How to Create a Relapse Prevention Plan

Reviewed by Kyli Hingley

So, you want to create a relapse prevention plan.

You’ve confronted your addiction. You’ve made a commitment to your family, maybe your friends, to stop drinking. Perhaps you’ve gone to rehab. Whatever you’ve done, you’ve put in so much hard work – and you don’t want your efforts to be for naught.

Because, as challenging as getting sober is… the task of staying sober can be equally difficult.

Luckily, you can prepare for potential bumps in the road. And you should. Creating a strong relapse prevention plan is a crucial step in achieving long-term recovery from alcohol addiction. As Will Smith put it, “If you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready.”

To boost your resilience, it’s important to understand the dynamics of relapse and establish effective strategies to avoid falling back into harmful habits.

If you worry you may relapse – or you already have – and are committed to fortifying your journey toward lasting sobriety, this guide is for you.

Let’s explore the different stages of relapse, what usually sets it off, and the 6 keys to creating a solid prevention strategy.

Understanding the Relapse Phenomenon

Before we get into creating a relapse prevention plan, let’s dive in to what relapse is all about.

Contrary to popular belief, a relapse isn’t a one-time event: It’s actually a complex process that unfolds over time. Relapse begins before you even pick up a drink. First, there are the emotional and mental phases:

  • Emotional phase of relapse – This occurs when someone isn’t actively thinking about drinking again. Instead, they start experiencing the emotions that led them to drink initially. However, instead of confronting these emotions directly and self-reflecting, a person in this situation suppresses these feelings and remains in denial. For some, emotional relapse may manifest as holding in emotions, isolation, or poor self-care practices.
  • Mental phase of relapse – Mental relapse, which involves internal conflict about drinking, presents as glamorizing past drinking (“we had so much fun at that bar”) or actively planning relapse (“Just one last beer”). These cognitive shifts can quickly lead to physical relapse, the moment you actually take a drink.1

The key is to be able to spot the warning signs at each stage, so you can step in early.

Arm yourself with awareness by reflecting on prior relapses and identifying the psychological and emotional cues that signaled trouble.

The Prevalence of Relapse

Now, none of this is to say that relapsing means you’ve totally failed. In fact, it’s extraordinarily common:

  • Relapse rates for substance abuse range from around 40-60%.2
  • It can take “five or six attempts” to maintain sobriety.3
  • One analysis of 500 addiction studies even found that 75% of all participants relapsed within one year of treatment.4

When it comes to relapse, the feelings of guilt and shame can be overwhelming. And surprisingly, they can even lead to more relapses (more on that below).

But here’s the thing: acknowledging that relapses happen to many people can help ease the overwhelming self-judgment that comes with it. It allows for a more practical and less emotional approach to recovery – and therefore, greater chances of success.

Key #1 for Relapse Prevention Plans: Identify Your High-Risk Situations

High-risk scenarios, or triggers, are like landmines on the road to recovery. And they’re different for everyone.

They can be overt, such as social gatherings where alcohol is prevalent, or subtle, like the seemingly inconsequential decisions that lead to a chain of events ending in a relapse. High-risk situations must therefore be meticulously identified, no matter how seemingly insignificant.

Major Triggers

Recognizing big triggers is often straightforward—these are the people, places, or events that universally signal the danger of relapse. They demand a more obvious strategy of avoidance or preparation.

Seemingly Irrelevant Decisions (SIDs)

It’s the minor, day-to-day choices that are often overlooked but can be just as critical to avoid. Seemingly random decisions (SIDs)1 can throw off your recovery journey. Like that unexpected stop at a store that sells alcohol – it might not seem like a big deal, but it could derail your progress.

Anticipating Stressful Life Circumstances

Stress is a universal truth. Learning to anticipate and manage it is a critical component of relapse prevention. It’s not the stressor itself that poses a threat but your coping mechanisms.

So, when a particularly stressful event occurs – a loss, a layoff, anything that catches you off guard – create a plan for how you can respond in a healthier way, without turning to alcohol or other substances. Integrating stress-relieving activities into your daily schedule can set the stage for effectively managing challenges as they arise.

Which leads to the next point…

Key #2 for a Relapse Prevention Plan: Take Self-Care Seriously

Here’s the thing about self-care: you don’t need to lock yourself in a sensory deprivation tank, take a four-hour shower or nap on a $10,000 mattress. It really just means taking care of your physical and mental well-being.

No four hour shower relapse prevention plan
Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

But with the wide variety of things that count as “self-care,” it’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed trying to figure out your self-care routine. So, to get you started, here are 3 important areas to zero in on, all supported by research:

  1. Therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on pinpointing triggers for alcohol use and developing healthy coping skills) has been shown to help prevent relapse.5
  2. Sleep. Sleep disturbances or a lack of sleep have been shown to increase the risk of relapse for substance use disorders – especially alcohol addiction.6
  3. Mind-body relaxation. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness-based practices are proven methods for relieving tension and stress, which are common triggers for relapse.7

Another note: Addiction specialist Steven Melemis categorizes individuals with addiction as those who often “don’t feel they deserve to be good to themselves or who tend to put themselves last.”1

So, as you gradually establish a self-care regimen, always keep in mind: You deserve this. All of it.

