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Updated on August 12, 2021

Relapse Definition, Triggers & What to Do

What Does Relapsing Mean?

Relapsing means going back to using drugs or a past addictive behavior after a period of not using or doing it. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines ‘relapse’ as “the recurrence of behavioral or other substantive indicators of active disease after a period of remission.” 

For people who were previously using substances, relapsing means going back to the addictive behavior after a long period of not partaking. Addiction relapse is common in individuals recovering from different forms of addiction. 

A relapse is different from a slip. A slip, also called ‘lapse,’ occurs when someone has a brief, unplanned ‘slip’ and engages a past addiction just once. However, a relapse is far more serious than a slip as it means returning to the former addiction and abandoning the recovery plan.

Relapsing is a term commonly used when discussing mental health and addiction recovery. Many mental health experts consider addiction a brain disease, and just like most chronic diseases, its symptoms fluctuate. 

Clinicians also use the term ‘relapse’ when talking about addiction, just as they do in reference to other diseases. Addiction relapse is steadily gaining acceptance as a part of the process of recovery. 

How Common is it to Relapse After Addiction Treatment?

If you are trying to stop drug use or recover from drug addiction, you might feel like quitting at some point during your recovery journey. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, relapse is normal and common and happens to many people recovering from substance use.

About 30 to 70 percent of people with substance use disorders (SUDs) will experience a relapse during their recovery journeys. Anyone can experience a relapse. However, the likelihood of relapsing is often dependent on the particular substance being misused or used and the risk factors of the person going through addiction recovery.

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Does Relapsing Mean You’ve Failed?

Relapsing is not a sign of weakness, nor is it a sign of failure. Triggers cause many cases of relapse. For instance, there is a link between substance use and factors like financial problems, emotional and psychological issues, personal challenges, relationship issues, and rejection, among others. 

Guilt caused by a lapse can make you go into a full relapse. It is common to experience a few lapses during your addiction treatment phase. However, if you don’t manage a lapse properly, you might experience guilt and self-blame, making you go back to drug or alcohol use as one of your coping mechanisms. 

If you are in the process of recovery from substances like opioids or alcohol, relapse can be very frustrating. Imagine making efforts to leave your old habits only to find yourself right at the spot where you started, sometimes in a worse condition. 

However, you must know that relapsing doesn’t make you a failure. See it as a stumble, and then pick yourself back up. If your loved one experienced a relapse, help the person understand that he or she can get back and continue the addiction treatment program. Everyone going through recovery needs a support system to succeed.

How to Pick Yourself Back Up: Responding Positively to a Relapse

How you respond to relapse will determine if you will get back on track and continue with your addiction treatment program or if you will totally fall out of the recovery journey. 

Marlatt, a clinical psychologist, developed a cognitive-behavioral model of relapse, which views relapsing as a “transitional process, a series of events that unfolds over time.” This is a contrast to views that consider relapse to be a “treatment failure.”

Seeing a relapse as a normal part of the addiction recovery journey is a starting point to responding positively to your situation. In this way, you don’t see yourself as a failure; rather, it motivates you to go back to your treatment program.

Self-care is very important to get through a relapse. Take the relapse as a learning experience. If you went back to the habit as a coping strategy, you should try other coping strategies. For instance, think of what you can use to replace drinking or smoking. Make changes and upgrade your coping skills. 

Remember not to dwell on the guilt; rather, admit you made a mistake and forgive yourself. Let go of negative emotions and get ready to make positive changes to avoid future relapses. 

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What to Do if You’ve Relapsed

While relapsing is considered part of the recovery process from drug and alcohol addiction, it should be taken seriously. It would be best if you make conscious efforts to get back on track. Here are what to do if you’ve relapsed:

Take Time to Reflect About the Relapse

If you’ve relapsed, it is most likely because certain triggers made you go back to substance use. These might be emotional, economic, or environmental triggers. It might be that you started experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Whichever it is, spend time on reflection.

Finding out what led you back to your former habit will help you make proper adjustments and refocus on your addiction treatment program and process of recovery.

Make Necessary Adjustments

Relapse is a learning experience that should show you what you need to do to attain full recovery. This includes showing your addiction triggers so that you can avoid them. It should also move you to develop healthy coping skills. 

You can also make changes to your therapeutic approaches if you discover a strategy that would work better. Making the right changes is a step towards sober living.

Go Back to Your Addiction Treatment Program

Don’t be afraid to go back to your treatment program, even if it means you will be taken in as an inpatient in a treatment facility. Once you find out you have relapsed, reach out to your mental health care provider to help you get back on track with your recovery process. You can receive treatments as an inpatient or an outpatient.

Develop a Relapse Prevention Plan

Developing a relapse prevention plan will guide you into sober living. Such a plan should include taking note of:

  • Your potential triggers
  • Coping skills you have learned
  • Adjustments you need to make and a list of people that form your support system- such as family members 

Join a Support Group

Joining a support group as an outpatient can help your addiction treatment journey. These groups form a strong support network and an avenue to talk about your relapse without being judged. 

Having a support network is also an avenue to learn from others about their experiences and how they coped with similar situations. 

Importance of Relapse Prevention Programs

Relapse prevention is essential for addiction recovery. Importance of relapse prevention programs include: 

  • They provide effective continuing care for people with alcohol addiction or substance use disorders
  • They support treatment and complete recovery from substance misuse and use
  • They reduce the impacts of mental health disorders on families and communities
  • They help boost the confidence and wellbeing of former addicts
  • Relapse prevention programs help individuals gain mastery over their symptoms
  • Prevention reduces the cost of treatment

Tips for Maintaining Long-Term Abstinence from Drugs or Alcohol

Marlatt also suggests that determinants like coping skills, outcome expectancies, abstinence violation effect, urges, cravings, and lifestyle factors can contribute to relapsing. 

However, with the help of a support network, an addiction treatment program, or a treatment facility, you can abstain from drugs or alcohol and enjoy an extended period of sobriety.

At this point, when you are talking about long-term abstinence, you are probably an outpatient. Here are tips to help you abstain from drug use:

  • Start with drug detox
  • Organize and restructure your life
  • Find a purpose in life and get creative
  • Avoid living an idle lifestyle
  • Continue the healthy behaviors you have developed
  • Continue going for counseling and support group sessions
  • Be vigilant against relapse
  • Be honest with yourself and your support network about your feelings and symptoms
  • Develop healthy relationships
  • Be in control of your cravings
  • Learn how to deal with your triggers, e.g., anger and money management
  • Follow a healthy diet plan
  • Meditate and engage in stress-relieving activities like exercising, yoga, and listening to music


  1. ASAM. “Public Policy Statement on Relapse in Healthcare and Other Licensed Professionals.” American Society of Addiction Medicine, 4 Dec. 2011,
  2. NIDA. "What is a Relapse?" National Institute on Drug Abuse,
  3. Guenzel, Nicholas, and McChargue Dennis. “Addiction Relapse Prevention.” StatPearls Publishing, Treasure Island (FL), 10 July 2020,
  4. Javed, Bilal et al. “The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic’s impact on mental health.” The International Journal of Health Planning and Management vol 35,5 : 993-996. Doi: 10.1002/hpm.3008,
  5. Larimer, M E et al. “Relapse Prevention. An Overview of Marlatt’s Cognitive Behavioural Model.” Alcohol Research & Health: The Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism vol.23,2 : 151-60,
  6. “Importance of Relapse Prevention.” Australian Government Department of Health, 2006,

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