Between 40 and 60 percent of addicts relapse while in recovery from drug addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This means that, for every two people who seek drug addiction treatment or abstain from substance abuse for a period of time, one will relapse.
The thought that an addict will still relapse even after treatment makes some people continue with their substance abuse. They feel that there is no need trying to get sober as they might still end up failing. In most cases, though, the brain of an addict convinces them that they are doing the right thing. When one takes drugs, the brain produces dopamine, which controls pleasure. After a long period of use, the brain re-prioritize essential activities such as eating, going to work, and taking a shower, among others.
So during recovery, individuals take on a whole new experience of re-training their brain to see healthy living as the new standard for survival. Instead of getting high or using drugs, now it’s time to stay sober and take on a new lifestyle. Doing this can bring up quite an inner conflict for a lot of us. So it’s extremely wise to equip ourselves with understanding: why do addicts relapse, what is it, and how does it happen?
How Does Relapse Happen?
During recovery, an addict might relapse more than once. Sometimes, an addict might remain sober (or think they have recovered fully) but then relapse after many years. A good example is when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his New York apartment in 2014 after mixing heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines, and amphetamine. Before his death, Seymour claimed he had been sober for 23 years.
Sobriety takes time and commitment. But remember: relapse is not an indication of failed treatment.
Like other chronic diseases that recur after treatment, addiction (as well as mental health disorders) take a lifelong health “management” role. Put simply, addiction is considered a brain disorder where an individual convinces themselves to engage in compulsive drug use despite knowing the harmful effects. It’s not always so realistic to say to an addict, “just stop using”.
Several factors can cause a relapse. Most of these factors might be extrinsic, but in most cases, the motivation to go back to substance abuse stems from within.
What Causes an Addict’s Relapse?
After going through treatment programs, people expect to go back to their normal lives free of drugs. But that is not always the case seeing as sobriety is not guaranteed. The end of rehab sometimes means going back to an environment where an addict once used drugs. The reality of this environment, along with certain people, or things can evoke emotions and memories that bring the urge to abuse drugs.
The duration of addiction influences an addict’s likelihood of relapse. For instance, an addict recovering from a lifetime of alcohol use is likely to relapse than one recovering from a year or two of frequent binge drinking. The factors that contribute to relapse rates, triggers, and recovery vary. When an addict yields to triggers, relapse is more prone to happen. To manage these triggers, an addict needs to seek aftercare services.
What Are Triggers?
Triggers are feelings, thoughts, emotions, situations, things, places, or relationships that literally “trigger” an urge to go back to drug use. Triggers can happen randomly, without expectation, even after so many years of abstinence.
For instance, running into someone from your drug days who is still using the drugs can bring up unwanted memories that inspire intense drug craving. Or driving past your favorite bar while visiting your hometown can result in the curios temptation to check it out “one more time”.
To avoid the most common relapse triggers, many people use the acronym: HALT:
People in recovery need to avoid extreme hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness.
It’s often advised, Never make a significant decision when you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Wait until you feel stable or have support. Then when you don’t feel any HALT triggers, make the choice with a clear mind.
Other relapse triggers include:
- anxiety or depression
- physical illness
- certain social events
- friends who negatively impact your recovery
- peers, coworkers, or unfavorable individuals
- life crisis
- emotional events
- anger issues
- major life changes, such as moving
Being aware of your biggest triggers is crucial in recovery. Addicts relapse generally when they feel an aspect of life is out of their control and they close off to the support in their lives. Therefore, it’s incredibly helpful to understand where to turn to if any of these things feel extra heavy on your process.
Maintaining Treatment Plans After Rehab
Treatment does not stop after rehab. A patient needs to continue with withdrawal relief medication if necessary, and attend therapy once in a while. Many years after treatment, the patient still needs to avoid triggers, like staying away from friends who do drugs and building their social lives around other sources of fun. When an addict takes the right conscious steps towards recovery, they increase their chances of maintaining sobriety for a lifetime.
