How to Survive Your First Relapse (or your second, or any relapse)

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One of the things that most characterizes drug addiction is the risk of relapse that remains after a person stops using. For many people, this risk lingers for decades, and in some cases for the rest of their lives.

Learning how to survive your first relapse will likely come in handy, as lessons learned from the first experience can be put to use, and even improved upon, should a second or third relapse episode occur. When all is said and done, addiction works in the same way as a chronic medical condition, so relapse is to be expected to a certain extent.

While many associate relapse with failure or weakness, a relapse episode actually represents another step in the recovery process provided a person confronts and deals with it right away. Otherwise, relapse can quickly turn into a continuation of the life you tried to leave behind.

Was it a “Slip” or a Relapse?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, relapse episodes can vary in severity in terms of duration and the presence or absence of addiction-based behaviors during the time of relapse. Identifying the type of relapse that’s occurred can help determine what sorts of interventions will work best to get a person back on track.

Someone who has a “slip” only engages in drug use for a brief period of time and exhibits no addiction-type behaviors.

Addiction-based behaviors may include –

  • Missing work
  • Spending money on drugs that normally goes towards bills
  • Relationship conflicts
  • Problems with the law

A full-blown relapse entails a longer period of drug use in which addiction-based behaviors become apparent. Ultimately, a “slip” or relapse occurs when a person fails to follow his or her recovery program.

Take Action

People who suffer a relapse can respond in one of three ways –

  1. By indulging in drug use and taking advantage of the occurrence
  2. Feeling like a failure and giving up on recovery altogether
  3. Being realistic about the episode and taking steps to get back in recovery

The first and second responses come from the addiction mindset, made up of the thinking patterns and motivations that perpetuate drug-using behaviors. The third response acknowledges addiction for the chronic medical condition that it is.

After a relapse, taking immediate action offers the best means for preventing addiction-based behaviors from taking hold.

Two things a person can do right away include –

  • Calling his or her sponsor
  • Attending a 12-Step meeting

Take Responsibility

Someone who has a relapse episode after months or even years of ongoing abstinence will likely experience a certain degree of grief, disappointment and even anger over having used again. These feelings are normal; however, wallowing in these emotions for too long a time can take a person down a wrong path.

Regardless of the circumstances involved, the choice to use drugs was made. At some point, this realization should prevail over any feelings of shame or blame that surface. Taking responsibility for this choice enables a person to take the necessary steps towards building a drug-free lifestyle.

Reach Out to Your Support System

Building a support network made up of friends, family, sponsors and treatment professionals remains one of the primary tenets of addiction recovery. Early on in the treatment process, a person learns how reaching out for help is an essential part of the healing process.

The addiction mindset breeds an attitude of self-reliance and denial that only works to isolate a person from those who can help. After a relapse episode, your support system becomes an invaluable resource in terms of helping to identify and weed-out faulty thinking patterns and behaviors.

Draft a Relapse Prevention Plan

Relapse episodes develop out of faulty thinking patterns and behaviors that don’t coincide with a person’s recovery plan. Once an addict steps outside his or her recovery plan, addiction-based thinking quickly steps in.

Identifying the missteps taken can go a long way towards avoiding another relapse in the future. According to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, drafting a relapse prevention plan can help a person understand why he or she turned to drugs as a coping mechanism rather than adhere to the principles learned in recovery.

A relapse prevention plan should cover the following areas –

  • Identify warning signs commonly ignored
  • Identify triggers or cues for drug-using behavior
  • List the types of thinking, feelings and behaviors that prompt drug use

Manage Withdrawal Effects

With relapse comes all the uncomfortable withdrawal effects that drug abuse brings. When left untreated, drug withdrawal and cravings effects can pose a serious threat to getting back in recovery.

Physical symptoms, such as insomnia, headaches and irritability make it difficult to think clearly let alone maintain abstinence after a relapse occurrence. Likewise, feelings of depression and anxiety can make it all the more difficult to stay the course.

Simple over-the-counter remedies offer considerable relief from uncomfortable withdrawal effects. It’s also important to eat a balanced diet and get regular exercise. These practices help flush drug toxins out of the body and speed the healing process along.

Get Help

In cases where relapse episodes last for days, weeks or months at a time, reentering drug treatment offers the best course of action considering the severity of the episode. Drug treatment may entail weekly psychotherapy sessions, daily attendance at 12-Step meetings or checking oneself into a detox/drug treatment facility.

Someone struggling with co-occurring mental health issues will likely require the structure and support available through a drug treatment program since psychological problems only work to aggravate addiction behaviors. In any event, the severity of the relapse episode should dictate the level of treatment needed to get a person back on track.


Considering addiction’s ongoing effects on the body and mind, not relapsing at some point in the recovery process is more so the exception than the norm. The tendency to view addiction as a physical dependency underestimates the powerful hold this condition can have over a person’s will and resolve. Seeing a relapse for it is and moving on in the recovery process is the best way to survive your first relapse as well as your second or third.