It is important to understand that relapse is common. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that drug addiction relapse rates are between 40 and 60 percent. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as a chronic and relapsing brain disease.
Relapse is a return to drug use after being sober, or abstinent, for a period of time. It is considered a natural component of the disease and should not be considered a failure. Instead, it is merely part of recovery. NIDA likens drug relapse rates with those of other chronic diseases like hypertension, type I diabetes, and asthma. As with other medical conditions, the brain is impacted by drug abuse and addiction, for which there is no cure; however, addiction can be effectively managed.
Recovery is a process that can be enhanced through specialized treatment programs that aid in minimizing and managing instances of relapse. Do not give up. Recovery requires perseverance, vigilance, and determination.
Understanding the Cause of Relapse
A relapse can occur for a variety of reasons, and it is important to recognize the potential triggers that may lead to a relapse in order to avoid them in the future. The brain’s circuitry and chemical balance are damaged by drug abuse and addiction, and these can take time to heal. During this time, withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings may be intense and uncomfortable, which can lead a person to return to using drugs as a way to avoid these symptoms. Detox, and particularly medical detox, can help individuals to process the drugs out of the body, often with the help of medications and supportive measures. Detox is not to be used on its own, however, and should merely be part of a more comprehensive treatment program.
The brain needs time to recover and reset itself after drug dependence has formed. NIDA recommends no less than 90 days in a treatment program in order to accomplish this. The longer a person remains in a treatment program, the more time they have to build on healthy habits, making them more ingrained and second nature. Behavioral therapies used during addiction treatment uncover stressors and teach methods for coping with triggers as they arise in recovery.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that almost 8 million people in the United States suffered from both addiction and a mental health disorder in 2014. Co-occurring disorders may increase the likelihood of relapse if one disorder is left untreated. In a comprehensive treatment program, medical, substance abuse, and mental health professionals can all work together in an integrated fashion to manage co-occurring disorders through supportive, pharmacological, and therapeutic methods, thus minimizing instances of relapse.
Other triggers to relapse may be related to exposure. For instance, returning to an environment where others are abusing drugs, or where there are reminders of drug use, can increase the odds for relapse. It may be necessary to remove oneself from people, places, and things that are reminiscent of one’s drug-using days. Transitional housing, or sober living homes, can provide an environment free from drugs for individuals to continue their recovery after completing a treatment program.
Lack of adequate sleep, nutritional deficiencies, and other physical issues can contribute to low moods and increased cravings, making relapse more likely. Addiction is a complex disease that may present unforeseen challenges during recovery. Individuals often need to be flexible and adjust their treatment and recovery plan in the event of a relapse.
Next Steps after a Relapse
The National Survey on Drug Abuse and Health (NSDUH) publishes that over 21 million Americans battled addiction in 2014, which accounts for more than 8 percent of the population aged 12 and older. Again, relapse is a common factor in addiction, and when addressed quickly, individuals can get back on track and continue making forward progress. Formal addiction treatment, along with social support programs and interventions, greatly reduces the risk for relapse, according to findings published in the journal Addiction. Therefore, both family and social support systems, as well as a strong sense of self-reliance and coping tools learned in an addiction treatment program, can help to prevent additional relapse in the future.
Below are five steps to take in the event of a relapse:
- Recognize the relapse, accept responsibility, and take swift action.
Individuals must admit that any use of drugs after attaining sobriety is a relapse and take steps to correct this. Be honest with yourself. Quick action can help to minimize the potential effects and significance of the relapse event and prevent bad habits from setting back in.
- Ask for help.
A support network of family, friends, and peers (often from a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous) can be a great resource for helping individuals to reset after a relapse. Support networks are often formed during treatment to provide people with a healthy network of others who understand the perils and potential pitfalls of addiction. Self-help and 12-Step programs often set people up with sponsors who are available to them 24/7 in the event of a crisis or relapse event, and these people can be very helpful in reaffirming a commitment to recovery. Substance abuse treatment facilities often have a hotline individuals can call for support as well. Social support is vital to a sustained recovery.
- Reach out to a professional for further advice.
A trained medical, mental health, and/or substance abuse treatment provider can be a great resource for determining what the next steps in recovery may be. Trained experts in recovery can provide helpful resources and conclude what tools and methods will be most supportive at this point in recovery. Relapse prevention programs, counseling and therapy services, aftercare services, life skills training, educational programs, support group meetings, and more can all be offered as components of a recovery program provided through a specialized addiction treatment center or community program.
- Design and implement a new recovery plan.
With the help of an addiction specialist, individuals can determine what to do next. By exploring what the trigger for this relapse is, steps can be made to avoid or manage that trigger in the future. A return to treatment may be ideal, or perhaps entrance into a different kind of treatment program can be beneficial. Changing up the recovery plan may be in order as there are a wide variety of treatment modalities to choose from. Addiction is a highly personal disease, and it may take a few times to figure out exactly which form of treatment is right for each specific person.
- Learn from the experience and anticipate future challenges.
Use relapse as a learning tool and an opportunity to grow as a person. Be sure to get enough sleep, eat balanced meals, and take care of yourself physically to promote mental health. Also, be sure to attend to any and all medical and mental health concerns as they arise and reach out to the support network as soon as cravings come up. Learn how to better cope with stress, anger, and other volatile emotions that may contribute to relapse. Foster healthy relationships and habits, and participate in alumni and aftercare programs.
Recovery does not happen overnight. It is ongoing and supported by continued commitment.