Updated on February 6, 2024
9 min read

How to Prevent Alcohol Relapse

Living with an addiction is a difficult battle, and achieving sobriety can be even more challenging. Many people complete detox programs only to find that it’s insufficient to keep them from relapsing into their old habits. 

The key to long-term success in overcoming addiction and its negative consequences is developing healthy strategies for relapse prevention. The whole journey requires making lifestyle changes and developing healthy coping mechanisms. 

This blog post discusses the importance of recognizing the signs of potential relapse triggers. It also offers helpful tips on how best to prevent relapse.

What is Relapse?

Relapse, in the context of alcohol addiction, is the act of drinking alcohol again after a period of abstinence. Before the physical relapse, there's often an emotional relapse where you might not be considering using, but your emotional state prepares the ground for it. 

This emotional state can progress to a mental relapse, where you experience intense cravings or thoughts about alcohol. When you rely on alcohol as a coping mechanism for life challenges, it becomes tough to resist its use when you face similar obstacles in the future.

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How Effective Is a Relapse Prevention Plan For Alcoholism?
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What Causes Relapse?

A combination of environmental and psychological factors often causes relapse. Life events that trigger changes in behavior can lead to this, which may be due to the lack of coping skills or support system to deal with such challenges. 

Common triggers for alcohol or substance use disorder relapse include:

  • Stressful situations (e.g., job loss, financial problems, relationship issues)
  • Exposure to or interactions with people who drink alcohol
  • Boredom and loneliness
  • Physical or mental health challenges (e.g., depression, anxiety)  

Some people relapse because of their negative self-perceptions and belief in their inability to change. When they lack confidence in their success, preventing relapse becomes an uphill battle.

The Chronic Challenge of Alcohol Use Disorder

Many consider alcohol use disorder (AUD) a chronic, relapsing disease. The relapse rate among those who have completed treatment is approximately 90%.4

Some experts even argue that those battling alcoholism can’t prevent relapse and require ongoing treatment, regardless of their apparent progress in early recovery.


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What Is a Prevention Plan for Alcoholism?

Anyone struggling with alcohol dependence or trying to support someone with AUD needs an effective strategy for preventing relapse. A prevention plan for alcoholism is a set of strategies that helps someone remain sober and avoid relapse.

The goals of a prevention plan are to:

  • Identify potential triggers for relapse
  • Develop healthy coping skills and strategies to manage stress
  • Create a strong support system made up of family, friends, and professionals who can provide emotional and practical help
  • Recognize the signs of a potential relapse and develop strategies to cope with them

Such plans are effective because they address the underlying causes of relapse and provide a supportive environment for long-term recovery. 

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What Should a Prevention Plan for Alcoholism Include?

Different schools of thought exist on what to include in a relapse prevention plan. Some focus on better understanding addiction and its consequences, while others emphasize lifestyle changes.

T. Gorski, a mental health and substance abuse expert, recommends that relapse prevention plans should include the following: 

  • Stabilization: Being sober and focusing on remaining sober daily
  • Assessment: Looking at your history and considering alcohol and drug abuse throughout your lifetime
  • Relapse education: Understanding that relapse is normal and shouldn't provoke shame
  • Warning sign identification: Learning your triggers and understanding that they're typically a combination of factors
  • Recovery planning: Attending AA meetings and working with a sponsor
  • Inventory training: Taking a daily mental inventory to look for warning signs of relapse
  • Family involvement: Asking family members and friends for support (e.g., family members attending Al-Anon meetings)
  • Follow-up: Reviewing the plan, especially during the first few weeks of sobriety

8 Prevention Skills for Alcoholism

Plenty of relapse prevention techniques assist in maintaining recovery and achieving short and long-term goals. Those recovering would benefit from incorporating skills and habits into their daily schedule and routine that actively prevent or reduce the risk of alcohol cravings.

1. Self-Care

Self-care is essential for maintaining sobriety. It involves taking time for yourself to focus on being healthy, including:

  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Exercising regularly
  • Getting enough sleep

Caring for yourself can help you cope with stress. It also enables you to build resilience and reduces the chances of relapse. Moreover, self-care reinforces confidence, which can support the path to sobriety.

2. Mindfulness Meditation

Meditation helps reduce stress, increases mindfulness when faced with triggers, and promotes self-awareness. It also boosts focus and concentration, enabling you to stay sober longer. 

Meditation involves focusing on breathing or repeating a mantra in the mind. Regular practice can be a powerful tool for facing temptation and reducing anxiety.

3. Understanding and Avoiding Triggers

Triggers are anything that can lead to relapse. They can be internal, such as feelings of anxiety, stress, or anger. They can also be external, like people, places, or things that remind users of past actions.

You can keep a list of triggers to refer to when feeling tempted. Or, display reminders of how to handle them on the refrigerator, your wallet or pocket, or anywhere else you can easily access.

To effectively avoid triggers, it's important to avoid environments and activities linked to alcohol. Additionally, it's crucial to distance yourself from those who indulge in heavy drinking or encourage the consumption of alcohol.

4. Making an Emergency Contact List

When a craving occurs, it can be challenging to manage it, especially during the beginning of recovery. That's why it's crucial to have a list of emergency contacts handy for times of temptation.

These can include family members, friends, sponsors, and recovery coaches. They provide the support to stay sober and also serve as a reminder that recovery is possible and worth fighting for.

