Alcohol Relapse and Recovery Statistics

4 min read · 10 sections
Evidence-Based Care
Expert Staff
What is an alcohol relapse, and what are the chances of staying sober? Explore the answers and learn more about relapse, including alcohol relapse statistics, signs of a potential relapse, and more.
What you will learn:
Stats regarding the percentage of people with an alcohol use disorder that relapse.
The 3 stages of relapse.
How to identify signs of a potential relapse, and how to deal with a relapse once it occurs.

What Is a Relapse, and Is Relapse a Failure?

Sometimes called a recurrence or a return to substance use, a relapse is simply an instance of substance use following a considerable period of abstinence.1 Given the chronic nature of substance use disorders, relapse is a normal part of recovery.2

Granted, in some situations, relapse can be dangerous. That is, if someone’s tolerance decreases during abstinence and they relapse and use the same quantity of the substance they used previously, an overdose is a real and potentially deadly risk.  However, a relapse in itself is not a failure. Rather, it simply signifies that the individual needs to reinforce and/or modify their treatment plan to re-enter recovery and prevent future relapses.2 

What Percentage of Alcoholics Relapse?

First, it’s important to note that while “alcoholics” is used here for search purposes, the term is stigmatizing and should be avoided whenever possible. Rather, it’s important to use language that doesn’t suggest a person is defined by their condition. Options include “someone with an alcohol use disorder (AUD)” or in some cases “individuals who misuse alcohol.”3

Long-term sobriety and alcohol relapse statistics are limited and variable. However, one paper purports that roughly two-thirds of individuals treated for an AUD will relapse within the first 6 months.4 To put that into the context of other chronic conditions, however, stats from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show that compared to relapse rates of 50 to 70% for hypertension and asthma, substance use disorder relapse rates are lower at only 40 to 60%.5

What Are the 3 Stages of Relapse?

Most people assume that an alcohol relapse starts the minute someone starts drinking again. However, studies suggest that relapse happens gradually and typically progresses through 3 stages. 

During the first stage, which involves emotional relapse, a person isn’t actively thinking about drinking, but their emotions and behaviors are leading them in that direction. Often, their self-care habits begin to slip. Some people might bottle up emotions, isolate, skip meetings, attend meetings but not share openly, exhibit poor sleeping and eating habits, and more.

Mental relapse is the second stage, where the struggle between wanting to use alcohol and staying sober begins. People may experience alcohol cravings, glamorize their past alcohol use, think about people, places, and things linked with past use, or try to bargain with themselves. Other signs of mental relapse include lying, looking for relapse opportunities, and planning a relapse.6

The third and final stage, physical relapse, is when someone starts drinking alcohol again. Physical relapse can occur due to various triggers, such as stress, environmental cues, or emotional vulnerabilities, highlighting the complexity of internal and external factors in maintaining sobriety.6

Note, however, that since there are stages to relapse, individuals can seek help or bolster their treatment plans before they actually resume drinking. That is, professionals can help spot the initial stages and assist individuals in increasing their self-care, reframing their thinking, and more. Plus, even if someone progresses through all stages of relapse and starts drinking again, they can seek treatment, adjust their strategy, and eventually go on to lead a healthy and happy life in long-term recovery.2

What Are the Different Types of Relapses (Slips, Lapses, and Relapses)?

People generally use terms such as slip, lapse, relapse, and recurrence interchangeably. However, some mental health experts describe slips or lapses as when someone has a drink but doesn’t continue to drink thereafter. In this context, a relapse is a return to uncontrolled drinking.6

However, to avoid stigmatizing language, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends using the term “recurrence” or expressing a relapse as “a return to substance use.”1

When Is Alcohol Relapse Most Likely to Occur?

Alcohol relapse is most likely to occur when there is a lack of support and motivation, the latter of which is a key element in substance use behavior change.  Mental health professionals agree that nurturing key aspects that contribute to motivation can help people in recovery achieve sobriety.1

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration notes that several factors are associated with a risk of recurrence. They include:

Internal Factors 

  • Intense negative or positive feelings.
  • Ineffective coping responses.
  • Cognitive distortions.
  • Low self-efficacy (i.e., a person’s belief in their ability to overcome a challenge).
  • Feelings of guilt and shame related to recurrence.
  • Ongoing positive thoughts and feelings associated with drinking or substance use.

External Factors 

  • Social influences (e.g., peers, co-workers, events, etc.).
  • Access to substances.
  • Exposure to cues/triggers for past substance use and/or risk behaviors. 

What Are the Warning Signs of an Alcohol Relapse?

The 3 phases of relapse identify some of the warning signs of an alcohol relapse. That is, the aforementioned emotional and mental phases of relapse can indicate that a physical relapse may be coming. Other factors such as stress, fear, and exposure to triggers can also influence a relapse.6 

What Percentage of Alcoholics Recover and Stay Sober?

According to the 2022 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), more than 29 million people aged 12 and older had an alcohol use disorder (AUD) in the past year.7 When it comes to statistics about alcohol recovery, studies show that roughly one-third of people who receive treatment for AUD have no symptoms a year later. Additionally, many people considerably reduce drinking and report fewer alcohol-related problems.8

Note, however, that estimating sobriety statistics and the alcohol recovery rate can be difficult. AUD differs for everyone and can vary in duration, severity, complexity, and impact on health and well-being. Additionally, some people may have met the criteria for an AUD but may not define themselves as being in recovery. Thus, the number of people actually in recovery is likely greater than those who identify as such.9

How Can I Prevent Alcohol Relapse?

Recovery looks different for everyone, and there isn’t a single solution to preventing alcohol relapse.10 Instead, following an individualized treatment plan, being receptive to care, and building relapse-prevention skills can be beneficial.1 Additionally, the aforementioned phases of relapse can help you identify potential warning signs and take action prior to the point of alcohol consumption.

How To Deal with a Relapse

No relapse is too big to recover from, and in fact, you can take immediate action to regain your sobriety. However, it’s important to assess the relapse and identify things you can change or adapt to prevent a similar experience in the future.

It can also help to seek support from family, friends, sober peers, support groups, and/or treatment centers. Particularly when it comes to treatment and professional support, addiction specialists can help you understand the best level of care for you and offer encouragement along the way. Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can also provide a space to connect with others in recovery, share your experiences, and heal together.10 

Keep in mind, some people will return to formal treatment following a relapse while others may increase their participation in outpatient care and/or aftercare programs. Typically this care focuses on building the skills to recognize and manage high-risk situations that might trigger a relapse in the future. It may also involve readjusting the individual’s relapse management plan, which features positive coping strategies to lessen the impact of a relapse if it were to happen again.

If you’ve been in treatment before, it may also help to reach out to alumni programs (if any) for resources. Many alumni programs, such as those offered by American Addiction Centers (AAC), host peer gatherings and can connect you with addiction aftercare services.

Should I Go Back to Rehab if I Relapse?

Returning to rehab after an alcohol relapse may seem disheartening, but seeking treatment can open the doors to hope and healing. If you or a loved one has relapsed—or you’re simply ready to learn more about your options—AAC can help. 

Reach out for a free and confidential conversation via our hotline at . Reps can discuss treatment and aftercare options; plus, they can verify any insurance you have (or you can verify benefits online). For those who prefer to text rather than talk, text assistance is also available.

Relapse isn’t failure. You can regain your recovery. Reach out now to learn how.

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