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What Happened? I Relapsed

Updated on February 14, 2015
Relapses are prompted by feelings, attitudes, actions and behaviors.  Learn what your triggers are.
Relapses are prompted by feelings, attitudes, actions and behaviors. Learn what your triggers are. | Source

Relapse: An Aspect of Addiction, Not Recovery

Relapse is an feature of addiction, but it does not have to be a part of our recovery. People who have relapsed can learn something from the experience.

However, relapse is a lesson best learned from a distance or vicariously, or experienced through somebody else rather than first hand.

Relapse Prevention by my friend, Beth Burgess

What Leads Up to a Relapse?

People often talk about relapsing as if it just occurred. However, if we reflect on thoughts, feelings and attitudes for the few days or weeks preceding the relapse, there were often triggers that prompted the relapse.

Relapses can occur because people stop doing something, like letting up on daily recovery maintenance, or they might not have anticipated a trigger from an activity or encounter. Some people get overwhelmed and just say, “To hell with it.”

We all know that there will be situations, people, feelings, and thoughts that result in thinking about using. If we take the initiative to study and find additional alternatives to relapse, and use these resources, we are less likely to relapse.

Do you have ways of dealing with your emotions that do not include relapsing?

See results

Understanding Relapse Triggers

Relapses do not just happen. There are some subtle and some not so subtle clues that we are heading back to use. Learning what activates our desire to use or the situations to avoid, or the motive for our use is very important to our long-term recovery.

There is no cure for addiction. Our addiction does not go away, but with proactive choices, we can minimize our chances of a relapse.

Learning relapse triggers will help us be able to spot them, and make other choices than to use. While there are predictable triggers for all people, digging deeper and examining our personal triggers will make them individual and authentic for us.

Having personal alternative behaviors ready when a trigger happens will help ensure that a relapse doesn't “just happen."

Because relapses have such a devastating effect on the person, their families, their freedom and their lives, it is important to look more closely at the components of a relapse. Each component has triggers, but they also all have tested proven ways to help us not sabotage our recovery. There are four primary components to a relapse:

• Emotional

• Mental

• Physical

• Behavioral

Emotional Triggers Leading to Relapse

Emotions are often numbed or ignored in active use and addiction. We avoided them, didn’t acknowledge them, or used to mask them, but they are still a part of our make-up.

If we imagine think of these emotions as being “held in check” much like a jack-in-the box by our use, it is easy to understand why they can come flooding back without warning.

Many of these emotions will resurface in early recovery and sometimes they seem inappropriate to the situation. These emotions can be confusing, overwhelming, frightening, and “crazy-making”. We may not understand where many of these feelings are coming from and do not have the coping skills to deal with them.

There are some predictable feelings that resurface in early recovery that can be difficult and relapse provoking at a time when we have limited coping skills to deal with them. Some of the more problematic ones are:

Any emotion that causes thoughts about using is a problem. Learning to deal with our emotions is a key element in long-term recovery. Writing out our feelings can release them without harming us or others. Not releasing them may help us justify using over them

Any emotion can trigger a relapse.  It's not just anger or sadness, but can be joy and happiness as well.
Any emotion can trigger a relapse. It's not just anger or sadness, but can be joy and happiness as well. | Source

Mental Triggers Leading to Relapse

Mental traps for a relapse are the addicted thinking that can sometimes precede a relapse. There are typically five problematic traps or some variation on these. We should explore our mental traps that set us up for a rationalized/justified relapse.

  1. Glamorizing our past use by thinking of all that we are missing – the using friends, the lifestyle, things we did in our use
  2. Fantasizing about using (especially a type of alcohol or drugs we have never used)
  3. Figuring out ways to control our use
  4. Denial or ambivalence about the severity of our problem
  5. Playing “What If” games about use that do not end in a negative outcome

Our thinking and perceptions can be distorted and prompt a relapse.
Our thinking and perceptions can be distorted and prompt a relapse. | Source

Physical Triggers Leading to Relapse

Pain is the number one physical reason that people relapse. Many things cause physical pain in our recovery. Some of the predictable ones are:

  1. Post acute withdrawal symptoms that include pain during the physical healing process
  2. Accidents or Injuries
  3. Surgeries
  4. Ongoing chronic healthy issues

Pain is the number one reason that people relapse.
Pain is the number one reason that people relapse. | Source

Behavioral Triggers Leading to Relapse

Simply put, behaviors are actions that we do and do not do. So what are the risky behaviors versus safe behaviors?

  1. Not going to recovery supportive meetings vs. Enough meetings to reinforce recovery
  2. Going around using friends vs. Establishing a social network of recovering people
  3. Dating someone who still uses vs. Putting the relationship on hold to save ourselves
  4. Letting up on recovery routines and structures vs. Maintaining stability and predictability in our life
  5. Not having a plan for stress vs. Learning techniques to reduce stress and anxiety
  6. Being close-minded to suggestions vs. Listening to more knowledgeable people about recovery

Even with our focus on recovery, there are going to be unavoidable triggers; people and situations that prompt us to think about using.

Even staying focused on our recovery, there are many triggers that happen.
Even staying focused on our recovery, there are many triggers that happen. | Source

Unavoidable Triggers and Relapse Prompting Encounters

There will be times that we are focused on our recovery and doing everything we can to maintain our recovery. Then a chance encounter, a trigger or a thought of using will happen. It might be:

  • Hearing a song on the radio
  • Running into an old using friend at a store
  • Seemingly innocent movie that ends up reminding us of our use

If we notice that we are engaging in these activities, having these emotions, or demonstrating a negative attitude, we should be mindful of a potential relapse. Each of us in recovery need to be aware of the Red Flag Warnings Leading to Relapse:

  1. Argumentative about Solutions
  2. Cockiness
  3. Complacency
  4. Defensiveness when questioned
  5. Discontinuing meetings
  6. Dishonesty
  7. Irregular eating or sleeping habits
  8. Irritation at others leading to resentments
  9. Letting up on recovery disciples
  10. Loneliness
  11. Loss of constructive goals and planning
  12. Not being willing to change
  13. Not having a support system
  14. Not willing to follow suggestions to recover

Has this information helped you understand the many aspects of relapse

See results

Relapse Prevention Knowledge is Readily Available to Us

As you can see, there are many components to a relapse. Most of these are predictable and, therefore, many people have come up with safe, effective alternatives to relapse.

Most people are more than willing to share what has worked for them in relapse prevention techniques. The methods for not relapsing are going to be as varied as the individuals who use them. For instance, going fishing and being isolated from all temptations may not work for you, but it works for others. Be open to their solutions, and you may find that some of them will work for you.

Do not hesitate to ask in meetings, groups, or ask your treatment provider for effective, creative approaches to prevent a relapse. Review the Alternatives to Relapse, as you are compiling your own relapse prevention plan for additional help.

When You Don't Relapse: Be Joyful


When You Do Not Relapse

When we do not use after one of these triggers, we begin to have personal history that we can have a trigger, not use, and maintain our focus on recovery.

It can be the beginning of looking at and staying focused on the bigger picture of our continued recovery.

Authored by Marilyn L. Davis for the express use at North House, 1990-2011; copyright transferred to TIERS, 2012, Registration Number: TXu 1-797-964: No portions of this may be reprinted, copied, or used without permission of the author or acknowledgment of authorship.

© 2013 Marilyn L Davis


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