How to Prevent a Drug Relapse

Every person in recovery from drug addiction is at risk for a drug relapse, no matter how much time it’s been since they last used a substance. The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as a disorder indicated by compulsive drug use, often despite any consequences, that leads to long-lasting changes in the brain.

Most alcohol and drug treatment centers educate clients on relapse prevention techniques and help clients learn them in order to maintain recovery and achieve short- and long-term goals. There are a vast array of relapse prevention tools one can implement into their daily routine to help prevent relapse. There is a common misconception that relapse prevention skills should only be used when someone is having a desire to use. However, relapse prevention skills should be implemented into each recovering person’s daily schedule and routine to prevent or reduce the risk of cravings.

If you’re in recovery from a substance use disorder and relapsed, it does not mean that you failed. It doesn’t negate your previous efforts to stay drug-free and it doesn’t mean that any treatment program you attended wasn’t successful. But it doesn’t mean that you should use it as an excuse to continue using drugs, either.

Drug and alcohol relapse is not inevitable. Recognizing causes, signs and symptoms of relapse can help you or someone you care about avoid the pain of returning to drugs, alcohol, and destructive behavior. The reasons for relapse vary from person to person, but coping skills you need to deal with it are universal.

How To Prevent A Drug Relapse


Can addiction be treated successfully?

Yes, addiction is a treatable disorder. Research on the science of addiction and the treatment of substance use disorders has led to the development of research-based methods that help people to stop using drugs and resume productive lives, also known as being in recovery.

What is a Drug Relapse? 

In a general sense, to relapse means to experience a period of regression after temporary improvement. The term is often used to describe diseases — addiction included. Because addiction is a chronic brain disease, every recovery carries the risk of relapse. In fact, drug and alcohol relapse rates for addiction are very similar to those of other long-term diseases like diabetes or asthma.

Addiction is the result of complex behavior patterns becoming embedded in the brain, and recovery is about learning and using tools to combat that compulsive behavior. As such, relapse isn’t as simple as suddenly returning to drug and alcohol use — it’s a process that affects multiple aspects of a person’s life.

The Stages of Drug Relapse

Steven Melemis, an addiction medicine physician, in his writings about drug relapse prevention, indicates that relapse tends to be a gradual process with three distinct stages—emotional, mental, and physical—and starts even before the person resumes drinking or using drugs.

  • Emotional Relapse: During this stage, the individual is not necessarily thinking about having a drink or using drugs, but they’re neglecting self-care. They might start to bottle up emotions, isolate themselves from others, eat poorly, and not sleep well.
  • Mental Relapse: This stage becomes an internal tug-of-war and includes cravings for drugs and alcohol; nostalgic feelings for the people, places, and things associated with alcohol and drug use; and lying to themselves about the consequences that come with it.
  • Physical Relapse: At this point, drinking and/or drug use begins and quickly escalates to an uncontrollable level.

Triggers for a Drug Relapse

Understanding what might trigger you to relapse as well as having a plan in the place for these triggers are the first steps toward prevention. Here are five triggers you need to consider and talk to your therapist or counselor about.


Stress is the top cause of drug relapse. And, many people who struggle with addiction turn to their substance or activity of choice as a maladaptive way of coping with it. In fact, research indicates that there is an increased “wanting” for the drug, alcohol, or addictive activity during stressful situations—especially if the substance or activity was the person’s primary coping mechanism.

People or Places Connected to the Addictive Behavior

People who participated in your addictive behavior are potential triggers for a relapse, regardless of whether or not they are still drinking, smoking, or using drugs. Likewise, certain places that remind you of your addiction can be triggering for you. Even your family members could be a trigger, especially if they make you feel more child-like and vulnerable. When you’re reminded of your addiction, it’s important to have effective ways of handling your feelings. For instance, if you’re an alcoholic and a group of drinking buddies ask you to go out, or you see people from work going to happy hour, it might help to have a specific response ready.

Negative or Challenging Emotions

People who struggle with addiction need effective ways of tolerating, managing, and making sense of the negative feelings encountered in daily life. Alcohol, drugs, or addictive behaviors used to provide temporary relief from those feelings, but you can’t rely on them anymore. Realize that those negative feelings you’re having don’t have to be a sign of an impending setback. Everyone feels negative or challenging emotions. The key is how you deal with them.

Tips for Avoiding a Drug Relapse

If you’re seeing any of the signs of drug relapse in yourself or someone you care about, you may be wondering what you can do to prevent it. Here are some helpful tips you can use to stop relapse in its tracks and stay sober after rehab. 

Don’t panic!

Relapse can seem like the end of the world, especially if you’ve just completed rehab. However, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Don’t let a relapse cause you to second-guess or dismiss all the hard work you’ve done up to this point. Maintaining a healthy self-image is key to sustaining recovery and preventing drug relapse. Even if you’ve relapsed in the past, it’s much more important to focus on what you can do better in the future.

Distract Yourself

Most cravings disappear in 30 minutes. Have a list of go-tos when you feel the urge to relapse. This can mean doing something fun, calling a friend or attending a meeting. There are recognised distraction techniques that can be learnt, such as counting the number of birds in the sky. Or try counting the number of flagstones on the pavement. Some people make a phone call when they get a craving – any random number will do – the act of dialling and apologising for getting the “wrong number” will distract from the craving.

Develop a support network.

Isolation is a big factor in addiction, so your recovery strategy should include reaching out to as many healthy support sources as you can in order to find the one that’s right for you. While there are many different support groups out there, the 12-step treatment format is one of the most effective. Joining a recovery group and/or finding a sponsor to support you in recovery provides one-of-a-kind accountability, and thereby reduces your risk of a drug and alcohol relapse.

Avoid complacency to Avoid Drug Relapse

Above all, don’t let the importance of your recovery fall to the wayside. Even with a strong showing in rehab treatment and a heap of initial motivation, the stress of life can make you devote less attention to the nuts and bolts of recovery. You may work late and figure you can skip a meeting or two or pay less attention to the places you spend your time in. Each time you choose not to actively work on recovery, you’re adding to a buildup that can leave you up craving creek without a paddle — where you’re much more likely to sink into drug relapse.

Stay In Therapy

Now that you’re sober, you have a world of emotional issues to confront that you used to cover with drugs and alcohol. You may find that your relationships are struggling or you’re stressed all the time. It’s important that you learn how to deal with these situations in a healthy way.

Continue weekly appointments with a therapist for at least a year or two after getting sober, and also consider attending group meetings. This will help provide you with the coping mechanisms needed to maintain sobriety.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help for Drug Relapse

Asking for help doesn’t always come easy but if you want to prevent a drug relapse you have to learn how to ask for help. This could mean reaching out to your case manager or therapist, your recovery support group, or another set group of friends. Maybe you need to try out a self-help recovery program or a 12-step program. It might be difficult at first but it gets easier as you practice. You don’t have to deal with a drug-free life on your own. The more you reach out to others and ask for help along the way, the better your chance of maintaining long-term recovery.

At Harmony Ridge Recovery Center, we believe everyone deserves a life free from the restrictions of drug and alcohol addiction. Thousands of people, like you, have achieved recovery from drug and alcohol addiction with the help of our kind and compassionate team of medical professionals. The first step towards achieving recovery is giving us a call!

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