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What to Do If Your Loved One Relapses

Last Updated: October 14, 2019
It can be disheartening if someone you care about relapses during drug treatment, but that doesn’t mean that treatment has failed. It’s important not to shame the individual or make them feel any worse about the set back. They may be working on mustering the strength to return to treatment, and as part of their support system, it’s time to remind them of their progress and guide them back on the track to sober living. Relapse isn’t a final failure unless they give up on recovery, so here are some points to keep in mind when you sit down to help your loved one try again.What to do when your loved one relapses

Relapse is a Symptom 

Addiction is a relapsing disease. A number of changes take place in the brain as a result of addiction. Chronic substance abuse changes reward pathways in the brain by affecting the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is normally an important part of the reward pathway, the part of the brain that makes you feel good when you get something you want like food, sex or affection. Drug use triggers huge increases in the release of dopamine but after chronic drug use the amount of dopamine released by other pleasurable situations is decreased. This can have huge effects on an individual’s motivation.” For that reason, it benefits a person’s recovery to cut ties with the people and relationships associated with their addiction. The further removed the person is from triggers, the better it is for their treatment.

Relapse Comes in Stages

Sometimes identifying the stages of relapse can help a person distinguish between them and catch the process early. There are three stages of relapse: emotional, mental, and physical.  Some signs of emotional relapse include:
  • Hiding emotions
  • Isolating from other people
  • Remaining silent during meetings or not attending meetings
  • Not eating or sleeping properly
  • A lapse in hygiene
It’s important to identify what kind of self-care the person needs to remedy ongoing lifestyle habits that are setting them up for relapse. For some, maybe it’s paying the bills, cleaning their room, or spending more time outside.  For others, it may be showering, eating better, and going to sleep earlier. It could also be a combination of things. It’s important to help your loved one identify what self-care is to them so that they can strengthen their emotional resolve. Mental relapse happens when the thoughts to use drugs or alcohol increase. Eventually, the need overcomes the person’s resolution to abstain. Thoughts of using are common. That doesn’t mean they will, but recognizing them helps a person to stop the impulse and reach out for help.  It’s vital to cope with these impulses before the mental relapse moves into physical relapse, which is when a person starts using again.

Treatment is an Evolving Process

Relapse is not the end of recovery, and it doesn’t mean that treatment has failed. It means that maybe it’s time to revisit the treatment plan and pinpoint what is and is not working. Some people who suffer from addiction say that leaning on others, and being leaned on, gives them a reason to stay sober. Maybe it’s time to help them reconnect with peers and choose a primary group they can turn to again and again for help. When talking with your loved one, also offer them your support and belief. If they see your faith in them, it may inspire them to keep on trying.

Research Sources

  1. Melemis, Steven M. “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.” The Yale journal of biology and medicine vol. 88,3 325-32. 3 Sep. 2015 
  2. National Institute On Drug Abuse. (2019) DrugFacts: Understanding Drug Use and Addiction | National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Retrieved June 30, 2019, from 
Last Updated on October 14, 2019
About the editor
Priscilla Henson, MD
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Dr. Priscilla Henson is a Resident Physician specializing in Emergency Medicine at a community hospital in central California. She also serves as a member of the Pain Management Quality Improvement Committee through the same hospital. Part of the committee’s mandate is to work toward non-narcotic pain management alternatives.

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