Quitting drugs and alcohol is a challenging process for any addict. Going through detox and the initial phase of withdrawal symptoms always represents a victory but getting clean and sober is only part of the battle. Even when physical withdrawal symptoms pass, cravings and psychological issues can remain for a very long time. Many addicts say they remain in a lifelong battle with their addiction, which is why it is important for many to adopt the attitude of ‘one day at a time’.
Relapse refers to an occasion when a recovering addict returns to drug or alcohol after a period of abstinence. Some people find a relapse to be devastating, as it derails their efforts and signals a spiral back into bad old habits. But does a relapse cause addiction immediately? Not necessarily. Some people fall off the wagon repeatedly but continue to climb back on board. For others it can be a single lapse that makes them even more determined moving forward.
It’s important to recognise that relapsing is very common and that it doesn’t have to lead back to a cycle of substance misuse. How you deal with a relapse is crucial but if you recognise the causes of addiction relapse you can also give yourself the best chance to avoid being in that situation in the first place.
What causes relapse in drug addicts?
Cravings can strike at any time but in most cases a relapse does not ‘just happen’. There is often a trigger of some kind but why do addiction cues cause people to relapse and what are some of the main triggers involved?
Essentially, triggers are social, emotional or environmental cues that remind the recovering addict of their past usage and place extra pressure on them to drink or use drugs again. Triggers can vary widely between individuals and their own situations but these are some common triggers and factors that can cause or contribute to a relapse.
Stress can take many forms and can be a driver for addiction, alcohol and substance misuse in the first place. Research has shown that stress can drive drinking and drug use in general terms and for a recovering addict, it can be a major trigger for a relapse.
We can’t cut stress out of our lives entirely, but you might be able to make changes to your lifestyle or situation that could help reduce stress. This could involve getting out of a toxic relationship or taking steps to improve your work situation. You can also try new ways for dealing with stress when it does inevitably arise. Some recovering addicts find that practising mindfulness or meditation can really help them. Living a healthier lifestyle with a good diet, physical exercise and a good sleep routine can also help reduce levels of stress.
Therapy and counselling can also help you to identify sources of stress and formulate methods of dealing with it.
Reminders of past usage
Most addicts have specific triggers relating to the times when they were drinking or using. These are sometimes referred to as external triggers and could be people and places associated with prior usage. People can be particularly difficult to deal with, especially if they are still drinking or using drugs. Sometimes it is better to cut ties with other addicts but not everyone who drinks or uses drugs recreationally is an addict.
Going out with old drinking buddies could be particularly problematic but you could perhaps suggest alternative activities to do together that don’t involve drinking. Witnessing others using drugs that you used to be hooked on will be very challenging for any recovering addict and situations like this should be avoided wherever possible.
Some people can be triggers even if they were not part of your previous drinking or drug taking routines. Some people find spending time with certain family members very stressful for example and this can trigger major cravings and an urge to drink or take drugs.
Addicts often use drink or drugs to ‘deal with’ negative emotions, although this is never a very effective strategy in the long run. Once clean and sober, many addicts have to learn to process difficult feelings and emotions that they had previously repressed with drugs and alcohol. While this can be challenging, it is actually far healthier.
Challenging emotions such as grief, sadness, anger or guilt can still be a trigger for relapse but it is important to realise that everyone has to deal with such things. In a similar way to stress, it can help to find new ways of working through these emotions. This could involve something like journaling or working out, or talking things through again with a counsellor or therapist.
Celebrations are obviously more positive but they can still be dangerous when it comes to the potential for relapse. Alcohol is the obvious one here and the idea that ‘one little drink won’t hurt’ is certainly one to avoid for people recovering from alcohol addiction. Having a friend in place who can firmly remind you why this is such a bad idea may be useful in this type of situation.
As well as triggers there are some other underlying issues that could contribute towards a person experiencing a relapse. Getting clean or going through rehab is not the end of the process and many people rely on a support network for months and years afterwards. Supportive friends and family can really help but sometimes you need the support of people who know exactly what you are going through. Many people find rehab aftercare services or support groups extremely useful.
Overconfidence can also be dangerous in a recovering addict. Self-confidence is important but there may be a tipping point. Thinking that one drink or a one-off hit of your drug of choice will be okay can definitely lead to much worse things. Self-esteem and confidence are very positive but you should also be aware that relapse remains a danger.