5 Steps to Developing a Solid Relapse Prevention Plan

Lauren Sawyer
Calendar icon Last Updated: 03/7/2022
Fast, Free & Confidential Help Is Available 24/7.
Call now for:
  • Access to the Best Rehab Centers
  • 24 Hour Support when YOU need it
  • Financial Assistance Programs
800-926-9037
Who Answers?

Developing a relapse prevention plan is more important than you may think!

While the goal of recovery is to stay in recovery, relapse happens and is a normal part of recovery. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defines addiction as a “chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by compulsive drug use despite harmful consequences, and long-lasting changes in the brain. It is considered both a complex brain disorder and mental illness.”

NIDA goes on to say that the chronic nature of addiction can make relapse likely. Just like other chronic medical conditions, like diabetes and asthma, addiction has similar relapse rates, of 40 to 60 percent. Other studies show that after one year of addiction treatment, more than 85 percent of individuals relapse.

The main reason for relapse is that people cannot stay in a treatment bubble forever, supported by medical assistants and behavioral therapists. Out in the real world, it can be very stressful, especially if you have multiple obligations. Other triggers might include socializing with friends you used to use with, or a toxic relationship.

Despite relapse being a common part of recovery, it doesn’t have to be, especially if you have worked on developing a relapse prevention plan.

What is Relapse Prevention?

All treatments for addiction are intended to prevent relapse. In essence this is relapse prevention.

There is also a treatment called Relapse Prevention, developed in the 1980s by G. Alan Marlatt. He was a professor of Psychology and the Director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington. In 1985, Marlatt and co-author Judith Gordon published the book Relapse Prevention: Maintenance Strategies of Addiction Behaviors.

According to the Recovery Research Institute, Relapse Prevention is a skills-based, cognitive-behavioral approach. It requires patients and their clinicians to identify situations that place the person at greater risk for relapse.

These might be internal triggers, like thoughts related to substance use that are positive or negative in nature. For example, one might think negatively about recovery and form a judgment that it is boring.

Or, they might associate positive thoughts with substance use. There are also external cues like hanging out with friends who use substances.

Relapse Prevention is a skills-based, cognitive-behavioral approach. It requires patients and their clinicians to identify situations that place the person at greater risk for relapse.

Relapse prevention involves working with a clinician to identify situations where relapse might occur. Next, you develop thought-based (cognitive) and behavioral (action-oriented) strategies to address risks and triggers. Over time, the person will practice those strategies and develop the confidence that they can handle difficult situations.

In recent years, a new model of relapse prevention has been developed, called Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP). MBRP is similar to the original Relapse Prevention strategy. But with the addition of using mindfulness meditation to help overcome stressful situations and triggering thoughts and feelings.

It is thought that the addiction of mindfulness will improve awareness and help you detach from negative thoughts and feelings. For example, that might involve observing a feeling but not labeling it “good” or “bad” and just letting it be without acting on it.

5 Steps to Developing a Relapse Prevention Plan

Relapse is said to have three distinct stages: emotional, mental, and physical relapse. This process can take days, weeks, or months before potentially relapsing.

Emotional relapse is not necessarily thinking of using. However, your thoughts and behaviors may make you vulnerable to relapse. This might be:

  • Bottling up emotions
  • Dealing with chronic stress
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Socially withdrawing

Mental relapse is when the thoughts of using occur. You may feel really conflicted. Part of you wants to use but the other part is determined to stay in recovery. It’s a mental tug-of-war situation that could drag you down to eventual relapse.

Physical relapse is where you take action to physically use.

Relapse is said to have three distinct stages: emotional, mental, and physical relapse. This process can take days, weeks, or months before potentially relapsing.

Important Parts of Developing a Relapse Prevention Plan

Of course, the goal of Relapse Prevention is to be alert to any of these stages and then to implement your relapse prevention plan. Here are five critical aspects to a solid prevention plan:

  1. Build awareness about the potential consequences of relapse: Those might be losing a relationship or job, being prevented from seeing your children, or even returning to court if you’re mandated to stay in a treatment program.
  2. Identify relapse triggers: These might be emotional triggers such as feeling angry, sad, or depressed; feeling stressed from work; stopping attending meetings or therapy; and socially isolating.
  3. Plan for emergencies: Develop a strategy for cravings. Planning for emergencies is really important. You’ll want to identify at least five activities you can undertake when you feel overwhelmed and want to use.
    These might be going to a meeting, speaking to your counselor or therapist, calling your treatment center, calling a recovery mentor or trusted friend, or moving your body out of the situation. This could include going for a walk, leaving a social situation, or working out.
  4. Develop coping strategies for life: This could include managing stress, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep.
  5. Identify a solid support network: This might be experienced recovery friends and a mentor, close family you can talk to, or a therapist. Schedule regular time with these people so they know what is going on for you and they can look out for you.

How effective is relapse prevention? According to the Recovery Research Institute, relapse prevention has strong empirical evidence to indicate it’s just as effective as other treatment approaches.

What to Do If You Relapse

As we mentioned earlier, relapse happens. It’s important to first avoid beating yourself up. Next, think about how to get back on track. Depending on the type and duration of relapse, you have a number of options available, including:

  • Going to a meeting.
  • Checking in with a recovery friend, mentor, or therapist.
  • Going back to treatment, if you have been using for several days.
  • If you’re not able to stop using, practice harm reduction. Check in with a treatment provider, ensure you don’t use alone and that you have Narcan available and know how to use it.

If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-926-9037 (Info iconWho Answers?) today to speak with a treatment specialist.

Images Courtesy of Canva.