Relapse is a normal part of recovery, and some studies have shown that more than 85% of people with addictions who stop using a drug begin using it again within a year2
A return to drug or alcohol use after a period of abstinence can be very dangerous. Over time our tolerance to drugs decreases and our bodies are no longer adapted to handle previous levels of drug exposure, increasing the risk of overdose and death.3
Ways to Avoid a Relapse
The good news is that there are things that can be done to lessen the likelihood of suffering a relapse. Here are a few helpful tips that can help you avoid a relapse during your recovery:
Avoid Triggering Situations and People
People in recovery are extremely vulnerable to cues associated with former experiences of drug or alcohol use. Being around the actual drugs or alcohol that you are recovering from maytrigger a craving to use, so it is essential to throw away any that can be found within your home.
Even the sights, smells, and sounds associated with a substance can bring back memories of the way it made you feel and create a desire to use again. Recent studies conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse showed that exposure to drug-related images, as well as other reminders of former use, subconsciously stimulates emotional centers of the brain to create drug-seeking behavior.4-5
As a result, these reminders can trigger relapse long after a person’s last exposure to a drug. If you have not already done so, you must get rid of all paraphernalia, photos, or any other items related to previous alcohol or drug use.
It is much more difficult to control the presence of potential triggers in the environment outside of your home, so if possible, try to avoid such potentially triggering places as much as possible. For example, avoid walking through the liquor section at the store and stop going to parties where drugs are likely to be present.
You should also avoid spending time with other people who use substances, as these interactions are likely to trigger a desire to use. It may be difficult to sever relationships with “friends,” but one of the most important steps in recovery is getting rid of any toxic people in your life that may expose you to drugs and alcohol.
Don’t Get Bored
In the absence of drugs, many people in recovery do not know what to do with their free time. It is important to occupy the empty hours that were previously filled with alcohol or drug use. The best way to do this is by replacing substance use with positive activities. Find a new hobby, participate in sports, take classes, get involved in volunteer work, or find some other healthy and productive activity that can fill the time formerly dedicated to your substance abuse.
Develop A Positive Support Network
It is very important to have healthy people around you during your recovery. A support network can help you during your low points, help you follow all treatment recommendations, encourage you to reconnect with sober friends, and remind you of why you made the decision to get sober. Common sources of support include family members, friends, and peer support groups.Studies have shown the benefits of joining a peer support group, where people in recovery voluntarily gather together to receive and provide support by sharing knowledge, experiences, coping strategies, and understanding.6-7
Support can come in many different forms and should fit the individual’s attitudes and communication styles. For example, recent studies involving teens and young adults have shown that an interactive mobile texting aftercare support program helps participants engage with post-treatment recovery activities and avoid relapse.8-9
Take Your Medications
Many people with substance use disorders benefit from medication-assisted treatment, a treatment approach that encompasses the use of FDA-approved medications in combination with counseling and behavioral therapy.10
If prescription drugs (such as methadone, naltrexone, or buprenorphine) are part of your addiction treatment plan, it is vital that these medications are taken or administered exactly as prescribed. Studies have shown that staying in recovery and avoiding relapse is much more likely with medications than without.11
Experiencing a relapse after the completion of a treatment program does not mean that the treatment failed, nor does it mean that a return to rehab is necessary. If you were able to get clean and sober once, you will be able to do it again.
Please reach out to your support system and get the help you need. Oftentimes, a different treatment model or therapeutic approach may be needed to decrease the likelihood of future relapse events.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Recovery and Recovery Support.
- Brandon, T.H., Vidrine, J.I., & Litvin, E.B. (2007). Relapse and relapse prevention. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 3, 257-284.
- The Washington Post. (2016). Treating addicts: The tension between drug treatment and abstinence.
- Childress, A.R., Ehrman, R.N., Wang, Z., Li, Y., Sciortino, N., …& O’Brien, C.P. (2008) Prelude to Passion: Limbic Activation by ”Unseen” Drug and Sexual Cues. PLoS One, 3(1), e1506.
- Madangopal, R., Tunstall, B.J., Komer, L.E., Weber, S.J., Hoots, J.K., …& , Hope, B.T. (2019). Discriminative stimuli are sufficient for incubation of cocaine craving. Elife, 2019(8), e44427.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2018). Peer Support: Helping Others, Healing Yourself.
- Tracy, K., & Wallace, S.P. (2016). Benefits of peer support groups in the treatment of addiction. Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation, 7, 143-154.
- Gonzales, R., Ang, A., Murphy, D.A., Glik, D.C., & Anglin, M.D. (2014). Substance use recovery outcomes among a cohort of youth participating in a mobile-based texting aftercare pilot program. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment, 47(1), 20-26.
- Gonzales, R., Hernandez, M., Murphy, D.A., & Ang, A. (2016). Youth recovery outcomes at 6 and 9 months following participation in a mobile texting recovery support aftercare pilot study. The American Journal on Addictions, 25(1), 62-68.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2019). Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT).
- Lee, J.D., Friedmann, P.D., Kinlock, T.W., Nunes, E.V., Boney, T.Y., …& O’Brien, C.P. (2016). Extended-Release Naltrexone to Prevent Opioid Relapse in Criminal Justice Offenders. The New England Journal of Medicine, 374(13), 1232-1242.