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Warning Signs of Relapse

Recovery is a long road. Whether you’ve beaten your addiction or it’s still a work in progress, it’s important to recognize the possibility of relapse. Relapse is a process, not a singular event. It can start weeks before a physical relapse occurs and can be traced through changes in your emotional and mental state.

Emotional relapse is the first stage of relapse in which you experience consistent negative feelings of anger, guilt, or shame. Increased feelings of depression may also pave the way towards relapse. Often, people turn to drugs or alcohol to relieve symptoms of depression, so it may be tempting to return to old patterns. Look out for low energy, appetite fluctuations, feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, change in sleeping patterns, and lack of interest in activities. Stress can also trigger a relapse. Returning to the “real world” means exposing yourself to old triggers, responsibilities, and situations. Monitor yourself closely for mood swings, increased feelings of anxiety or frustration, and an inability to complete tasks. The unhappier you feel in recovery, the more likely you are to slide backward. Flood your brain with dopamine and serotonin from healthy activities like exercise or connection with friends and family. You may also have begun to have erratic sleeping and/or eating patterns and your self-care may have started to decline. If you’re not attending to your needs – be it sleep, food, or self-care – you’re creating an emotionally draining situation that may make you want to resort back to using.

Are you pushing people away or making excuses not to socialize? Isolating yourself from your support means you are withdrawing from accountability and connection. This social breakdown can be a precursor to relapse and may cause you to seek out old, unhealthy relationships. Sober friends, sponsors, friends, and family are key supports that hold you accountable – don’t push them away!  If you’ve started abandoning the routine you established in early sobriety, including set wake-up times, activities, and meal-times, you are setting yourself up for failure. Missing appointments and meetings is a major red flag. Loss of structure means your day is filled with opportunity to slide into old habits.

Mental relapse is the second stage and is a time of internal struggle as you battle between desires to remain sober and to return to using. Much of your mental energy is devoted to thoughts about using. You might find yourself idealizing your past, hanging out with old friends, fantasizing about using, or even planning your relapse. Steer clear of triggers that you could use to justify sliding backwards. Avoid unhealthy friends, locations, and physical proximity to the substance and set yourself up for success. The pull of addiction is strong and it’s important to remind yourself of the negative consequences of using – what progress will you lose, who will you let down? Nostalgia for the past can be a slippery slope, as you may be idealizing days of using. Looking back at perceived “good times” can plant the idea of using your mind. If you think you are able to use casually without falling back into addiction, this is a red flag. Using even once can cause cravings to return in full force and make it hard to continue on a path of recovery. Talk about your urges with someone you trust. Share your feelings and watch the urges begin to dissipate – having support will decrease feelings of isolation and diminish the attraction of substance use. Try physically distracting yourself when thoughts about using arise – go to a meeting, exercise, change the scenery, engage in a favorite hobby or pastime. Occupying your mind with another activity stops the thoughts in their tracks and reduces their power over you. Distract yourself for thirty minutes and odds are, the craving will pass.

In relapse prevention, a strong offense is needed just as much as a strong defense. Attend meetings, stay in touch with your sponsor, and pursue healthy friendships with others in sobriety. Fill your time with healthy habits. Recognize that maintaining sobriety is a daily struggle. No matter how long you have abstained, relapse can still happen. It’s important for you to be aware of the warning signs of relapse. Relapse can be traumatic, not just for you but for your loved ones as well. Keep in mind the negative consequences of returning to your addiction – your job, your loved ones, relationships, and health will suffer.

Remember, take your recovery one day at a time. Don’t let yourself become paralyzed by the thought of abstinence forever. Offer yourself support when you struggle and seek out camaraderie from others. Relapse does happen, and it’s not the end of the world. Reorient yourself on a path of recovery, seek help, and try again.

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