How to avoid relapse in recovery

Mental Health and Wellness
Man with a headache

Recovery is all about understanding addiction as a disease. During the early phases of recovery, people begin to understand the stressors and triggers that caused them to reach for drugs or alcohol.

People also start to develop effective coping mechanisms and prevention strategies that help them maintain remission and intervene if they feel as though they are at risk for relapsing in recovery.

There is no hard and fast cure for substance use disorder, but the disease can be put into remission if properly treated and managed, says Jessica Molavi, a relapse prevention specialist and clinical manager of addiction specialty programs with Mirmont Treatment Center, part of Main Line Health.

There are many ways to avoid relapse during alcohol and addiction recovery. By identifying early warning signs and reaching out for help before the situation becomes critical, people in recovery can effectively step in and prevent a relapse from occurring.

What to expect during recovery

The first stage of recovery is a person’s willingness, acceptance, and engagement in a treatment program. Part of this process is medical stabilization, which helps prevent people from experiencing symptoms of withdrawal or other medical concerns caused by substance usage.

The first phase, which is called “partial sustained remission” and lasts up to about six months, allows the process of recovery to begin. During the early stages of recovery, some form of treatment is necessary to help the person stay sober. “People start gaining an understanding of what their diagnosis is, understanding it as a disease, and then developing some insight on how to effectively treat it,” Molavi says. During recovery, people will also start to work on changing their thinking and behaviors and developing coping mechanisms to manage their emotions. Doing so helps lower their risk of reverting back to substance use in times of stress.

Between the six-month to one-year mark, people begin to enter the second stage, which is full sustained remission. People in this phase have achieved stabilization and are able to maintain that stabilization with an ongoing support network.

Recovery is defined as complete abstinence from all mind-altering chemicals coupled with engagement in a program of active change, such as 12-step meetings. There is no cure for substance use disorder. Rather, someone struggling with substance use goes into remission. “There is no cure once you develop a diagnosis of substance use disorder, but you can put it into remission if you actively treat it,” Molavi says.

What might put someone at risk for relapsing during recovery?

There are several different contributing factors that can put someone at risk for relapsing during recovery, but it really varies from person to person, says Molavi.

A person’s home environment can influence their recovery. For example, if a person is returning to an environment where people aren’t supportive or are in denial of their diagnosis, it can be difficult to keep the disease in remission.

High levels of stress can also activate a relapse. People diagnosed with addiction tend to get symptomatic when their stress levels are high. “They often can’t recognize that they’re overwhelmed, and so they’ll stay stuck in that for a period of time, which creates more mood instability and irritability,” Molavi says.

People who refuse aftercare or treatment also have a higher risk of relapsing during recovery. People with underlying mental health disorders or trauma can be at higher risk for relapse, unless they are effectively treating all of the dual diagnoses at once.

What are the warning signs of relapse in recovery?

One common early warning sign is when a person becomes disconnected from their primary sober support network. People might de-prioritize their need to attend meetings, like a 12-step meeting, and put other things such as work or family ahead of their recovery.

Compulsive behaviors that create negative consequences, such as developing inappropriate relationships, over-spending, or under-eating, can also be warning signs that a relapse may soon occur. Any change in thinking — like someone starting to justify or rationalize bad decision making — can be an early warning sign, too.

Some of the more critical warning signs are mood instability, high levels of stress, aggression, and agitation. Another high-risk warning sign is spending more time around people who are actively drinking or using drugs.

Avoiding relapse in recovery

According to Molavi, it’s crucial to identify high-risk or critical warning signs and triggers that could activate a person’s desire to use. As people become more aware of the warning signs that put them at risk, they can better recognize if they are setting themselves up for a relapse.

Once those personal triggers and risk factors are identified, people will want to adopt prevention strategies to effectively manage those stressors and triggers. Molavi recommends calling a sponsor or safe person if you start to feel overwhelmed. The first step is to tell on yourself, so you have people who can intervene and help hold you accountable, says Molavi. Breathing strategies can also help you de-escalate yourself during stressful moments.

Don’t wait until you’re in a high-risk situation to get help. Once people are in a high-risk situation, it becomes more difficult to intervene and prevent a relapse. “The relapse always starts before they pick up the drink or the drug,” says Molavi. Try to reach out if you’re noticing any of the early warning signs to get some direction and support to intervene and prevent a relapse from occurring.

Mental and emotional well-being are integral to a healthy life. When people suffer with mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse, it significantly impacts all aspects of their lives and their loved ones.

Main Line Health offers behavioral health services, from group therapy and individual therapy to 12-step meetings for drug and alcohol addiction. It all begins with a phone call. Please call 1.888.CARE.898 (227.3898) to schedule a confidential appointment.