5. Practicing Deep Breathing

Deep breathing is a simple technique that you can use to reduce stress, combat cravings, and regulate your mood. It helps slow the heart rate and relax the body during difficult times.

This act also helps clear the mind, enabling you to make rational decisions when facing a craving. To practice deep breathing, close your eyes and take five deep breaths in through your nose and out.

Deep breathing is an excellent relapse prevention method because you can practice it anywhere without anyone knowing. You can even do it while waiting in line or stuck in traffic.

6. Developing Healthy Routines

Developing healthy habits and following a routine can help prevent relapse. People in recovery must stick to a schedule to focus on recovery goals. Doing so makes up for the loss of certain activities associated with drinking. 

Activities can also help you stay busy and form a strong network of support to avoid relapse, such as.

  • Reading
  • Gardening
  • Cooking
  • Engaging in sports

7. Building a Support System

Having a strong network of family and friends who are supportive and understanding can be invaluable during recovery. Building this support system takes time and effort but is worth it in the long run.

People with AUD can join support groups to get help from fellow recovering alcoholics. These groups provide a safe space for self-expression and learning from other’s experiences. They can also help those in recovery establish a sense of identity outside drinking, which is vital for long-term sobriety.

8. Participating in Therapy

Therapy can be an incredible relapse prevention tool. Beyond offering a safe space for processing emotions, it helps address poor self-care habits that might increase vulnerability.

Therapy is also helpful for developing coping skills and learning how to handle cravings more effectively. 

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be especially beneficial, as it helps you learn how to identify high-risk situations associated with drinking and develop better responses when facing them.

Marlatt’s Cognitive-Behavioral Model

Marlatt’s Cognitive-Behavioral Model is another relapse prevention model. This approach emphasizes identifying risk factors or relapse triggers.6

The model requires working with a therapist to create the best response to high-risk situations. This process includes carefully examining each trigger and a plan for targeting weaknesses when faced with those triggers.

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What Are Relapse Risks?

Several factors increase the likelihood of relapse, including:

  • Physical withdrawal symptoms
  • Anxiety
  • Stress
  • Dysphoria or a feeling of being dissatisfied with life
  • Anhedonia, or the inability to experience pleasure in life
  • Limited or no support from family or friends
  • Failure to participate in recovery aftercare, including counseling or 12-step programs
  • Falling back into old habits
  • Not using coping skills to redirect thoughts or urges to use

Seeking Support After Relapse

Medical professionals recommend that anyone experiencing a relapse avoid self-criticism and seek support. Remember, relapsing doesn't mean you have lost the battle against alcohol use disorders.

You can learn from the experience and continue to work towards recovery. So, seek guidance and help from professionals and support groups as soon as possible.

Support might include:

  • Attending a 12-step program or increasing participation in meetings if you're involved in a program
  • Beginning personal or group counseling
  • Remaining objective and honest about your situation
  • Communicating with your support system about how you're feeling and what you’re doing
  • Taking care of yourself through self-care activities like exercise, meditation, or journaling
  • Focusing on positive thoughts and activities instead of ideas fueled by guilt or shame

Recovery from alcohol use disorders is possible if you take the proper measures to prevent relapse. Look to professionals and support groups for help, and stay sober.

Why It’s Hard for Some People To Get Help

Although there are many resources to help those who struggle with alcohol use disorder, many people don’t get the help they need.

Common reasons why people don’t seek help include:

  • Shame and stigma associated with AUD
  • Fear of judgment from family, friends, or healthcare professionals
  • Difficulty in accessing care due to financial or geographical constraints
  • Lack of information about treatment options for alcohol or drug addiction
  • The belief that AUD is a sign of personal failure or lack of willpower
  • Denial and believing help isn't necessary
  • Assuming treatment won’t work because of personal flaws or disbelief in programs
  • Unfamiliarity with the different treatment programs
  • Being unaware of the severity of AUD and its implications on health, relationships, work, and finances
  • Giving in to negative emotions and self-talk

These are all valid concerns, but it's important to remember that treatment is available and effective. Don't be afraid to get help if you think you may have an alcohol use disorder or feel like your drinking has become a problem. 


Alcohol use disorder can be challenging to overcome, but it's possible with proper prevention methods and support. Everyone experiences triggers differently, so figuring out what works best for you is crucial.

You can follow the tips outlined in this article to stay on track with recovery. Additionally, use resources and support systems to help yourself or a loved one who may have AUD.

Above all, don't hesitate to ask for help if you struggle with AUD. Seeking treatment is the first step towards recovery, and it can provide invaluable tools to prevent relapse and reclaim your life.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
6 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2023.
  2. Gorski, T. “The Cenaps Model of Relapse Prevention: Basic Principles and Procedures.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 2012.
  3. Larimer et al.” Relapse Prevention. An Overview of Marlatt’s Cognitive-Behavioral Model.” Alcohol Research & Health, 1999.
  4. Snelleman et al. “Relapse and Craving in Alcohol-Dependent Individuals: A Comparison of Self-Reported Determinants.” Substance Use & Misuse, 2018.
  5. Randles, D., and Tracy, J. “Nonverbal Displays of Shame Predict Relapse and Declining Health in Recovering Alcoholics.” Clinical Psychological Science, 2013.
  6. Bowen et al. “Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention For Substance Use Disorders: A Pilot Efficacy Trial.” Substance Abuse, 2012.

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