicts and those around them, recognizing the warning signs of relapse is critical, especially in the early stages of relapse. Some warning signs are behavioral, while others are physical. It’s essential to learn effective coping strategies to handle these triggers appropriately to prevent a setback. 

Common signs of addiction relapse include:

  • Intense drug cravings
  • Drastic mood changes
  • Depression, anxiety, and destructive thoughts
  • Secretive behavior
  • Denial of triggers 
  • Irritability
  • Impulsive decision-making
  • Returning to old habits, routines, or social groups

What Happens If I Relapse?

Generally, relapses are relatively common, and how you manage them is paramount for your long-term recovery. Depending on your relapse, there are multiple options available. Like someone with a chronic disease would do, the first thing is checking in with your healthcare provider. Last, check with your former therapist to see if you might need a more extended addiction program to feel more stable and ready to face relapse triggers around you.

Some people might benefit from attending an aftercare rehab program that offers some structure after completing rehab. Another option would be to consider moving into a halfway house or a sober living facility. These are more long-term options for those in addiction recovery.

Instead of panicking and thinking that treatment failed, it’s essential to be proactive when relapse occurs. 

Here’s what to do if you relapse:

  • Analyze the events around the relapse: Think about what happened that led to the relapse in the first place to prevent future setbacks. 
  • Determine if this was an isolated situation: If this is a unique and isolated event, find the way to recommit to recovery by seeking support from peers in recovery, support groups, 12-step programs, or your therapist.
  • Re-enroll in treatment: If this wasn’t an isolated event, and relapse lasted for a significant amount of time, or you don’t feel as if you can recommit to recovery, going back into rehab can be highly beneficial. 
  • Continue seeing a mental health professional: Instead of ditching therapy after treatment, continue investing in your mental health to keep making progress in your behavior patterns and help you recommit to recovery. 

Learn more: Is Sober Living After Rehab Mandatory?

Relapse Prevention Plan

Can You Prevent a Relapse?

Although you can’t altogether prevent relapse, there are things you can do. The first six months after leaving treatment are the most critical since it’s then when relapse is likely to happen. However, comprehensive treatment programs focus on establishing relapse prevention plans to help those in recovery. 

A relapse plan can include: 

  • Following an aftercare treatment plan
  • Participating in 12-step meetings
  • Identifying and avoiding triggers
  • Forming coping mechanisms
  • Making lifestyle changes
  • Attending outpatient programs
  • Participating in sober social activities
  • Continuing individual therapy sessions

Everyone’s relapse plan will look different, as it should align with the other triggers and situations around relapse. Moreover, a relapse plan is never set in stone. As recovering addicts continue to make progress, they must revise their recovery plan. Ideally, every six months or every year, looking back at this plan and reconsidering things like triggers, events, support system can help rewrite the prevention plan to make it valuable. 

Where to Go After a Relapse

Friends and family members of recovering addicts are a huge part of preventing relapse. If you or someone you know is in recovery, know that having a support network committed to helping them succeed is invaluable. For anyone who experiences a relapse, please know you’re not a failure. In the end, setbacks are a standard part of the recovery process, and that choosing to seek rehab again isn’t synonymous with failure. 

The reality of recovery is that relapse can happen. However, instead of letting relapse get the best of you, use it as an opportunity to create a stronger foundation to push you in the future. If you’re struggling with relapse, call Lighthouse Recovery Institute today to talk through treatment options with one of our addiction specialists. We won’t let this setback send you back on your path to recovery. Together we will prevail, and we’ll show you the light to healing again. 

Geraldine Orentas

Geraldine Orentas

Geraldine is Lighthouse Recovery Institute’s Digital Marketing Manager. She has a Bachelor’s in Journalism and experience in the digital media industry. Geraldine’s writing allows her to share valuable information about mental health, wellness, and drug addiction facts, hoping to shed light on the importance of therapy and ending the stigma.
Medical Disclaimer:

Lighthouse Recovery Institute aims to improve the quality of life for anyone struggling with substance use or mental health disorder. We provide fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their outcomes. The material we publish is researched, cited, edited, and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide in our posts is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be used in place of the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider.

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