Key #3 for a Relapse Prevention Plan: Develop Self-Efficacy

Self-efficacy is all about believing in your ability to overcome challenges. Confidence!

Photo by x ) on Unsplash

In other words, you can do this. You can stay sober. In fact, it’s critical you know you can do it.

Studies have uncovered a correlation between self-efficacy and sobriety: Individuals with a strong belief in their capacity to maintain sobriety have demonstrated greater success in remaining sober.4

On the flip side, it’s important to believe in your ability to stay sober – even if you’ve relapsed. Why? When someone goes through a relapse, they might feel like they have no control over themselves. This feeling, along with overwhelming shame, can trigger their addiction again.

There’s actually a name for this: the abstinence violation effect (AVE).4

As one scientific review put it, “People who attribute the lapse to their own personal failure are likely to experience guilt and negative emotions that can, in turn, lead to increased drinking as a further attempt to avoid or escape the feelings of guilt or failure.”4

The question is: How do you build self-efficacy? Three tips:

  1. Look at how far you’ve come. Regularly. You can probably remember a time when you didn’t think you’d ever be able to stop drinking. Look at yourself now. It can help to review evidence of your achievements, like encouraging texts you’ve received from friends or family. You’ve already come so far, which means there’s absolutely nothing stopping you from going further.
  2. Set smaller goals and celebrate every small win. It can be overwhelming to think about staying sober for the rest of your life, so break it down into smaller time frames. Set achievable goals for each day or week and acknowledge and celebrate every successful completion. Recovery is not a linear journey, yet every step away from addiction is a monumental one. Celebrating your wins, no matter how small, reinforces your efforts and sense of self-efficacy. If you use BACtrack View, that can mean admiring all the green lines on your calendar, showing how many breathalyzer tests you’ve passed. ✅
  3. Do the things that make you feel good about yourself. Self-efficacy grows when you’re able to retrain your brain to focus on the positive. Doing things that make you feel good about yourself practicing a hobby, crushing your workout, or simply spending time with people you like – can help build this confidence.

“Using BACtrack View became like a little assignment – every time I would blow and see the zeros pop up, I was really proud of myself. I was really happy that my parents would know that I’m safe – and you can’t put a price on that.”

Key #4 for a Relapse Prevention Plan: Be 100% Honest

Addiction and deceit are intertwined. It starts with hidden drinking, followed by lies to cover it up. Then comes the denial – to yourself, to others – around having a problem at all.

So if you catch yourself not being honest about your addiction, trying to avoid the consequences, or finding it hard to open up to loved ones, it could be a sign of an emotional relapse (stage 1).

As Melemis phrased it, “Recovering individuals are as sick as their secrets.”1

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should reveal your struggles with alcohol abuse to just anyone. A common practice is to develop a recovery circle: a support network of individuals you trust, such as addiction counselors, family, doctor, friends, or recovery communities.

According to Melemis, your circle should include anyone you’re willing to be “uncomfortably honest” about your journey with.1 True progress arises from embracing discomfort, and radical honesty will help your circle help you through the guidance and empathy crucial to maintaining sobriety.

Key #5 for a Relapse Prevention Plan: Don’t Go it Alone

The concept of a recovery circle also speaks to another key for staying sober: social support.

People with AUD tend to be in denial about the severity of their addiction and feel it’s not “bad enough” to seek outside help. But if you’re serious about staying sober, you should.

support relapse prevention plan
Photo by Neil Thomas on Unsplash

Research indicates that having social support plays a significant role in sticking to sobriety. As noted in the aforementioned review of 500 addiction studies, “the degree of social support available from the most supportive person in the network may be the best predictor of reducing drinking, and the number of supportive relationships also strongly predicts abstinence.”4

To boost that number of supportive relationships, consider expanding your recovery circle or joining a support group. Alcohol Rehab Guide put together a comprehensive list of support groups you can reference.

So, even outside your recovery circle, make sure you don’t isolate yourself (again, another sign of emotional relapse) – this could make handling emotions even tougher, making it harder to stay sober.

Key #6 for a Relapse Prevention Plan: Eliminate Loopholes

To stay sober, you need to define exactly what “sober” means (i.e., zero alcohol consumption) and stick to the rules you set for yourself. You’re either sober, or you’re not. No exceptions.

If you’ve slipped a few loopholes into your commitment – or if you find yourself looking for loopholes down the road – that can be a sign of mental relapse.

To further cement your commitment and drastically reduce the risk of a relapse, you can enlist your recovery circle to hold you accountable (more tips on that below) and look out for slip-ups.

Once you’ve formed rock-solid rules for sobriety, don’t break them. Even if a decade has passed since you’ve had a drink, even if you think you could handle another after such a long time… don’t.

All it takes is one drink to create a slippery slope.

