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Alcohol Relapse Warning Signs, Prevention, and Treatment

Addiction to alcohol can have negative consequences, affecting every aspect of your life including work, school, and relationships. Fortunately, with treatment, you can end your addiction to alcohol and live a high quality of life in recovery.

Addiction can be successfully managed–however, relapse is possible during the recovery process. Relapse can happen to anyone during any recovery phase and can occur multiple times.1

Today, you will gain a deeper understanding of what relapse is, including different stages of relapse, causes and warning signs, relapse prevention strategies, and where you can find help after an alcohol relapse.

What Is a Relapse?

Relapse is characterized as a return to drug or alcohol use after a period of sobriety.1 It is common for some people who try to end drug or alcohol use, and in fact, studies show that relapse rates for substance use disorders (SUDs) are similar to relapse rates for other chronic health disorders like asthma and hypertension.1 Like many other chronic illnesses, addiction is a disease that has no cure but can be effectively managed with the right treatment plan.1

Addiction is characterized as a treatable and chronic brain disorder that involves compulsive substance-seeking behaviors and continued substance use despite harmful consequences.2 Relapse occurs in stages, and there are strategies you can implement to help reduce your risk of relapse. Common relapse prevention strategies that may be included in your treatment plan include medications, behavioral therapy, and support groups.1 According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, if you stop following your treatment plan you have a likelihood to relapse.1

What Are the Different Stages of the Relapse Process?

Relapse doesn’t happen immediately; rather, it is a gradual process that is different for each person. The process of relapse starts weeks and even months before you consume alcohol or ingest drugs into your system.3 Relapse occurs in three stages that include emotional, mental, and physical.

Emotional relapse is the initial stage of relapse, and it is characterized by:3

  • Social isolation.
  • Neglecting yourself and self-care practices.
  • Poor sleep habits.
  • Keeping emotions inside.
  • Avoiding recovery meetings.
  • Deflecting your attention to other people’s problems.
  • Going to meetings but not engaging in the process.

The next phase of relapse is mental relapse, and it is characterized by:3

  • Idealizing past use.
  • Lying to others.
  • Thinking about ways to use and control your use.
  • Planning a relapse.
  • Identifying situations where alcohol use would be appropriate, also known as bargaining.
  • Lessening the negative consequences of past alcohol use.
  • Thinking about past situations, people, and places where you used to drink alcohol.

The final phase of relapse is physical relapse, and it is characterized by a return to alcohol or drug use after a period of abstinence.3

Common Causes of Alcohol Relapse

Recovery is a long-term and sometimes lifelong process that requires consistent commitment to maintain abstinence.4 Recovery isn’t simply not using alcohol or drugs; it is a lifestyle change that necessitates intentional ways of thinking and behaving in every aspect of life. Risk factors for relapse can be psychological, social, environmental, internal, and behavioral.

Psychological and social factors that can be a sign of alcohol relapse include:4

  • Low motivation.
  • Indifference about recovery and positive change.
  • Low self-efficacy (lack of belief in your ability to manage your alcohol use).
  • Minimal social and emotional support system.
  • Negative mood and affect.
  • Experiencing cravings.
  • Inadequate coping skills, particularly in high-risk situations.
  • Unrealistic expectations about sobriety (abstinence will yield positive outcomes such as reduced mental health symptoms and increased sociability).

Day-to-day factors that can increase your risk of relapse include:4

  • Spending time in places and situations where you used to drink alcohol.
  • Socially withdrawing and isolating from others.
  • Communicating with people who still use alcohol.
  • Not utilizing peer support when you are experiencing distress.
  • Being around substances or substance-related paraphernalia.

Environmental risk factors may include being chronically exposed to substance use on a professional or personal level, living near a bar or liquor store, and residing in a region with high substance use activity.4

There are also internal risk factors that can be a sign of alcohol relapse. These may include feeling hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (also known as HALT), experiencing boredom, and having underlying, untreated mental or physical health problems.4

What to Do When You Relapse on Alcohol

Alcohol relapse doesn’t mean that you or your treatment program has failed. Relapse often occurs during the recovery process, and there are options available to you if you do relapse.

