Relapsing Back to Sobriety: Why People Relapse and How to Get Back to Sober Living

Some people think that drug addiction is a choice. And while the initial plunge into the world of drugs may have been a choice many drug addicts regret, drug addiction becomes a chronic illness. It has a relapse rate that is similar to other chronic illnesses, such as type-1 diabetes, hypertension and asthma. They all have behavioral and biological reactions, and recovery is a long, drawn-out process requiring repeated treatments.

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Recovering from an addiction is one of the scariest, most difficult things you or a loved one will face. It will take time and commitment to get rid of the shackles that bind you to the drug. Treatment is also a lengthy process, and it involves a lifelong commitment to sobriety.

Even though the road can look daunting, in the end, you’ll be a stronger, healthier and happier person. When free from addiction, you’ll become the best version of yourself that has ever existed.

How Common Is Drug Relapse?


Drug relapse is a common occurrence, and studies have shown that between 40-60% of people will relapse at some point during their treatment. In fact, a 2012 study made by the Partnership at and the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) said that over 10% of surveyed adults report that they consider themselves to be in recovery from drug addiction — this means that an average of 23.5 million Americans have overcome addiction.

There are many reasons why a person in treatment for drug addiction will relapse, but the fact of the matter is that relapsing happens all the time. Don’t let it discourage you from completing your quest to be free and clear of addiction. Depending on the drug, relapse rates may be higher which makes it that much harder to quit.

What Drug Has the Highest Relapse Rate?


It’s no secret that some drugs are easier to get addicted to than other substances. A 1998 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration looked at the relapse rates of various drugs and substances. It found that alcohol and heroin have between an 86-90% relapse rate — the highest of any substances out there. Cocaine had approximately a 55% relapse rate, and while crack is a derivative of cocaine, it had an 84% relapse rate. However, the highest rates of recovery come from hallucinogens and inhalants, which have only a 40% relapse rate.

For some of these substances, the odds of relapsing are frighteningly high, while others show a more promising potential. Even though the numbers are scary, don’t let them detract you from making the effort to get clean. These are only numbers — the choice inevitably lies with you.

The Top Reasons for Drug Relapse

There are many reasons why a recovering addict may relapse back to using drugs. A proper treatment plan is the most important part of your recovery journey, as well as the motivation and drive to get clean. While you’re in the process of recovering from addiction, it’s important to be aware of things that can cause a relapse. These include:

  1. Exhaustion — you allow yourself to become overly tired. Good health is important to emotional health.
  2. Dishonesty — you tell small, unnecessary lies including lying to yourself, rationalizing or making excuses.
  3. Impatience — you let yourself get frustrated when something isn’t happening fast enough, or become impatient with people.
  4. Argumentativeness — you find small, unimportant things that set you off.
  5. Depression — you become overwhelmed with despair and sadness.
  6. Frustration — you get frustrated with people or things that aren’t going exactly your way.
  7. Self-Pity — you feel like a victim and refuse to acknowledge your responsibilities.
  8. Cockiness — you think you’ve “got this” and put yourself in tempting situations.
  9. Complacency — you give up working with programs and fall short of your commitment.
  10.  Expecting too much — you can’t understand why everyone isn’t changing when you’ve done so much.
  11.  Boredom — you feel complacent and bored, which can cause you to let your commitment slide.
  12.  Other chemicals — you take other substances to escape from your recovery.




These are some of the most common factors that can contribute to a relapse, and these situations can all be prevented with the right care. Communicate with your friends, family, doctors, and support group to keep these triggers from leading you down a dark path.

Remember that relapse is common for recovering addicts. Many things can trigger relapse that are different for each individual, yet emotional factors remain relatively the same. Feelings such as stress, fear, frustration, depression, anxiety, and other emotions can lead to relapse. This is because you have most likely used substances as a coping mechanism in the past.

Be mindful of these emotions and stay ahead of them, so you don’t slip back to your old ways.

The Main Drug Relapse Signs

Many people that head down the road to recovery get sidetracked, or even lose their way completely. Many addicts that seek freedom from their addictions will not be successful on their first try. While relapse is a common occurrence, it’s never something that just happens spontaneously.

Signs that signal a possible relapse:
Longing for the old days of your substance abuse.
Feeling like you can use again without becoming addicted again.
Reconnecting with your old drinking or drug buddies.
Getting defensive and angry when someone gives you constructive criticism.
Allowing the denial present in your addiction to resurface.
Changing your behavior or attitude.
Feeling depressed or lonely.
Destroying the social relationships that have been keeping you anchored.
Experiencing constant tension and feeling highly stressed.
Feeling resentment towards the people who are trying to help you.
Noticing the sudden reappearance of withdrawal symptoms.
Losing your belief in your recovery program.


If you’re experiencing one or more of these signs, you may be on the path to relapse. The best way to avoid letting these issues get the better of you is communication. Talk to the people who care about you. Whether they are friends, family, medical professionals, or the people in your recovery program, look for sources of support that will help remind you of your goals.

The Stages of Relapse

Relapse is a process — it’s not an event that happens out of the blue. Relapse prevention begins with understanding how it works. Relapse begins weeks or months before the actually event takes place, and there are three distinct stages. If you felt any of the signs of impending relapse, you may have already experienced one of these stages or you’re in one right now.

