Addiction is a complex concept that we are still learning more about. It is classified as a mental and behavioral health illness because it affects brain functioning and requires professional treatment to overcome. We don’t yet fully understand the exact cause of addiction and why some people are particularly prone to it.
Addiction is also considered a chronic illness. You can only control your addiction — you can’t be cured from it. This is why many recovery programs emphasize complete abstinence. While the addiction is always there, if you avoid the substance, then there are no symptoms, no side effects and no complications.
Just as with any other chronic disease, you can trigger a relapse — a re-occurrence of symptoms — when you stray from your program. Relapse is not uncommon. In fact, the rate of relapse for recovering from addictions is similar to that of diabetes, hypertension or asthma at 40 to 60 percent. A key to avoiding relapse is recognizing the relapse prevention warning signs.
The Phases and Warning Signs of Relapse
Deciding to enter recovery is a big step that requires a lot of courage and support. The first part of recovery is detox, when you allow all of the toxic substances to leave your system. Although detoxing is often depicted as an uncomfortable experience, most people who go through it say it wasn’t as bad as they expected — especially when they had professional detox help.
Aside from detox, relapse is one of the most feared stages of addiction recovery. Based on the statistics, many people who enter addiction recovery programs will face relapse at some point. You have to look at recovery as a journey, not a means to an end. Relapse does not represent failure. It is an opportunity for you to adjust your treatment plan and get healthier.
During addiction recovery, you learn to build a new life for yourself. This process is ongoing and includes many different struggles along the way. A good recovery program helps you develop healthy strategies to deal with life stressors, so you don’t need to turn to drugs or alcohol.
One of the skills you’ll develop during recovery is recognizing signs of relapse in yourself. While your relapse symptoms will be unique to you, the most common ones are:
- Having regular thoughts about using again
- Feeling complacent in your recovery
- Experiencing very stressful situations
- Reconnecting with old friends who still use
- Beginning to act in your old ways
- Skipping meetings or straying from your daily routine
When you know what the warning signs are, you can have a plan of action for how to address them.
Having Regular Thoughts About Using Again
When you were using, you would think about using often. As you progress in your recovery, those thoughts tend to slow down until you hardly ever think of it at all. You have to remember, though, that for a period when you were abusing drugs, it was a habit, and habits are hard to break. At any time, you can start to have regular thoughts about using again.
Your addiction habit was like a reflex that certain situations would trigger. It’s kind of like putting on your turn signal when you drive your car — you do things out of habit without really thinking about them. Depending on what your drug of choice was, you may have automatically thought about doing it every day after work, every Friday night when friends came over, each time you went into your local bar or whenever you had nothing else to do.
In recovery, your attention has been diverted by various therapies to deal with mental and behavioral illness, physical health, and social and relationship issues. You’ve been in an environment where drugs were not accessible. By focusing on the problems that drug abuse caused, your desire to engage in that sort of activity probably diminished. Increased thoughts of using again, therefore, are a sign you need to address.
Potential Solution: Adding some more recovery work to your daily schedule could distract you from these increased thoughts about using drugs. Go to an extra meeting each week, join a new support group or read a recovery book. It is time to refresh your recovery efforts.
You could also get more involved in a healthy activity outside of recovery. Take up a new hobby or spend more time doing the things you enjoy. Build these activities into your schedule by taking a class or joining a club with regular meetings. Fill your time with healthy activities and safe people to distract you from thoughts of using.
Feeling Complacent in Your Recovery
Addiction rehab is a very intense experience. From the language used to the learned behaviors, everything is new to you and focused on recovery. You face emotional issues that seem as if they could tear you apart. In fact, in many ways, rehab takes your whole life apart. By taking it apart, you can build it back up in a better way, minus the issues and drama that fueled your addiction.
When the most intense part of rehab is over, and you go back home, you’ll feel a great sense of accomplishment. You showed strength you never thought you had. You worked through issues without the assistance of any substances to dull your nerves. You realized you are a survivor. When you entered rehab, everyone had to help you. By the time you left, you were helping others who had just arrived. You seem to have mastered recovery.