After a relapse on alcohol, you should:3, 4

  • Stop drinking alcohol as soon as possible.
  • Explore the relapse and circumstances that resulted in the relapse.
  • Reach out to your sober support network, such as your sponsor, therapist, or sober peers.
  • Develop a plan with your support network, which may include re-entering a substance use treatment program, attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings, etc.
  • Consider stepping up your level of treatment, e.g., individual/group therapy to an intensive outpatient treatment program.
  • Identify a safe and sober living environment.

Going to Treatment After a Relapse

When possible, it is a good idea to consult with a doctor or addiction professional about the best options available to you after an alcohol relapse. If you struggle with alcohol addiction or you have recently relapsed on alcohol, entering an alcohol rehab may be right for you. The process of formal alcohol addiction treatment involves:5

  • A comprehensive evaluation of your medical, psychological, and social health as well as history and current substance use at intake by a licensed medical or addiction professional.
  • Medical stabilization using medications during the detoxification phase.
  • Entry into treatment, which can include inpatient rehab, outpatient treatment, and aftercare.

Detoxification is a crucial step in the recovery process for many people. Detox is a set of interventions that aim to reduce withdrawal symptoms using medications to help you enter a substance-free state so you can begin the treatment process.5

Substance misuse treatment utilizes a combination of evidence-based therapies to help treat alcohol use disorder (AUD) such as:1

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Teaches you how to identify, avoid, and cope with relapse triggers.
  • Contingency management (CM): Utilizes positive reinforcements or rewards for achieving recovery milestones like attending groups or achieving a certain number of sober days.
  • Motivational interviewing (MI): Utilizes your motivation to generate positive change and begin treatment.

Medications, in conjunction with behavioral therapies, may also be included as part of your comprehensive treatment plan to treat AUD. Three medications are commonly used to reduce drinking behavior and help maintain sobriety, and they include:6

  • Naltrexone: Naltrexone helps reduce heavy drinking by blocking the euphoric effects of alcohol.
  • Disulfiram: Encourages abstinence by producing unpleasant physical responses (nausea, flushing of the skin) when you drink alcohol.
  • Acamprosate: Makes abstinence easier to achieve through the reduction of alcohol cravings.

Healthy peer support is important throughout your recovery journey. That’s why participation in mutual support groups is strongly encouraged. Twelve-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous provide invaluable support for people who are looking to stop their alcohol consumption.6 Participation in support groups can occur during and after treatment. Support groups help you sustain the gains you made during the treatment process.5

How to Create an Effective Relapse Prevention Plan

Having a comprehensive treatment plan that includes relapse prevention is important since recovery doesn’t end when you leave your substance use treatment program. Together with a licensed professional, you will develop a treatment plan that is individualized to your needs and is monitored throughout your time in treatment.

Important elements that may be included in your relapse prevention plan are:4

  • Names and contact information of sober supports in your life, such as family members, friends, sponsors, and sober peers.
  • Recognition of potential triggers to relapse.
  • Identification of healthy coping skills.
  • Strategies you can implement when you are triggered.
  • List of 12-step and mutual support groups you can attend.
  • Educational resources.
  • Contact information for your therapist.

Inherent lifestyle changes need to be made to sustain recovery. Five rules that may help you achieve long-term sobriety include:3

  • Change your life: Evaluate what isn’t working for you in your life and be willing to make changes.
  • Be completely honest: This means looking at the choices you’ve made and their consequences.
  • Ask for help: Be willing to ask for help from your sober support network.
  • Practice self-care: Self-care isn’t optional. It is required on a physical, psychological, and emotional level.
  • Do not bend the rules: Bending the rules in life can lead to relapse. No matter how difficult, follow the rules at home, at work, and in society.

How to Find Help for Alcohol Relapse

If you are struggling with addiction to alcohol or drugs, substance use treatment can help. Alcohol rehab can help you not only end your addiction, but also address the underlying causes and consequences of addiction.1 Rehab facilities are located throughout the U.S., and many offer specialized treatment that can cater to individual needs. When it comes to choosing an effective drug abuse treatment program, it is important to find a facility that provides its patients with a full continuum of care.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is a leading provider of addiction treatment programs and has trusted facilities across the country. We understand the important role that treatment plays in helping you end your addiction and live a high quality of life in recovery. Whether this is your first time in treatment or you have relapsed and need additional support, AAC is here for you. Locate an alcohol rehab center using our online directory and/or instantly check your coverage offered by your health insurance provider today. You can also call us free at .

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