Updated on March 26, 2024
6 min read

Spotting Relapse Warning Signs: Proactive Prevention Tips

Recovery from addiction is a journey, and sometimes there can be bumps along the road. A relapse doesn't mean you've failed⁠—it simply means you might need to adjust your path. Many people experience setbacks before finding lasting success.

Sometimes, a relapse can start with subtle changes, making it tricky to spot the warning signs. That's why it's important to be aware of these signs and have a plan in place.

By recognizing the early signs and reaching out for support, you can get back on track and continue your journey toward a healthy, addiction-free life.

What Are the Warning Signs of Relapse?

A relapse can have various emotional, mental, and behavioral signs. However, it’s important to understand that people may experience different signs with varying degrees of intensity or a combination of these signs.

If you notice any concerning changes in your thoughts, emotions, or behaviors, contact help immediately. Early relapse warning signs include:

Emotional Signs

Some emotional warning signs of relapse include:

  • Increased tension
  • Feeling lonely or isolated
  • Bottling up emotions
  • Focusing on other problems to avoid your own
  • Loss of motivation for recovery programs or activities
  • Strong or intense cravings 
  • Justifying using substances
  • Denying or minimizing past struggles or consequences

Behavioral Signs

A relapse can follow some changes in how a person behaves or acts. The behavioral warning signs of relapse may include:

  • Increased risk-taking behavior
  • Isolating from their support network
  • Neglecting responsibilities, self-care, and treatment
  • Going to meetings but not sharing
  • Lying or being secretive about their actions
  • Increased financial problems
  • Unhealthy eating habits
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Changes in appearance

Mental Signs

Misusing substances can greatly impact a person’s mental health. Furthermore, the lack of drugs or alcohol can also affect a person during withdrawal.

Some mental warning signs of relapse include:

  • Obsessive thoughts about using drugs or alcohol
  • Increased stress or anxiety
  • Mood swings, irritability, or aggression
  • Inability to focus
  • Signs of depression (apathy, sadness, uncontrollable crying, etc.)
  • Self-doubt or negative thought patterns
  • Unusual, disturbing, or recurring thoughts

Physical Signs

Some physical signs may also precede a relapse. These include:

  • Neglecting hygiene and grooming
  • Rapid weight loss or weight gain
  • Poor skin condition
  • Clumsiness or unsteadiness
  • Inexplicable physical aches and pains

What Are the Stages of Relapse?

A relapse is a slow process that occurs in three stages. Think of it as a seed taking root and then finally emerging—there are some parts you don’t get to see right away, but the changes may be happening internally and emerge when you don’t expect them.

These stages include:

  1. Emotional relapse: The first stage of a relapse involves emotional changes that can make you more susceptible to alcohol or drug abuse. You may be refusing to healthily regulate emotions by isolating yourself, bottling things up, and avoiding communicating with others.
  2. Mental relapse: Mental changes that result in strong cravings, often accompanied by attempts to justify potential substance use. You may start bargaining with yourself about use, romanticizing past use, and trying to find opportunities to use.
  3. Physical relapse: A physical relapse occurs when you start using or experimenting with substance use again. This is the final stage and is often the hardest to pull yourself out of.

After a physical relapse, continued substance use typically leads back to full-blown addiction. This puts you back at square one—but it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to try sobriety again.

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What Triggers Relapse?

A trigger is a psychological stimulus caused by a previous traumatic experience. A trigger doesn’t have to be a traumatic event; it could be a specific situation, a scent, or even a piece of clothing.

Several things can trigger a relapse. However, the specific trigger depends on the person and their experiences. 

Some examples of a relapse trigger include:

  • Stressful events: Job loss, relationship problems, or financial problems can lead to cravings and, eventually, a relapse
  • People or places: Meeting certain people or visiting places that are relevant or associated with substance use can trigger a relapse 
  • Negative emotions: Anxiety, depression, and other co-occurring mental health conditions can lead to substance use for self-medication
  • Lack of support: Feeling isolated or disconnected from support can increase feelings of vulnerability, which often leads to a relapse

Understanding your personal triggers can help you develop coping mechanisms and strategies to avoid them. If you know what triggers you, you can ensure you’re not in situations where you have to face them.

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How Can You Prevent Relapse?

Although a relapse can be daunting, there are some proactive steps you can take to prevent or reduce the risk of a relapse. These include:

  • A strong support system: Surrounding yourself with supportive, empathetic, and compassionate people who understand your needs
  • Practice healthy coping mechanisms: Learn or develop healthy ways to manage stress and other difficult emotions (exercise, creative outlets, relaxation techniques, etc.)
  • Self-care: Prioritize having a healthy diet, regular exercise, and healthy sleeping patterns
  • Have a relapse prevention plan: Understand your personal triggers and create a plan around them if you experience challenges
  • Seeking professional help: Don’t hesitate to ask for help from a therapist or counselor for support and guidance

Again, if you’re unable to fully prevent a relapse, this doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Not everyone’s addiction recovery journey will be smooth sailing. Overcoming addiction is incredibly difficult, so be patient with yourself in the process.

Who Can Help Prevent Relapse?

Having a strong support network can help you prevent a relapse. They can also help you through a relapse if it comes down to it.

A support system or network can include:

  • Therapists and counselors: Mental health professionals can provide support and guidance tailored to your specific needs.
  • Support groups: Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) can offer understanding, empathy, and community 
  • Loved ones: Friends and family can offer emotional support and hold you accountable for your actions
  • Addiction specialist: Specialists offer treatment plans and ongoing support in recovery centers

It’s important to note that even if your friends, family, and loved ones may agree to support you in your recovery journey, proper boundaries are still important. If they feel they are overwhelmed or aren’t equipped to handle any withdrawal symptoms you may be exhibiting, exercise compassion for them too.

Counselors and addiction specialists are the people who can best address your struggles while recovering from addiction. They’re trained to handle the situation and any severe withdrawal you may experience.

When Should You Seek Professional Assistance?

You should seek professional help if you notice the warning signs of a relapse. You should especially be wary of the following:

  • Intense cravings: You should seek professional help if you’re experiencing intense cravings that you can’t manage
  • Difficulty managing stress or triggers: A therapist can help you cope with stress or triggers if you’re struggling to manage them effectively
  • Increased feelings of isolation: Seek help if you notice yourself withdrawing from loved ones or treatment 
  • Negative self-talk: You should talk to a professional if you’re having thoughts of self-doubt or justifying substance use
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or others: If you’re thinking about hurting yourself or others, seek professional help immediately

Summary

A relapse is a normal part of addiction recovery. Many people who struggle with addiction go through multiple relapses before achieving long-term sobriety.

There are three stages of a relapse, which include emotional, behavioral, and physical. A relapse can also have emotional, mental, and behavioral signs.

If you start to notice signs of a relapse, contact medical help immediately. There’s no shame in seeking help for a relapse.

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Updated on March 26, 2024
6 sources cited
Updated on March 26, 2024
  1. Menon J. & Kandasamy A. “Relapse prevention.” Indian J Psychiatry, 2018.
  2. Recovery and Recovery Support.” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, 2023.
  3. Guenzel N., & McChargue D. “Addiction Relapse Prevention.” Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing, 2023.
  4. Nagy et al. “Assessment of addiction management program and predictors of relapse among inpatients of the Psychiatric Institute at Ain Shams University Hospital.” Middle East Curr Psychiatry, 2022.
  5. Melemis SM. “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.” Yale J Biol Med, 2015.
  6. Kaviyani et al. “Understanding the laps and relapse process: in-depth interviews with individual who use methamphetamine.” Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy, 2023.

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