Building Relapse Prevention Skills in Addiction Treatment

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Achieving abstinence can be a formidable feat, but, maintaining significant abstinence for many addicts can be even more challenging where relapse is generally an expected occurrence during the process of recovery.  Beyond the detox and stabilization phases of any addiction treatment program, are the crucial practices that address the individual’s needs to sustain abstinence and recovery efforts once treatment ends.

Coupled with counseling and behavioral therapies, many services of an addiction treatment program come together to help addicts avoid relapse and prepare for the future in case they occur.  These approaches, according to the SAMHSA, “share a number of basic elements, including teaching clients to recognize high‐risk situations that may lead to relapse, preparing them to meet those high‐risk situations, and helping them develop balance and alternative ways of coping with stressful situations.”

Relapse Prevention Groups

Relapse prevention groups have a special impact on helping individual’s learn to prevent relapse and manage high risk situations outside of the rehab atmosphere.  The purpose of relapse prevention groups, according to the SAMHSA, are to “help clients maintain their sobriety by providing them with the skills and knowledge to “anticipate, identify, and manage high‐risk situations” that lead to relapse into substance use “while also making security preparations for their future by striving for broader life balance.”

Real life experiences and feedbacks from others in addiction recovery cannot be outdone when it comes to reducing isolation and serving as support for addicts who have diminished communication channels elsewhere.  Education, awareness, and practicing coping skills increase the capability of resisting relapse.  In these group sessions, members can practice with each other and see how different approaches are effectively used by others to live a stabilized lifestyle through behavioral changes and mitigated risks.

Understanding that Relapse is a Process

Relapse is a process of many different influences including mistaken beliefs or rationalizations that precede the actual event of returning to drug abuse.  According to the Center for Studies in Behavioral Neurobiology, “Even when drugs are unavailable for long periods or when users are successful in curbing their drug use for extended periods, individuals remain vulnerable to events that precipitate relapse.”

One of the most problematic situations of drug abusers in recovery is that the brain “remembers” the good feelings that were experienced from the drug effects and the rewards associated with use despite persistent efforts to try and forget.   Stress can be a major instigator to relapse causing the person to be more sensitive to other “triggers” and immediately shifting their perspectives and focus from the positive to the negative.  Developing coping skills such as controlling powerful emotions or having a strategy in place when cravings and other vulnerable risks are high is a crucial part of the recovery process.

Some of the most common warning signs of relapse are:

  • Overreaction to cravings, stress, or negative thoughts and emotions
  • Denying vulnerabilities or risks
  • Rationalizing ideas that lead to self-sabotage or self-tests
  • Letting down your guard or becoming complacent in recovery efforts such as not going to  meetings
  • Disregarding or neglecting health and wellbeing
  • Inadequate resources or social support during recovery (Don’t be afraid to ask for help)

Targeted Goals for Building Relapse Prevention Skills in Addiction Treatment

According to the SAMHSA, “While skills development groups often incorporate elements of psycho-education and support, the primary goal is on building or strengthening behavioral or cognitive resources to cope better in the environment.  Targeted goals include:

  • Making informed, healthy choices and lifestyle changes that support physical, psychological, and emotional wellbeing while decreasing the need or desires for drugs
  • Developing pleasurable and rewarding alternatives to drug use
  • Learning to identify and avoid people, places, and things that might trigger drug use
  • Understanding social pressures to use and developing new coping skills for high-risk situations
  • Developing methods to cope with negative emotional states or cognitive distortions
  • Combating memories of drug abuse and associated euphoria while reinforcing recollections of negative aspects of drug use
  • Increasing participation in meaningful daily activities, such as a working or going to school, volunteering, or family caretaking
  • Improving relationships with significant others and developing a supportive relapse prevention network
  • Improving social functioning such as gaining independence, income, and resources to participate in normal societal roles
  • Developing a plan to interrupt a slip or relapse and measures to take in case it occurs

Most importantly, one should know that a relapse is a highly risky situation that could lead to overdose or death, in the least worsening conditions, but, in your efforts to recover, it should not be viewed as a failure, simply that more work needs to be done.