How To Avoid A Relapse in Recovery

Last Updated: May 31, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Getting sober is not easy. It might take several tries. It takes changing every aspect of your life. It takes learning how to cope, how to incorporate new skills into everyday life, and how to live a life free from drugs and alcohol. Did you know people who do not seek help for their addiction are less likely to achieve long-term recovery more likely to relapse later on down the road? That’s why it’s important to learn how to avoid relapse and stay on the pathway of sobriety long-term. Let’s talk about what is considered a ‘relapse’ and how to avoid them.

What Is A Relapse?

A relapse is a word that simply means recurrence of use, or a return to use, after a period of abstinence. It’s often referred to as “going back out” in the recovery community or “using again.” A relapse generally signifies returning to addiction or going back to previous levels of use; loss of control of use again. Many treatment professionals prefer to distinguish between a relapse and a lapse, or a “slip.” To clarify, a lapse is considered a single incident of substance use. It may not result in a recurrence of use, or continued use. Some addiction professionals say that relapse is a continuum and can just be a simple mistake, opening up the person for more learning in their recovery.

A point of contention in the recovery community is also whether or not relapse is a part of the disease of addiction. Some say it is; some say it can’t be if we are to encourage people to get well and stay in remission from the disease. For example, there is no cure for addiction, but it can be managed, and people can counteract the disruptive effects of addiction on their brains and behaviors and take back control of their lives.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the chronic nature of the disease means that relapse is not only possible but likely. Relapse rates, or how often symptoms reoccur, are similar to relapse rates for other diseases like hypertension and diabetes. Because treatment of chronic diseases involves changing deeply imbedded behaviors, relapse does not mean treatment didn’t work. Relapse indicates that treatment needs to be reinstated, adjusted, or another type of treatment should be tried.

Signs Of A Drug Relapse

How can you tell if you or someone you know if on the verge of a relapse? Here are some signs.

  • Alcohol or drugs are missing from the house.
  • Empty or half-used bottles found around the home.
  • Money is missing from bank accounts or taken from family members or friends.
  • Anxiety.
  • Anger.
  • Impatience.
  • Extreme sensitivity.
  • Moodiness.
  • Problems
  • Not wanting help.
  • Seeing friends they used to use or drink with.
  • Appetite changes.
  • Lying.

Feelings of discomfort, boredom, and uneasiness can also be signs of an impending relapse. If you find yourself disinterested with treatment, meetings, sobriety, or continuing life without substances, this could indicate you may start to use again soon. If you are unhappy in sobriety and don’t yet have a deep understanding of healthy coping mechanisms, it won’t be unusual if you revert back to your old habits of drinking and using.

How To Prevent A Drug Relapse

Relapse prevention is an integral part of addiction recovery. Knowing that drinking and using have been the way you deal with problems, celebrate, or cope with everyday life, you’ll have to find a new way to do these things. Recognizing the warning signs is the first step to prevention. Understanding the warning signs and taking action when they come about can help you avoid returning to use. If you’re feeling the feelings I listed above, if you’re having dreams about using or any other sort of uneasiness, your brain may be telling you that it’s considering using.

The next step in relapse prevention is following a plan once you notice the signs. Take action—this means go for a walk, exercise, head to a meeting, reach out to another sober person, whatever the recovery tools you have in your toolbox are, use them. It’s important to have an action plan for these times in place as soon as you get sober so you can reach for it when the situation arises. Avoiding triggers, people, places, and things that might remind you of using or make you want to use is a huge part of avoiding relapse. Don’t put yourself in a position you don’t want to be in.

Lastly, stay vigilant. Knowing that addiction is a disease and can lie dormant doesn’t mean it won’t rear its ugly head when you least expect it. Recovering from addiction takes precautions. Even when you feel strong and healthy, and you move on with your life, forgetting how much trouble your addiction has caused can be dangerous. Staying on the path of sobriety, preparing yourself for any unexpected situations or emotions, and reaching out when you need help will ensure that you stay healthy and happy in recovery for years to come.


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    “Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. July 2014. Accessed Dec. 22, 2016.

    McCoy, Krisha. “Recognizing an Addiction Relapse.” Everyday Health. 20 April 2009. Accessed Dec. 22, 2016.

    “Relapse and Recovery in Addictions.” The New England Journal Of Medicine. July 18, 2002. Accessed Dec. 22, 2016.