Addiction is widely accepted as a chronic disease that disrupts brain function.  Areas of the brain linked to reward and pleasure are affected which makes it difficult to stop using drugs regardless of the consequences.  Like other chronic illnesses such as heart disease or diabetes there is no cure; an addict will forever be an addict but their addiction can successfully be managed and controlled through treatment.  Seeking treatment is the first step of the recovery process but recovery is about more than just not using drugs.  It is about waking up everyday and choosing a lifestyle that helps you obtain your recovery goals. It is about understanding that recovery is a lifelong journey in which relapse is a possibility.  According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, between 40 and 60 percent of people experience relapse within the first year of treatment. Here at the Dismas Home of New Hampshire we know how important it is for each individual who struggles with addiction to fully understand what a relapse is and to have a relapse prevention plan.  

So what is a Relapse

We often hear the word relapse thrown around but some may not understand the true meaning.  A relapse is when a person returns to using drugs or alcohol after an extended period of sobriety while a lapse is more short lived, often a one time event immediately followed by reentering treatment.  Many people wonder what causes a relapse especially after how hard an addict has worked to get clean.  Well there is no cut and dry answer but for many it could be as simple as not getting the right kind of treatment or the pressures of everyday life or it may be a response to a trigger.  An individual on the road to recovery may come across a person or place that links them to their addiction and they are immediately taken aback, setting off a longing for their drug of choice.   Many times those who relapse begin to unknowingly take steps towards drug use way before they act on it.  Certain thoughts, feelings, and events may trigger cravings and urges for drugs and alcohol, and, if not properly dealt with, may increase the chances of a relapse.  This is why it is important to not only know your triggers but also the stages you cycle through before the act of using even begins. That way you can seek help immediately.

Stages of Relapse

The first is emotional relapse – At this stage, a person might not even think about using but fail to cope with their emotions in a healthy way.  Their lack of attention to self-care, isolation from others,  or their inconsistent attendance at therapy sessions or group meetings sets them up for relapse. 

The second is mental relapse – At this stage a person is having conflicting feelings about sobriety, glorifying past drug use, hanging out with old friends or downplaying the negative effects of addiction and finding opportunities to use.

The final is physical relapse – At this stage a person has begun using drugs or alcohol, this may begin with a lapse, having one drink or drug but quickly evolves to a full blown relapse where they have no control.

Relapse Prevention Plan

A relapse is emotionally painful, many people are afflicted with feelings of shame, failure, hopelessness and it may even onset anxiety and depression.  While it’s natural to feel this way it is important not to dwell on it too much as these feelings can inhibit one from seeking the immediate help that is necessary to get back on track.  If you have experienced a relapse or feel that you are on the verge of one the first thing you should do is ask for help.  This is when you should reach out to those in your support network, engage in conversations about the feelings you are experiencing, the cravings you are having and return to a treatment program or a support group as soon as possible.  These groups understand your struggles, they are equipped with techniques and tactics that can help you overcome these feelings.  Secondly identify and reflect on your trigger(s).  It is important to dig deep to identify what was going on in your life in the moment your cravings overwhelmed you, before you lapsed or relapsed and document them.  By documenting your feelings, your mental state and your environment, you may be able to understand your vulnerabilities and develop a plan for the next time you encounter them. Next continue to  implement lifestyle changes that can help to overcome your triggers, remove yourself from toxic people, places and things.  Lastly forgive yourself so you can heal, begin a new chapter of your recovery story and develop a relapse prevention plan for future use.   This plan will be a guide for helping you stay sober and should be kept in an easily accessible place for immediate use when the cravings and urges creep up.  It should outline your triggers and the coping skills or distractions you have learned in order to deal with these urges.  Also ensure that it contains a list of your support team,  those you can contact for immediate help. Share this plan with your support team so that they know your triggers and know the warning signs when you exhibit them.  Don’t forget to go over your plan often and make adjustments over time to keep up with the changes in your life.  A Relapse is not failure provided you learn from it.

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