The road to full recovery from alcohol addiction is not always as smooth as we would like it to be. The path to living a sober life is very challenging, every day for the rest of the person’s life. Sadly, for many of those in recovery, the fact is that their journey is likely to include at least one relapse along the way. Because of this, it is vital that the recovering addict and their family members have an alcohol relapse prevention plan in place.

Understanding What Alcohol Relapse Is

For most people with alcohol addiction, relapse is a normal part of the recovery process. Any type of addiction, drug or alcohol, is known to be a chronic disorder. What this means is that it persists over the course of many months or years, and impacts the way a person’s brain functions. The most common effect is the brain seeing the substance or drug as a “reward” that leads to compulsive use of their choice of addictive substance even though they know doing so can have serious consequences.

Restoring the brain back to functioning normally can be quite difficult at best. Therefore, many people suffer from alcohol relapse during the recovery phase. Depending on the severity of the person’s alcohol abuse and how long it has been going on, it can take months or even years for their brain to return to its normal function. During this time, there are likely to be many triggers that lead to relapse.

Undergoing an alcohol rehabilitation program will help a person overcome their issues with alcohol abuse. Despite high success rates, some will never fully recover. However, they do learn ways to cope with the symptoms of their alcoholism. The majority of those with alcohol addiction, who are in the recovery phase, will always be vulnerable to physical or mental relapse.

man overcoming alcohol relapse

Alcohol Relapse By the Numbers

Alcohol relapse is common. Here are a few of the statistics regarding relapse rates:

40 to 60 percent of those in recovery will suffer a relapse. While this might sound high, keep in mind alcoholism isn’t the only severe chronic health condition with a high rate of relapse. Of those with Type 1 diabetes, 30 to 50 percent will relapse. For those with hypertension, the rate is even higher at 50 to 70 percent.

One thing to keep in mind, when a person drinks once during their recovery, this is considered to be a “slip” rather than an alcohol relapse. It is possible for a person to “slip” without going on to suffer a relapse. However, even one drink can cause a person to relapse– sobriety is the only true way to continue along the road to recovery.

The Three Stages of Relapse

In most cases, relapse is not something that happens in a single day. The road to relapse often starts weeks or even months before the person takes their first drink. Alcohol relapse can be broken down into three stages that are easier to understand.

Emotional relapse

At this point, the person is still not thinking about actually drinking. But at the same time, they will have stopped engaging in self-care or practicing the coping skills they were taught. This could include:

  • Going to support group meetings, but not taking an active part in them.
  • Distancing themselves from family members and friends who are being supportive.
  • Hiding their emotions.
  • Feeling triggered or tempted to “give up” but not voicing their concerns to someone they trust.

two people supporting each other

The longer the person fails to engage in self-care, the more stress they will feel and the unhappier they will become. This leads to mental relapse.

Mental relapse

Mental relapse is the point at which a person starts to think about taking that first drink. Even though they know it could potentially ruin the recovery process, the temptation is there.

The person may start working on their coping skills. However, their negative mindset tends to overrule their efforts. Anything they can associate with their former drinking life can become a trigger. Those in this phase of alcohol relapse may start minimizing the negative side of their alcohol use disorder while playing up what they perceive as the good times they had. They might start planning their relapse and lying about their mental status among other things.

Physical relapse

This is the final stage of the relapse spiral. It typically starts with a slip. Many will regret their decision and use these feelings to spur them on to attempt back to further recovery. At this point, family members, their friends, therapist, or doctor may be able to help them find the right resources to avoid going into a full-blown relapse. The problem is that many of those who slip won’t seek out any type of help and end up suffering a physical relapse. This leads to excess use and the negative consequences that come with it.

Warning Signs of Alcohol Relapse

The good news for family and friends is that there are several early warning signs that occur as the person goes through the three stages of alcohol relapse. If you recognize any of these signs, taking action can help prevent it from happening.

 

Common early warning signs of someone toward relapse include:

  • Believing one slip won’t cause them to relapse.
  • Expressing the belief that their pre-sober days were all good times.
  • Being dishonest and lying to their family members, friends, or boss.
  • Starting to isolate themselves.
  • Ditching support group meetings or appointments with their therapist.
  • Hanging out with others who like to drink or do drugs.
  • Showing signs of depression, anxiety, or extreme apathy.
  • Any consistent situation of psychological distress.

Reaching out to your friend or family member upon noticing these signs could make all the difference. It’s important to not make him or her feel guilty or “weak”– it’s normal to feel doubt and temptation during recovery. Opening up a safe conversation with your loved one can let them know you see them, care for them and are willing to offer your support.

chalk drawn on the asphalt saying "you got this"

Ways to Prevent Alcohol Relapse

One of the best ways for a person to avoid alcohol relapse is to continually practice their coping skills, build a support system of family and friends, and avoid anything that might risk their sobriety. Those who stop going to their support groups or fail to practice their coping skills are at high risk of relapse.

The simplest way to maintain sobriety is to seek gainful employment, create a safe and stable home environment, go to support meetings, actively engage in fulfilling activities throughout life, and continue practicing healthy coping skills.

Stress is one of the biggest causes of relapse along with anxiety, depression, and other unaddressed mental health issues.

Developing a Solid Relapse Prevention Plan

Those who go to therapy and support groups learn a variety of coping skills and ways to prevent relapse. Often, during the rehabilitation phase, people start working on their prevention plan, including how to avoid risky situations where they might be tempted to fall off the wagon.

An alcohol relapse prevention plan can be as simple or complex as the person developing it wants it to be. Maybe it is a list of reminders on a phone app or sheet of paper, it could be a journal where the person can put together an extensive list of risky situations and how to avoid them.

However, a basic relapse prevention plan should include:

  • Someone they can call
  • Somewhere safe they can go
  • A list of reasons why they need to stay sober
  • A few stress-relief techniques they can practice
  • Their support groups schedules
  • Crisis and hotline phone numbers
  • A list of where the nearest emergency services are and their phone numbers

While the majority of addicts are ashamed and embarrassed by their alcohol use disorder, there is no reason to be ashamed of having this disease. The more open and honest they can be with family members, friends, co-workers, the more support they will have.

seedlings in a planter

What You Should Do If You Suffer a Relapse

While they were actively abusing alcohol, the person developed a high tolerance. After as little as a few days of being sober, their tolerances start to drop. Those who maintain their sobriety for weeks or months will become significantly less tolerant. When they relapse, there is a much higher risk of overdose. If this happens the result can be fatal. If you suspect the person has overdosed, the best thing you can do is dial 911.

Following recovery from the overdose, the person needs to reach out to their support system and find somewhere safe to live that is free of alcohol and drugs. This means staying away from those who are still involved in these activities and anywhere that temptation could exist. It may even be necessary for them to take part in an inpatient detox and rehabilitation program in order to restore their sobriety.

Sources:

Alcohol and Alcoholism, Vol. 51 (2016)

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