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Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a common problem. Even with treatment, relapse happens often. Some people spend their entire lives battling alcohol use disorder and are never successful at preventing relapse. Some treatment programs even consider relapse a normal part of recovery.
Understanding relapse and how to deal with it makes it easier to get the help you need when battling alcohol use disorder. It also helps loved ones who are experiencing a relapse.
Relapse occurs when a person drinks alcohol again after a period of sobriety. Intense cravings or thoughts about alcohol might trigger someone to relapse. Stress or other problems in life often precede these cravings and urges to use.
After relying on alcohol to help you cope with problems in life, it can be difficult to not use it when faced with these challenges again.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the relapse rate among those who complete treatment is approximately 90 percent. Because of this, many consider alcohol use disorder a chronic, relapsing disease. Some even believe alcoholics are powerless in preventing relapse and require ongoing treatment, even when things seem to be going well.
The answer to this question varies as much as the individuals experiencing the relapse.
For many, relapse occurs after a series of events, including individual problems and negative situations, takes place. As the person becomes overwhelmed by emotions and events, he or she feels out of control and turns to alcohol for relief.
Other studies have indicated that shame and embarrassment play a role in relapse.
A 2013 study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science, discovered that some people relapse because of their negative feelings about themselves. These people have an intrinsic belief that they are unable to change. Preventing relapse is impossible when a person believes he or she will fail.
Several things increase someone’s likelihood to relapse or indicate a relapse is about to occur, including:
Medical professionals recommend anyone experiencing a relapse avoid self-criticism and seek support. Support might include:
There is a certain degree of shame that occurs when someone relapses. However, thinking “I’m a bad person because I started drinking alcohol again,” is all-or-nothing thinking that does not help. Whether or not relapse is a normal part of recovery is debatable, but there is no debate that it does occur. It’s best to accept it and seek the help that is needed for preventing relapse from occurring again.
One of the best tools available for preventing relapse is treatment for alcohol use disorder. Treatment is effective for preventing relapse and for helping a person when it does occur. The support system in place after a relapse (counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, sponsors, friends, and family) should advocate for treatment following the relapse.
Someone with alcohol use disorder should see treatment not as a sign of weakness, but as a tool for recovery.
Despite the effectiveness of treatment, some people struggling with addiction don’t want to participate. There are several reasons for this:
Adopting a plan for preventing relapse is one of the best ways to avoid relapsing. There are different schools of thought on what to include in a relapse prevention plan. According to T. Gorski, a comprehensive plan should include:
Marlatt’s Cognitive-Behavioral Model, another relapse prevention model, is based on identifying potential risks or triggers for relapse. It requires working with a therapist to create the best response to those high-risk situations. This process includes a careful examination of each trigger and a plan for targeting weaknesses when faced with those triggers.
Finding an effective strategy for preventing relapse is an important part of recovery and should be a goal of anyone who is struggling with alcohol use disorder or trying to support someone with AUD.
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“Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 18 Feb. 2020, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.
Gorski, Terence T. The Gorski-CENAPS Model for Recovery and Relapse Prevention: a Comprehensive Overview of a Research-Based System That Works. Herald House/Independence Press, 2007.
Larimer, Mary E, et al. Relapse Prevention An Overview of Marlatt’s Cognitive-Behavioral Model. Vol. 23, no. 2, 1999, https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh23-2/151-160.pdf