All the experts tell you to continue working your program — go to meetings, join a support group and follow up with your regular counseling. But you are feeling like such an expert that you don’t need the program anymore. You successfully completed rehab, and you are substance-free. Your work feels done.
It seems ironic, but when you think you don’t need your program anymore, you are probably headed for a relapse. The methods that helped you get sober are what will keep you sober for the rest of your life. Addiction is never really cured — we just learn how to manage it, so it doesn’t interfere with a healthy, happy life. When you lose your respect for the power of addiction and believe you have conquered it completely, you are walking a dangerous path.
Potential solution: To battle your complacency, re-double your efforts to work your program. If you haven’t been to a meeting in a while, get to one soon. Even if you don’t think you need to go, just go anyway. Resolve to resume your schedule of attending regular meetings at least once a week.
Another way to end the complacency is to read a recovery book. You are always learning and growing, so taking in some new information may revive your interest in recovery issues. Pick a topic related to recovery that you are not very well versed in and read a book on the subject. One of the most relevant topics for recovering addicts is co-dependency, and there are a lot of books written on that subject.
You might also choose to re-read a recovery book you haven’t picked up in a while. It is often helpful to review familiar concepts. By re-reading a recovery book, you will connect to ideas that did not resonate with you the first time. This fresh perspective should show you that recovery is still an important issue for you.
Experiencing Very Stressful Situations
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, stress is the number one factor that causes relapse in addiction recovery. Research shows that stress is also a predictor of continued drug use, perhaps because the circuits in the brain that respond to drugs are the same ones that react to stress. Even in smoking-cessation studies, the ability to cope with stress is a direct indicator of long-term success.
Perhaps most telling, though, is the fact that animals not previously exposed to drugs were more likely to self-administer drugs when they were under great stress. This research finding suggests that stress alone, without any underlying addiction, can lead to drug abuse. The devastating effects of stress on physical, mental and behavioral health are well-demonstrated.
The world is a stressful place, however, so stress is a fact of life. Managing stress is the key to avoiding its negative effects, including addiction relapse. A good addiction rehab program includes strategies for reducing stress, but it is up to you to employ those strategies appropriately. Despite your best efforts, there are times in life when stress just cannot be avoided.
Potential solution: Recognize when you are going through a stressful time in life. The death of a loved one, divorce and serious illness are examples of big stressors you have no control over. You can also experience stress with positive life changes. Moving, starting a new relationship or changing careers can all be beneficial, as well as stressful.
When you are dealing with these types of situations, it is a good idea to rally extra support for your recovery. Alert your support system that you are going through a time of change and will need extra help. Increase the number of meetings you attend or the frequency of your counseling sessions.
There are also things you can do for yourself to avoid a relapse during a very stressful situation. Give yourself permission to feel all of the emotions surrounding the situation. It is ok to “fall apart” when you are under this much stress. Cut yourself some slack if you do not feel in control of your life right now. You are not in control of the situation because it is beyond human control.
Focus on some of the techniques you learned to relax. You may feel increased cravings to use during this time, but you should recognize that those are just old coping mechanisms. Since rehab, you developed new ways to deal with difficult situations. Make time for your self-care rituals such as meditation, walking in the woods, massages, bubble baths or whatever makes you feel pampered.
Reconnecting With Old Friends Who Still Use
Part of addiction rehab is recognizing that your lifestyle has to change. Similar to dieting, it is not enough to just stop taking drugs. You have to make permanent changes in the way you live to be healthy, happy and substance-free.
The new life you are building for yourself includes new friends, hobbies and places to hang out. Making these changes was not easy at first because you did not know what to do with your time. It took some courageous exploring and serious effort to create new recreational habits that are healthy and safe for you.
During rehab, you learned that even a little exposure to your old drug-using friends was too much. You cannot be around them and not use. They will not accept your recovery because it doesn’t serve their purposes. Your old friends need help, but you have to protect your own sobriety.
Sometimes it’s hard not to think about your old drug-using friends. When you are feeling tired or lonely, you might wonder what they are doing. You were so close to them before rehab that you practically lived together. Nostalgia has a way of tugging at your heart. They might even call you from time to time to try to reconnect. These are all danger signs.
