Recognizing Relapse Warning Signs

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Recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction is a long process that will likely be with you for the rest of your life.

Addiction is not something that goes away, because even after you’ve beaten the physical withdrawal and mental addiction, you will still be at risk for relapse. Data shows that anywhere from 40 to 50% of all recovering drug and alcohol addicts will eventually relapse. This doesn’t consider the fact that most people will use small amounts of their substance when they first leave rehab. Instead, it accounts for people who succumb to cravings, stress, and negative emotions, and go back to their substance of choice.

While this can seem negative, it isn’t. Many people go on to beat relapse statistics, and remain clean for the rest of their lives. If you want that for yourself, it is important that you learn to recognize the warning signs of a relapse, so that you can take the steps to get help when you need it.

What Are Triggers

Triggers are typically classified as events or emotions that you can use to justify sliding back into an addiction. These triggers are most often emotions, friends, locations, social pressure, or even the physical proximity of the substance. Once you are exposed to it, you will begin to feel cravings, which can result in a relapse if you are not careful.

While most of us think that triggers would likely stimulate immediate reactions, this often isn’t the case. Instead, a trigger pushes us into behavior that makes relapsing more and more easy. For example, seeing your substance might not make you use on the spot, but it might cause you to push away your sponsor at a 12 Step meeting, which will in turn cause loneliness, which is another trigger, pushing you to go see old friends you used with. Triggers are often less instant, and more an entry into a slide, that once you get on, is difficult to get off.

Relapse Warning Signs

While there are many relapse warning signs, you can pay attention for the most common. You know yourself, and you know when something is changing or how it shouldn’t be. Pay attention, and talk to your group or your counselor when you need help.

Consistent Negative Emotions – Constant negative emotions like guilt, shame, or anger can cause a relapse. If you frequently feel unhappy, you are at risk for a relapse, and you should take steps to prevent it. Negative emotions depress the reward system in the brain, making you feel unhappy, so that the brain craves dopamine and serotonin, which you already know you can get from your substance. While some negative emotions are a natural part of life, it is important that you balance your emotions, because if you are constantly unhappy, or unhappy a lot, you are much more likely to use.

Proximity to Physical Triggers – Physical triggers like the substance, the place where you are accustomed to using or drinking, or people you used to use or drink around can trigger a relapse. If you are spending time around people who are using or drinking or near to the people or places that were part of your addiction, it’s important to stop and evaluate to decide if you need help. This is especially crucial if you are in the early stages of recovery, when these triggers are especially painful. In most cases, early recovery means using avoidance therapy until you have gone through cognitive behavioral therapy to distance yourself mentally from the drug.

Trying to Restore Your Old Life – Many people work very hard to restore the life they had before their addiction without ever stopping to think why they became addicted in the first place. Unfortunately, restoring your old life is only likely to put you back in the same place that led you to become addicted. In addition, the constant struggle to restore things that are gone can be difficult, depressing, and time consuming. Life will be different and your primary goals should be to connect with reality and learn from it, rather than trying to make it something it is not.

Overconfidence – Overconfidence puts you at risk for a relapse, because if you are certain of your recovery, it’s easy to say “just one more time”. Many recovering addicts fall into this trap, and use it as an excuse to cut their support network. For example, if you feel that you’re recovered, you will likely stop attending 12 Step meetings, stop seeing your therapist, and even stop going to mindfulness or exercise. Unfortunately, addiction is never over. You will be at risk for relapse for the rest of your life, and you must continue working towards it for the rest of your life.

Pushing People Away – Pushing people away is a red flag that you could be headed towards a relapse. When you stop spending time with sober friends, leave your sponsor, or stop going to meetings, it may be because you are moving towards relapse. Sometimes, when you are exposed to a trigger, like a substance or an old friend, it pushes the brain into making unconscious decisions, which lead you to using. Pushing people away, or ceasing to spend time with them, is often one of those first decisions. When you stop spending time with people who are holding you accountable, you make it easier for yourself to use.

Stress, Anxiety, or AgitationStress is the number one cause of relapse. If you’re stressed, always anxious, or not sleeping, you are more likely to relapse. Unfortunately, you can’t always avoid stress, but you should pay attention to it, recognize when you need help, and work to reduce it whenever you can.

The longer you stay clean, the easier it becomes. In one study, researchers showed that while 1 in 3 recovering addicts who are clean for less than a year will relapse, that rate goes down to just 1.5 in 10 by the time you reach 5 years of sobriety. By taking the time to recognize relapse warning signs, you can make time to get help when you need it, so you can stay clean, and continue your recovery. Good luck.

Article written by Lighthouse Treatment Center, A Southern California Drug and Alcohol Addiction Treatment Program.


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