What is an Alcohol or Drug Relapse? December 24, 2011 by Narina Walls, Detoxsal and TheDetoxDrug.com
What is an Alcohol or Drug Relapse?
Drug or alcohol addiction relapse is returning to drug use or drinking, and potentially full blown addiction, after some period of abstinence. An addict or alcoholic may have been sober for a short time or many years. Relapse happens for many reasons. A flare-up of psychiatric symptoms, spending time in old hangouts, financial troubles, or depression can make an addict more prone to relapse. Seemingly positive life events that are emotionally charged can also lead to a relapse, such as getting a promotion, receiving a raise, or getting married.
A drug or alcohol relapse can be a “slip”, where the addict or alcoholic uses a substance for a short period of time and subsequently gets right back on track with recovery. Alternatively, a relapse can be a full return to the use of drugs or alcohol with all the associated consequences and mental health issues.
The longer a relapse goes unchecked, the more difficult it is and the longer it takes to re-enter full recovery. As one uses drugs and alcohol, profound changes occur in the body and brain. The longer a person uses substances, the more time the brain has to enter an abnormal physiologic state and the more time it will take to recover. The brain of addicts and alcoholics carries a type of “memory” of substance dependence. Even a short relapse can lead to a rapid and devastating return to abnormal brain receptor function, tolerance for the substance, and subsequent withdrawal. This entire process can occur extremely rapidly, over a period of days to weeks, rather than years.
Signs of distorted thinking that can lead to a relapse:
•Thinking that a drug addiction is the only addiction problem, and that alcohol use is “o.k.”
•Seeking out chaos more than recovery
•Believing that life should be easy
•Being selectively honest
•Not getting help for relationship troubles
•Believing sobriety will fix all your problems
Stress produces hormonal changes that can lead to emotional and/or behavioral changes. A strong recovery plan and support group help a drug addict combat these changes and maintain sobriety. A relapse is best handled by prevention. However, if a relapse occurs, a full recovery can still be achieved.
The Warning Signs of an Alcohol or Drug Relapse
A regression of healthy coping skills, or a regression in one’s ability to deal with a psychiatric illness, difficulties in dealing with social situations, finances, etc., can pre-date a full relapse. By dealing with regressive signs and symptoms, one can prevent a complete relapse.
A balanced, comprehensive, and supportive social circle is paramount. This circle can be comprised of family, co-workers and supportive colleagues, healthcare professionals
Oftentimes, these relapse symptoms will be first recognized by the addict or alcoholic’s support network. Because the disease of addiction is characterized by denial and minimization, early in the relapse phase, an addict or alcoholic may not feel differently. In fact, he or she may feel happy and believe that all is going well. However, a little dishonesty, skipping a couple of meetings, and the feeling of having complete control over one’s disease can become progressive, ultimately leading to a full relapse on substances.
Remember, it is easier to prevent a relapse than it is to gain sobriety again and deal with all of addiction’s consequences. Relapse can occur even if the addict or alcoholic does not have any actual cravings for the disease. They may find themselves suddenly holding a drink or a crack pipe, or making appointments to see the healthcare providers who were prescribing the narcotics that he or she gave up.
Missing a meeting or two, skipping counseling, or forgetting dosages of medication from time-to-time may seem harmless to the addict or alcoholic. However, these behaviors can spiral out of control leading to relapse.
Alternatively, having a difficult day, a craving, or a drug dream does not mean a person is in a regression/relapse mode. Relapse and regression are characterized by specific behaviors. If a recovering person has a drug dream, but talks about it with his/her sponsor, this demonstrates a healthy coping skill, and a normal part of recovery. The presence or absence of feelings or stressors does not necessarily indicate that a relapse is imminent.
Stress is part of everyday life. The body releases stress hormones, such as catecholamines (epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine) and cortisol. These hormones can induce states of sleeplessness, anxiety, depression, and change one’s appetite, all of which are relapse triggers.
Some signs of a drug relapse are:
•Obsessing about drugs
•Deciding to stop prescribed medication
•Abandoning interests and hobbies
•Hanging out with old friends
•Hanging out at old places
•Going back to old behaviors like lying and/or being manipulative
What is a Relapse Prevention Plan?
Relapse prevention plans teach an addict the skills required to handle triggers, daily stress, and uncomfortable emotions in a way that fosters healthy growth and provides safety in special circumstances. A good relapse prevention plan will be comprehensive. It will include an aftercare plan, coping strategies to deal with life stressors, emotions, and social circumstances, vocational guidance, and healthy leisure activities.
In the aftercare plan, a carefully prescribed program of medical and psychiatric services, counseling, and self-help programs will be formulated. A strong aftercare plan can also include housing options. A safety plan should also be part of a comprehensive relapse prevention plan. A safety plan includes day-to-day or even minute-to-minute instructions to the recovering addict or alcoholic on the steps to take when certain circumstances or feelings arise. Recovery is not meant to be rigid, but to have a foundation of balance. Thus, the relapse prevention plan should be altered during the course of recovery to fit one’s current needs. These alterations are best done by the addict or alcoholic in conjunction with a sponsor, physicians, and counselors. It can mean the difference between continued recovery and returning to a life of drug use.
Individualized relapse prevention plans designed by certified addiction professionals can help:
•Establish healthy boundaries
•Avoid people, places, and things associated with drug use
•Structure daily exercise and healthy eating
Sobriety: The Goal of an Alcohol and Drug Relapse Prevention Plan
A quality drug relapse prevention program helps the drug addict uncover his or her unique triggers and teaches him/her how to manage emotional challenges while in recovery. After you go through a drug rehabilitation program, you’ll then move on to aftercare. In aftercare, you’ll need to:
•Regularly attend support groups
•Get involved in supportive therapies
•Regularly speak to other recovering people
•Follow-up with healthcare providers, such a physicians and psychiatrists
•Participate in healthy leisure activities
•Live in suitable, sober housing