Relapse Explained: Meaning, Triggers and Prevention - AspenRidge

Relapse Is Very Common For People In Recovery

Relapse is not uncommon for those who are learning to navigate the recovery process. In fact, the experience of relapse is more common among recovering people than continuous sobriety is. As explained in Psychology Today, it seems to be the rule rather than the exception.

Research has consistently demonstrated that people who go into recovery and stay sober the rest of their lives are far and few between.  In fact, statistics suggest that as many as 90 percent of all people who make the sincere commitment to recover from drug or alcohol addiction will relapse at some point. This statistic is staggering.

It makes you wonder – why do so many people relapse when they have a strong desire to abstain from mood and mind-altering substances? Since maintaining a drug or alcohol addiction is exhausting, and the consequences are unbearable, why do people return time and time again to the source of their pain? The answer is that addiction is a complex brain disease often characterized by periods of relapse and remission.

In this blog, we will define relapse, explain the disease of addiction, identify triggers, and offer some solid tips for relapse prevention.

Let’s Define Relapse Before We Go Deeper

In simple terms, a relapse is the return to drug or alcohol use after a continued period of recovery.

To be clear, abstinence from drugs and alcohol does not equal recovery. Abstinence is just that – mere abstinence. If you are not putting alcohol or drugs in your body, but you are not actively participating in the recovery process, you are doing nothing more than abstaining from mood and mind-altering substances. You are not recovering.  

To be in recovery means you are working a 12-Step program with a sponsor. Recovery is an ongoing process that reflects an active change in your ideas and attitudes about yourself, others, and how you seek solutions in your daily life.

In active addiction, you sought drugs and alcohol as a solution. You drank or drugged to cope with your thinking, your emotional self, and your spiritual condition. Recovery gives you healthy tools to relate to your inner world and the world around you by teaching you to apply a spiritual solution to your ultimate dilemma – which is yourself.

If, after at least working Step One with a sponsor, you once again seek drugs and alcohol as a solution to any problem, you have relapsed.

The Disease of Addiction Defined

We admit, the following definition is a very scientific one, but it is important to provide you with a medical explanation of the disease of addiction in order for you to understand relapse. (If you are an alcoholic, you also have the disease of addiction. It’s just that your drug of choice is alcohol.) Please take the time to read this definition and really absorb what it is saying.

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), “addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.”

Furthermore, the ASAM says that “addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”

To Understand Relapse, You Must Understand The Disease Of Addiction

Let’s break down that definition in to some simpler, more digestible parts.  

  • Addiction is a brain disease.
  • Addiction is characterized by the inability to consistently abstain.
  • Addiction is characterized by craving.
  • Addiction is characterized by a dysfunctional emotional response.
  • Like with other chronic diseases, addiction involves cycles of relapse and remission.
  • Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive.

Many people have a difficult time understanding that addiction is a disease, but it is. Just as someone with diabetes must take insulin and abstain from sugar in order to keep their disease in remission, so too must the recovering addict or alcoholic follow a prescription to recover. Likewise, someone who has cancer can experience periods of recovery where their disease goes into remission. If the disease reappears, they are said to have had a relapse.

When you have the disease of addiction, you get a daily reprieve from the illness. There is no known cure for addiction. You get this daily reprieve by attending meetings, working with a sponsor, praying, meditating, seeking the will of a Higher Power, and staying sober one day at a time. Consider these activities to be the much-needed medication necessary to keep your disease in remission.

If you do not take your “medication,” you are likely to fall into old patterns of thinking and return to a place where you believe drugs might be a solution. When you engage in this type of thinking, chances are you will act out on your thoughts. If you drink alcohol or do drugs, you relapse and reignite your disease. You leave remission and your disease resurfaces. Like the diabetic, you have to follow a treatment plan. Like the cancer patient, your disease can go into remission or return in the form of a relapse.  

Triggers Are Powerful Experiences That Can Motivate A Relapse

To prevent a relapse, you must practice vigilance. To be vigilant means to keep careful watch for possible danger or difficulties. Anything that could threaten your recovery is a potential danger. When it comes to preventing a relapse, you want to careful watch for triggers. They usually take the form of people, places, or things.

