Relapse is a normal part of the recovery process from alcohol addiction, and a relapse certainly does not mean you have failed. Get our tips for recommitting to sobriety after a relapse.
Relapsing after a period of sobriety from alcohol can be discouraging, especially if you had an extended period of abstinence before your relapse. While it can be upsetting to relapse, it is also helpful to know that relapse is normal when recovering from alcohol addiction. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), research shows that 40 to 60 percent of people with substance use disorders will relapse after treatment (1).
Given how common it is, relapse is a normal part of the recovery process from alcohol addiction, and it does not mean you have failed. You should view relapse as a bump in the road during your treatment journey, and it is certainly possible to recommit to sobriety afterward.
Understanding Phases of Relapse
To be able to recommit to treatment after a relapse, it is also important to understand the way that relapse progresses. A scientist writing for The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine has described relapse as occurring in three stages: emotional, mental, and physical (2).
In the emotional relapse stage, a person remembers the last time he or she relapsed on alcohol, and the goal is still to avoid relapse. However, people in this stage may begin to isolate themselves, keep emotions inside, stop going to support group meetings or neglect healthy habits like adequate sleep and proper nutrition.
Following the emotional stage of relapse, people enter mental relapse, where they may start to have thoughts of wanting to consume alcohol. At this point, a person may crave alcohol, think about the people he or she used to go out drinking with, and start to make a plan for drinking again. People at this stage may also convince themselves that they can control their drinking, or they may tell themselves that the consequences of drinking weren’t so bad after all.
After people go through a mental relapse, they may progress to physical relapse. This is the final stage when a person starts to drink alcohol again. This stage can quickly escalate, as just one drink can lead to a full-blown relapse, in which someone begins drinking uncontrollably again (2).
What Causes Relapse?
Beyond understanding relapse phases, recommitting to sobriety requires that you know what caused a relapse in the first place. One factor that can contribute to relapse is that after a while, people may begin to put their drinking problem in the past and act as if they never had an alcohol addiction. This can lead them to be less consistent with going to treatment. They may also stop focusing on healthy habits, like self-care, that helped them to become sober (2).
In addition, as people begin to progress in their treatment journey, they may start to feel that they no longer benefit from support group meetings, or they may think they are above common struggles like alcohol cravings. This can quickly lead to relapse if they stop going to meetings to receive support or begin to deny that they still have cravings (2).
Finally, people may fall into the trap of relapse if they convince themselves, after a period of sobriety, that they are now capable of controlling their alcohol use. They may feel that they have learned enough about addiction that they can begin drinking again with no consequences (2). Unfortunately, this is often not the case.
Making the Effort to Recommit
Now that you understand the phases and underlying causes of relapse, you are ready to learn how to recommit to sobriety following a relapse. The first step is to evaluate what your treatment needs are. As NIDA has explained, addiction is a chronic condition, and relapse means that it is time to get back into treatment or change what you have been doing (1).
Cognitive therapy is one form of treatment that may be particularly effective for helping you to recommit to sobriety after relapsing on alcohol. According to research, cognitive therapy is highly effective for preventing relapse. This type of therapy can teach you how to cope with stressors and overcome negative ways of thinking that lead to relapse in the first place. For example, if you have relapsed to using alcohol, you may be telling yourself that your life isn’t fun without alcohol, or that you cannot manage life without drinking. Cognitive therapy can help you to develop healthier ways of thinking so that you can stay sober.
Another method for recommitting after relapse is identifying your relapse triggers and making an effort to avoid them. Experts have explained that one main trigger for relapse is the people, places, and things associated with drug or alcohol abuse (2). For example, if you used to go to a certain part of town every weekend to drink, being in this area can trigger a relapse. Being around old “drinking buddies” can also make it more likely that a relapse will occur, so you may have to set boundaries and distance yourself from certain people if you want to recommit to sobriety.
Another important piece of recommitting after relapse is simply taking care of yourself. During stressful times, alcohol may have provided a way to relax and escape, but through self-care, you can learn healthier ways to cope with stress. For example, taking time to exercise, do something you enjoy, and get adequate rest can be essential pieces of recommitting after a relapse.
Practicing self-care is a critical piece of recommitting to sobriety after relapsing on alcohol; it is also important to avoid triggers, such as people, places, and things associated with your drinking, and to re-engage in treatment. Addiction to alcohol should be viewed as a lifelong condition, so it is important to stay in some sort of treatment or support group to prevent relapse from happening again. Perhaps most importantly, you should not feel like you have failed if you relapse. If anything, you should see relapse as an opportunity for growth. After a relapse, you can learn to identify your triggers for drinking and use this information to recommit to a life that is free from alcohol.