Potential solutions: The only solution to pressure from old drug-using friends is avoidance. Nothing good can come of a renewed connection with them. You cannot save them — they have to do it themselves, just as you did. Do not see them. Do not return their calls. Put them out of your mind and life.
In rehab, you learned that you cannot change other people — you can only change yourself. You have no control over what others do and say. The problem here is not with your old friends. The problem is inside of yourself. When you get tired and lonely, the cravings come back. Focusing on not being lonely will solve this problem.
Reach out to your support team. Attend a meeting. Call a friend who does not use. When you are feeling a little stronger, make a point of developing some new friendships. Take a class, attend a public event, practice a hobby or join a club. Get involved in activities you enjoy that put you in touch with other people. Change your focus from looking back to moving ahead.
Beginning to Act in Your Old Ways
During treatment, you identified your behaviors that were associated with addiction and attempted to change them. Change takes time, however, and it is not easy. Your old drug-using habits are imprinted in your brain and probably became automatic. Even though you’ve replaced these habits with healthier ones, the old ways can still come through.
Recognizing that you are acting in your old ways will help you avoid a relapse if you can make changes in time. It is simple to see that those old behaviors — the ones associated with your addiction — can lead to addiction again.
Potential solutions: The best way to deal with the recurrence of old behaviors is to work with your counselor. You need to identify the underlying reasons for these behaviors. It could be time to try a new approach to behavioral changes, since there are several methods approved for treating issues related to addiction. Your addiction counselor will know what other options might be right for you.
Skipping Meetings or Straying From Your Daily Routine
Routine is an important part of the new healthy lifestyle you have adopted. In the second half of rehab, especially as you got ready to go home, the importance of routine was stressed. Developing a routine gives you something to focus on each day.
Routine is also how you demonstrate control over your life. When activities are random throughout the day, life can become chaotic, and chaos is stressful and leads to drug use. You developed a strict daily schedule for yourself after rehab to maintain a sense of control in your life.
If your schedule gets interrupted, it can be hard to recover. Sometimes it is tempting to accept an offer to do something with friends when you are supposed to attend a meeting. Healthy social activity is good for your recovery, too, you think, so why not. One meeting won’t matter.
You could get thrown off your schedule for any number of reasons: a sore knee could cause you to skip a workout, bad weather might keep you from getting to yoga, a cold may have you laid up in bed for several days. Since routine is the backbone — the structure — of your recovery, no longer having it is a dangerous sign.
Once you are off your routine, you are more vulnerable to relapse. Without your daily schedule, you are not getting the healthy activities you need in your day.
Potential solutions: If you have a broken routine, you need to fix it right away. As soon as you realize you are off your schedule, get back on it immediately. Once the cold has passed, and you can be out of bed, you need to force yourself to follow your regular schedule again.
Enlisting a buddy could be helpful to keeping you on schedule. If you are friendly with someone in your yoga class or at your 12-step meeting, they could encourage you to come back as soon as you are ready. They might call you when you miss a session to see what is wrong with you. That type of peer pressure can be useful.
Relapse Prevention Warning Signs
Relapse is a sign that you need more help with your recovery. You can’t think of relapse as something that will fix itself. Use it as an indicator that you need to adjust your program and seek professional guidance in fixing the problem right away. Do not be ashamed of a relapse or think you have failed. This will keep you from getting the help you need to rebound quickly.
If you feel as if you may be relapsing, call 12 Keys Rehab right away. The sooner you get professional addiction treatment, the sooner you’ll be back on your path to lifelong recovery. Even if you did not do your detox and rehabilitation with 12 Keys, we can give you the advice you need to get back on track with a recovery program.
At 12 Keys, we understand the fear of relapse and know it requires making changes to your recovery program. We want to support you through this difficult time in your recovery with all of the tools available to you. 12 Keys offers a strong aftercare program that can help you recover quickly from relapse and move forward with a long-term recovery.
Relapse, or the fear of relapse, is part of a long-term recovery from addiction. Everyone faces it at some point and has to work hard to get past it. Let 12 Keys help you do that work and minimize the risk of it happening again. Contact us today.