Dr. Adi Jaffe describes triggers this way, “A trigger can be thought of as anything that brings back thoughts, feelings, and memories that have to do with addiction.”

Jaffe goes to on to relate triggers to the classic experiment of Pavlov’s dog, “A dog heard a bell ring right before it would get served its daily portion of meat. The dog quickly learned to associate the bell with food, and would begin salivating as soon as the bell would ring, even before the food was presented. In this case, the bell was the cue, and food the reward it was paired with. The story in drug addiction is similar.”

Triggers are very powerful automatic responses that cause your brain to associate various experiences with drug or alcohol use. Just like Pavlov’s dog would salivate when it heard the bell, the recovering addict or alcoholic will have an automatic response when confronted with a trigger. To stay clean, you have to know what your triggers are and have a plan to overcome them when they happen.

Identifying Triggers And Recognizing Danger Zones

Everyone has different triggers. Here are some examples:

  • The crack addict who used to go on three-day binges that involved frequent trips to the ATM might associate the ATM with drug use.
  • Meth addicts who used to smoke their stash out of broken light bulbs might be triggered by the sight of a light bulb.
  • Someone who used marijuana frequently may have a difficult time when they smell it in the air.
  • An addict recovering from ecstasy abuse may be triggered when they hear club music.

These are very specific examples. However; triggers can run much deeper and be more generalized. Here are a few more examples of triggers that may cause you to want to use drugs or alcohol:

  • Driving down a street associated with scoring drugs
  • Seeing people you used to get high or drunk with
  • Going into the convenience store and seeing beer on ice
  • Feeling very intense emotions you used to medicate with alcohol or drugs
  • Going to places where you used to drink, like certain restaurants
  • Certain smells
  • Watching drug or alcohol use on television
  • Listening to a certain type of music

These are just a few of the many examples of triggers that can bring about a relapse. Talk to your sponsor. Ask him or her to help you figure out what your triggers are so you can be vigilant and recognize them at the onset.

Relapse Prevention Strategies – How To Stay Sober One Day At A Time

Although it isn’t always comfortable, staying sober is a much better idea than going back to drugs or alcohol. If you relapse, your disease will quickly take control again. By reintroducing mood or mind-altering chemicals into your brain, you will reignite the obsessive-compulsive cycle of drug and alcohol use, which is incredibly difficult to break once it has been started.

In short, if you are already in recovery, your best bet is to stay in recovery. If you return to active addiction, you may not make it back.

Here are six strategies to help you stay on the right track:

  1. Make the commitment to yourself every morning that – no matter what – you are going to stay sober that day. Remember, you work a recovery program one day at a time. If you start your day by committing to yourself that you won’t drink or do drugs that day – every day – you increase your chances of success for long-term recovery.
  2. Call your sponsor and three other recovering people every day. This keeps you accountable. You may just leave a voicemail to say that you are checking in – you don’t necessarily have to have a lengthy conversation. By building a support group while you are strong, you will be more likely to utilize that support group if you get into trouble.
  3. Attend regular 12-Step meetings. Although you might not think so, 12-Step meetings are the medication that will keep you well. They will remind you where you came from and help you stay mindful of the fact that you have an illness that requires you to stay vigilant.
  4. Identify your triggers and do your best to stay away from them. If carrying cash makes you uncomfortable, only use a debit card. If carrying a debit card makes you uncomfortable, only carry cash. Recognize what has the potential to send you spiraling in the wrong direction and do your best to find an alternative plan.
  5. Remember that triggers pass. They are fleeting. You only need to push through a trigger without using drugs or drinking to keep your disease in remission. If you are confronted with a trigger, call your sponsor or a recovering friend immediately until you get to the other side.
  6. Find a Higher Power and stay prayed up. The 12-Step process is a spiritual one – remember that always. When you were in your addiction, you surrendered to a power greater than yourself – only it was a destructive higher power. In recovery, you surrender to a loving, caring power greater than you. By praying regularly and asking for the strength to stay clean, you up the odds that you won’t relapse.

Remember, you are responsible for your recovery. You have to take an active role in the process and keep careful watch for possible dangers that could lead to a relapse. Identify your triggers and have a relapse prevention plan in place. You don’t have to make relapse a part of your story. You can be one of the few who stays clean for the rest of your days – one day at a time.   

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