One Tool for Your Relapse Prevention Plan: Remote Alcohol Monitoring with BACtrack View

As an alcohol monitoring service – we would be remiss not to mention the benefits of remote alcohol monitoring, which has been scientifically proven to help prevent relapses.8

BACtrack View is the automated, affordable, app-based remote alcohol monitoring service. It enables your recovery circle to prompt breathalyzer tests, receive BAC (blood alcohol content) results in real-time, and hold you accountable.

bactrack view relapse prevention
Actual customer, Gary S., using BACtrack View Photo credit: BACtrack View

Thus, BACtrack View fits in perfectly with the keys to relapse prevention outlined above.

  • #4: Be 100% Honest. BACtrack View uses our highly accurate BACtrack Mobile breathalyzer (that detects alcohol within +/- 0.005 at 0.050% BAC). It gives your supporters the opportunity to hold you accountable, and there’s no opportunity for deceit or secrecy around drinking.

  • #6: Eliminate Loopholes. BACtrack View records a video of you taking your breathalyzer test (every test) and sends it straight to your network in real-time. You can’t hand your breathalyzer off to someone else. Any violation of the BAC limit (i.e. 0.00%) your circle sets for you, and any missed test, will be noted in the app calendar. Thereby enforcing zero tolerance and eliminating any opportunity for rationalization or loopholes.

  • #3: Develop Self-Efficacy. Another upside of the in-app calendar: BACtrack View also keeps track of every successful breathalyzer test in the app, so your progress is visually represented in green ✅ on the calendar. Making it easy for you to reflect on every small win, test by test, and for your recovery circle to celebrate with you.

  • #5: Don’t Go it Alone. With BACtrack View, you can have a main monitor and multiple accountability partners view your progress. Through automated texts and alerts, BACtrack View makes it easy for them to support you in your sobriety journey. And in doing so, it can additionally help you rebuild trust with the people important in your life.

  • #1: Identify Your Triggers. If you experience a lapse or a missed test, it’s easy for you and your recovery circle to spot any patterns. BACtrack View records the date, time, and location of each test. So you can see, for example, whether you tend to be triggered at a certain place or time of day.

Final Thoughts

“Recovery involves creating a new life in which it is easier not to use [or drink].”

Steven Melemis

Hopefully, this guide will get you going on creating your relapse prevention plan. And as you work on it, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • To quote Melemis: “Recovery involves creating a new life in which it is easier not to use [or drink].”1 And, we’d venture to say…not easy to drink at all. Think about adjusting your daily routines to steer clear of situations, individuals, or anything else that may trigger a relapse.
  • Tailor your plan to your needs. What works for someone else may not be ideal for you and vice versa.
  • Don’t forget to regularly celebrate your wins – this will increase your self-efficacy and, as research has shown, directly increase your likelihood of continued sobriety.
  • Progress > perfection. Don’t use any lapses (or relapses) to completely give up on your goals. View each incident as a small pothole in the road – and, in fact, a chance for you to learn more about yourself and how to better avoid alcohol.

You’ve got this.

Sources
  1. Melemis, Steven M. “Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery.” The Yale journal of biology and medicine vol. 88,3 325-32. 3 Sep. 2015 ↩︎
  2. https://americanaddictioncenters.org/rehab-guide/relapse-prevention ↩︎
  3. https://adf.org.au/reducing-risk/relapse/#:~:text=Causes%20of%20relapse&text=Circumstances%20that%20act%20as%20a,Pre%2Dexisting%20physical%20health%20issues ↩︎
  4. Menon, Jayakrishnan, and Arun Kandasamy. “Relapse prevention.” Indian journal of psychiatry vol. 60,Suppl 4 (2018): S473-S478. doi:10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_36_18 ↩︎
  5. McHugh, R Kathryn et al. “Cognitive behavioral therapy for substance use disorders.” The Psychiatric clinics of North America vol. 33,3 (2010): 511-25. doi:10.1016/j.psc.2010.04.012 ↩︎
  6. Brower, Kirk J, and Brian E Perron. “Sleep disturbance as a universal risk factor for relapse in addictions to psychoactive substances.” Medical hypotheses vol. 74,5 (2010): 928-33. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2009.10.020 ↩︎
  7. Bowen S, Witkiewitz K, Clifasefi SL, et al. Relative Efficacy of Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention, Standard Relapse Prevention, and Treatment as Usual for Substance Use Disorders: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(5):547–556. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.4546 ↩︎
  8. Markku D Hämäläinen, Andreas Zetterström, Maria Winkvist, Marcus Söderquist, Elin Karlberg, Patrik Öhagen, Karl Andersson, Fred Nyberg, Real-time Monitoring using a breathalyzer-based eHealth system can identify lapse/relapse patterns in alcohol use disorder Patients, Alcohol and Alcoholism, Volume 53, Issue 4, July 2018, Pages 368–375, https://doi.org/10.1093/alcalc/agy011 ↩︎

Empower yourself on your sobriety journey with BACtrack View – reliable alcohol monitoring for a better future.

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