Sadly, relapse is part of many people’s stories in the recovery process. If you suspect something isn’t quite right with a loved one, and they’ve undergone addiction treatment in the past, it’s important to approach the situation with empathy and understanding.
In this article, our aim is to shed a little clarity on the more subtle signs of addiction relapse.
Understanding the Three Stages of Addiction Relapse
One thing that’s worth understanding about addiction relapse is that it’s rarely a single event. It’s (typically) a process that happens over time, categorised into three main, distinct stages.
- Emotional Relapse: In this stage, individuals aren’t actively thinking about using again, but their emotions and behaviours might be setting them up for a possible addiction relapse in the future. This can include things like not managing stress well, not attending support meetings, or bottling up emotions. It’s like the groundwork is being laid without them even realising it.
- Mental Relapse: Here, the struggle becomes more about an internal battle. Part of the person might want to use, while another part wants to remain sober. So, for example, during this stage, people might start to romanticise their past substance use.
- Physical Relapse: This is the stage where the actual act of substance use happens.
7 Signs of Addiction Relapse that Are Subtle
If you know this person well, you might be able to pick up on these warning signs of addiction relapse yourself, even if they are incredibly subtle and hard to detect.
It’s important to recognise these signs early, as timely intervention can make a significant difference in preventing relapse.
You’ve Noticed a Shift in Attitude
There’s a subtle (but noticeable to you) shift in their overall attitude towards recovery. This might include a lack of interest or enthusiasm in the recovery process or a sense of complacency where the individual feels they no longer need support or ongoing recovery treatment.
This might also include not attending therapy sessions or support groups anymore, especially if they had frequently been attending since their recovery process started.
They’re Not Handling Stress As Well As They Once Did
An increase in stress levels can be down to many things, including personal, professional, or emotional challenges. Stress is known as a significant trigger for addiction relapse as it can lead individuals to seek out familiar coping mechanisms, such as alcohol misuse or substance use.
So, have you noticed almost out-of-proportion reactions to what might be classed as a minor inconvenience? Or maybe you’ve observed how small issues can unexpectedly escalate into big conflicts. A regression in healthy coping skills could be an indicator that they might be on the verge or have already relapsed.
There’s a Slight Reactivation of Denial
Denial was likely a part of the initial problem, and its re-emergence is a red flag. This can look like downplaying the seriousness of their situation or refusing to acknowledge the risks of their past behaviour.
You might also notice them saying their experience of addiction “wasn’t that bad” or indicating they were “always in control”. If you hear phrases such as these or similar, this could mean that they might be thinking of re-engaging with substance abuse.
You’ve Noticed Signs of Withdrawal Symptoms
For someone who has recovered from past use of substance abuse, the recurrence risk of withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, irritability, or insomnia, can be a precursor to relapse.
You might also notice subtle physical addiction relapse signs that others aren’t picking up on. Have they developed slight tremors or shakes (particularly in the case of alcoholics) or perhaps subtle changes in eye appearance, such as pupil dilation or redness, in those with a history of drug abuse or use?
You’ve Noticed Behaviour Changes
Behaviour in recovery has no resemblance to behaviour and norms in active addiction.
So, in this context, you might have noticed that you’re loved one has started reassociating with their old habits or friends who use substances. They might also visit places where they used to engage in substance use, or you’ve started noticing secretive behaviour once again.
Loss of Control
Are they starting to make more impulsive decisions? Are they showing a lack of discipline in their daily routines? Do they appear to struggle with keeping up with day-to-day responsibilities (e.g. starting work on time or keeping on top of household chores? Do they seem a little less dependable than usual in the context of their interpersonal relationships?
They might not admit it, but you feel as though they’re struggling to remain in control of the next stage of their lives in recovery.
Neglect of Self-Care
Now, it’s often tricky to notice when someone is overlooking their self-care, particularly if they’re trying to present as if everything is okay with them and their recovery journey.
So, take a gentle look at things like how they’re managing their personal hygiene, eating, sleeping habits, and physical activity, and see if there’s a change from what’s usual for them.
For example, think about a family member or friend who usually loves running. Have they stopped enjoying it lately? Or consider someone who takes great pride in their appearance. Have you seen any changes in that area?
There are Clear Signs of Emotional Relapse
As mentioned at the start of this article, an emotional relapse in addiction recovery refers to a stage where individuals experience emotions and behaviours, such as anxiety, mood swings, or isolation, that don’t involve actual substance use but can set the stage for potential addiction relapse.
So, from the perspective of subtle signs, what this can look like to a loved one is withdrawal from social settings with little to no explanation, they look distracted when you’re with them, and they’ve stopped talking about things that matter to them, and that would be normal to talk about with you.
It’s the first phase in a three-stage relapse process, followed by mental relapse, where the internal struggle about using addictive substances intensifies, and finally, the final stage of physical relapse, where the individual falls back into substance use or addictive behaviour. Recognising and addressing these early emotional signs is key to relapse prevention.
What to Do if you Suspect Your Loved One Has Relapsed
When you suspect that a loved one is experiencing an addiction relapse, it’s a situation filled with complex emotions and challenges, both for you and for them. Here’s a more detailed and compassionate approach to handling this delicate situation:
- Understand that addiction is a chronic disease. It’s not a personal failure either of will or character. An addiction relapse can occur, just as flare-ups can happen with other chronic conditions. Knowing this can help you approach the situation with more empathy and less judgment.
- Approach your loved one in a calm, non-confrontational way. Choose a time when you’re both relaxed. Start the conversation with love and concern, not accusations. You might say something like, “I’ve noticed some changes in you recently, and I’m worried. I care about you, and I’m here to support you.”
- It’s also important to give them space to share their feelings and experiences. Remember, your role here is to understand, not to fix the problem immediately.
- It’s natural to want to fix things – but recovery is a personal journey. So, instead of jumping in with solutions, ask how you can support them. You might say, “How can I support you in everyday life right now?” or “What do you need from me?”
- It may be wise to suggest that they talk to a professional who specialises in addiction or addiction relapse, but do so in a way that doesn’t sound like you’re passing off the problem. You could say, “I think it might be helpful to talk to someone who understands what you’re going through. I’m happy to help you find someone if you’d like.”
Find Support Today
It’s easy to get caught up in the problems of the people we love. But remember to look after your own mental and emotional health.
If their relapse prevention plan isn’t working, get in touch with us today, and we’ll help you find a way to ensure that your loved one is supported.
-  addiction relapse is that it's rarely a single event - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/#:~:text=Relapse%20is%20a%20gradual%20process%20that%20begins%20weeks%20and%20sometimes,relapse%20is%20poor%20self%2Dcare.
-  Stress is known as a significant trigger for addiction relapse - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17915078/
-  has no resemblance to behaviour and norms in active addiction - https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/healing-from-addiction/202302/the-relationship-between-addiction-and-personality