A treatment plan after rehab provides the care a patient needs to prevent a relapse. The plans include cognitive behavioral therapy and 12-step education, both of which ensure the addict avoid triggers that will result in relapse. Many addiction treatment centers have an aftercare service and follow up with their patients to ensure they do not relapse.
Sober Living and Supportive Community
Sober homes are effective in helping addicts deal with life after rehab. According to research published on the US National Library of Medicine Journal, Oxford House in Illinois has found great success in handling patients after rehab. Oxford House operates as a non-profit organization that runs sober homes in different parts of the US, among other countries. Those recovering from substance use disorders run the homes – they help each other like in AA meetings. After six months, new officers get elected to run the homes.
According to the study, patients who completed their treatment at Oxford House were less likely to relapse compared to those who used conventional aftercare services. The patients in the study were tracked for 24 months, after which they showed significantly lower rates of substance abuse.
After treatment, a patient needs a strong support system while staying sober. Immediate assistance needs to come from family members, friends, peer mentors, work colleagues, support groups, and recovering coaches. This group of people helps the addict in challenging times, and they are there to prevent triggers.
Other Warning Signs and Triggers
Several internal and external triggers can lead to an addict’s relapse. Any circumstance that recreates a situation that leads to addiction is likely to cause a relapse. Other factors that can cause a relapse to include:
Fatigue: When one is stressed mentally or physically, they feel fatigued, and this can affect their everyday tasks. When the stress is too much, one feels the urge to numb the fatigue with alcohol or drugs.
Depression: Depression will likely occur with or after addiction. During a period of depression, a person tends to oversleep, they lose interest in activities they once thought were fun, and they have difficulties focusing. If an addict recovering from substance abuse experiences depression, they will likely try drugs to find relief.
Physical Pain: Alcohol numbs the pain. According to studies, reduction in physical pain reduces the chances of relapse after alcohol treatment.
Dishonesty: Failure to express feelings such as anger and resentment can lead to relapse. People recovering fail to express their feelings and instead make excuses for tasks not accomplished and when they are frustrated by other people. As a result, these feelings trigger a relapse.
Self-Pity: When one is recovering from substance abuse, they might pity themselves since they cannot attend some social events or go to the bar with friends. When an addict feels sorry for themselves, or they dwell on the negative impacts of fighting addiction, they might re-seek comfort in drugs.
Idleness: If one is unemployed, lack hobbies, or feels bored, they have no money and spend most of their days idle at home, they might relapse to drugs. Research found that risky drinking is more prevalent among the unemployed.
Conscious Commitment and Mindful Activities Help Prevent a Relapse
In most cases, recovery takes years. While an addict can go to rehab and come out after six months, the recovery process does not stop there. To achieve lifetime sobriety, an addict needs to stay committed to the process consciously. During recovery, the patient needs to attend counseling and meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
According to a 2014 study published in JAMA Psychiatry, mindfulness-based programs such as meditation help reduce the chances of a relapse. When combined with traditional mindfulness prevention programs, such as recognizing triggers, these methods are more effective in keeping an addict sober.
Addiction Relapse and Social Stigma
To an addict, addiction is a private affair, especially among celebrities. Generally, addiction is stigmatized, and this stems from the fact that most people misunderstand addition.
When someone is addicted, the brain prioritizes drug use to survival. When the need to use drugs supersedes a person’s survival instincts, a person risks their life just to use drugs. While people will see using drugs as a way to express problems in the family and at work, addiction is a disease that most people want to get out of but can’t.
Addiction is irrational. An addict might lose their physical health, mental health, their job, family, friends, and everyone they care about, but the drug will still pull them back. The drug does not care about the consequences. As such, besides the addict doing everything to prevent a relapse, those around them need to offer a strong support system to help them avoid triggers and find them a replacement for the drugs.
An addict may not handle a relapse on their own, seeing that their addiction works against their efforts. If you need help with addiction, get help today. Or if you feel a desire to relapse, reach out to a professional in your community.