The three stages of relapse include:

  1. Emotional Relapse — In this stage, you’re not exactly thinking about using, but your behavior and emotions may set you up for eventual relapse in the future.
    Emotional relapse signs are:
    Mood Swings
    Missing meetings
    Refusing help
    Eating poorly
    Sleeping poorly

    These symptoms are mainly the signs of withdrawal from your addiction, and if you take the time to understand what’s happening to you during this stage, it’s a lot easier to avoid relapse in the near future. You’re catching it early enough to properly address and treat it.

    Preventing relapse in this first stage means truly understanding that you’re in the throes of emotional relapse, and understanding that it’s time to ask for help from family, friends, or your doctor. If you stay in this stage of relapse for too long, you’ll become fatigued. And exhaustion can make you want to find a coping mechanism that will lead to relapse.

    Preventing relapse at this point is all about taking care of yourself. Remember the reasons why you used substances in the past — most likely as an escape or coping mechanism. When you fall into the emotional turmoil in this stage, you may not be sleeping right, you may be eating badly, and you might be making yourself exhausted. At a certain point, you’ll look for a way to cope, and using will most likely be your first thought.

    1. Mental Relapse — When you reach this point in the relapse process, your mind is at war with itself. One side of you wants to give up and use, while the other is adamant about staying clean. At the beginning of this stage, there are fleeting thoughts of using. As it progresses, it soon becomes all you can think about.
      Signs of mental relapse include:
      Dwelling on people, places or items that connect you to your past addiction
      Romanticizing using in the past
      Lying to the people closest to you
      Falling back in with the crowd of people you used to drink or use drugs with
      Fantasizing about using
      Thinking hard about relapsing

      Scheming the time of your relapse to make sure you don’t get caught by your friends or family.

      Staying clean gets more difficult as you reach this phase of relapse. When you’re thinking about relapsing, you’re most likely thinking that you can control it this time and that this time will be different. You’ll just have one drink, and you’ll only take one bump.

      One drink and one bump usually leads to another. When you wake up in the morning after you relapse, you’ll feel disappointed and you may not be able to stop at this point. The vicious cycle will begin again. Think about your entire journey, including the damage caused by your addiction. If you take the time to consider all of the negative outcomes and the amount of progress you’ll lose, falling back into your old ways won’t seem so great.

      You might also think that you’ll be able to get away with it. You’ll plan to go to great lengths to keep it a secret. Maybe you’re out of town for the weekend, or you’ll be alone in the house for an extended period of time. Think through your journey again, and remember why you’re doing it in the first place. Consider the bad things that can happen if you relapse again, and make sure you don’t hit that point again.

      1. Physical Relapse— If you have reached this point, you’re close to the point of relapse. You may be moments away from heading to the liquor store or calling up your dealer.

      Once this ball is rolling, it’s extremely difficult to stop it at this point. You need to recognize the warning signs early enough to prevent yourself from getting to this point, and if you take preventative measures, it’s easier to prevent relapse from occurring. Get help during the beginning stages so you don’t allow the process to get this far. It’s important to successfully ward off relapse in the early stages of your recovery.

      How to Avoid Relapse

      If you find yourself getting close to relapse, or you notice certain behaviors from your loved one, consider these methods for resisting the urge to use:

      Talk to someone The best way to stay clean when you’ve gotten to this point is to talk to someone, whether it’s a loved one, friend, member of your program, or your doctor. You’ll find that the urge to relapse starts to disappear the moment you start to open up with someone about how you’re feeling.
      Find a distraction Do something to take your mind off using. Call someone, go to a meeting, or go for a stroll around the block. Sitting there will only allow the urge to take control of you, which will cause the urge to grow in your mind.
      Wait it out You’ll find that, in general, urges only last between 15 and 30 minutes. It might feel like forever in the moment, but wait it out. Do the things that you’re supposed to do to occupy yourself, and you’ll lose the urge before you know it.
      Take it one day at a time Try not to think about staying clean forever. It can be a terrifying thought. Take it as it comes, and roll with the punches on a day to day basis. Eventually, today will turn into tomorrow and so on.
      Relax Tension is a leading cause of relapse, as it will cause you to look for an escape. When you’re tense, you do things that are familiar — instead of the new and improved things designed to keep you clean. Take a few deep breaths, and remember your relaxation techniques.


      How Do You Get Sober Again After a Relapse?


      The best way to get sober after a relapse is to recommit to your 12-Step program and stick with it. Individuals that are most successful in recovering from addiction will continue to go to meetings long after their recovery. After all, it’s important to continuously remind yourself why you are sober.

      Consider going to meeting once a day to keep yourself motivated. The people there know what you’re going through and will help you through it.

      Also make sure you surround yourself with positive people who will encourage you to stay sober, instead of connecting with people who will only bring you down. Consider starting a new hobby or playing a group sport with sober, healthy people. You can even start helping another person get through what you’ve been through. Paying it forward and guiding another person on the right path will keep you motivated to do the same for yourself.

      Recovering from drug addiction is one of the most difficult, terrifying, but courageous, tasks you’ll ever complete. You have been in a prison of substances for as long as you can remember, and it’s freeing to know that you’re on the road to living a healthy, sober life.

      Relapsing is extremely common and a serious concern. It may cause serious issues with your health and possibly even death. It may seem scary and impossible to get clean, but don’t forget what set you on this path in the first place. Recovery is the most wonderful, important decision you can make for your life as well as your loved ones.

      If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms that may lead to relapse, contact 12 Keys today. Our staff knows what you’re going through, and we can help you find relapse support and recovery. Contact us now to re-commit to your sobriety.

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