What is Relapse?

Like other chronic diseases, addiction sometimes goes into “remission.” Remission in addiction is when you cease using the drug and enter a period of recovery. When a recovering person uses again, they are said to relapse. The precise definition of relapse is debatable. Some people, such as those in 12 step programs, believe that relapse is any use of the drug after having had a period of recovery. Other experts and recovering people might consider a brief period of using drugs again as merely a “slip” instead of a relapse.


When you enter recovery, you’ll probably decide for yourself what relapse means to you. To all involved, though, a relapse is some use again after having had a length of time in recovery. For example, you might have 12 months clean and then use drugs still. This relapse into addiction can be brief, or it can spiral downward again and lead back to the same patterns of behavior.

What Does Relapse Mean?

Relapse means different things to different people. It’s a widespread phenomenon in recovery, and as such, treatment programs focus heavily on preventing relapse from occurring. To most recovering addicts, regression will be a distressing event, and that’s a good thing. The fact that you are struggling to stay clean and feel remorse for using drugs again is a good sign that you still have a recovery mindset. As long as that mindset holds, you can quickly come back after a relapse and obtain even greater strength. To some folks, relapse can be a good thing. It can reaffirm your commitment to staying sober and teach you valuable lessons about what you have to do to get clean and stay that way.

Tragically, relapse can be a dangerous part of recovery, and as such, no one recommends that you ever use it again to get healthy. After you’ve made it through the difficult early stages of recovery, you’ll want to do everything you can to prevent a relapse. Your treatment providers spend a good deal of time working on relapse prevention plans for recovering addicts. It’s a vital part of recovery. Before you leave treatment, one of the first things your counselor will do is work with you to come up with a plan to prevent future use.

What is Relapse Prevention?

Relapse prevention is like a treatment plan that helps you recognize the triggers that might cause you to use drugs again. Even after you’ve gotten clean, certain sights, sounds, and life events will likely trigger you to crave a drug or drink. This is entirely normal. A relapse prevention plan is your toolkit and strategy for resisting the urge to use drugs again. Individual counselors or even group members will be an essential part of your relapse prevention plan.

Knowing what triggers you to crave drugs and/or alcohol is the first step in formulating a plan to resist temptation. Obvious triggers will be easy to recognize, but for addicts, it’s a challenge to identify every single trigger. Sometimes you don’t even know what triggers you to use a drug until you encounter it first and start craving to use. As you get further along in recovery, your plan will expand. A necessary beginning is to recognize that living a healthier lifestyle will help you feel better and reduce stress. Eating right, sleeping enough, maintaining healthy relationships, and learning how to cope with stress will all make it easier to prevent another bout of addiction.

What to Do After a Relapse

If you use drugs again, the first important thing to do is take a deep breath. Yes, you used it. However, you’ve got more clean time behind you now, and you can draw on that strength. Just because you used doesn’t mean you have to continue. A “slip” is a brief use of drugs or alcohol after a period of clean time. If it’s short, it can be a powerful reminder of the enemy you’re up against, and it can shed light on new ways to resist temptation in the future.

Reach out to your support network after a relapse. Go to a meeting, schedule a counseling session, and take time to regroup in your mind. Reflect on what led you to use. If you’re stressed out, your goal now is to confront the source of the stress and take action so that it doesn’t cause you to spiral into a full-blown bout of addiction again. A relapse can be a “slip,” or it can be a hellish trip back into addiction. Your goal is to make that one time use a slip and get right back into treatment even harder than before.

How to Prevent Relapse

If there were a 100% effective way to prevent relapse, no one who gets clean would ever have to worry about addiction again. They’d move on like nothing ever happened. Unfortunately, that’s not how life, or addiction, works. Sometimes mistakes happen. You might use drugs again because you were around a crowd of people who were partying, and you convinced yourself that “one time” wouldn’t hurt. You might have been stressed out over a fight you had with your significant other and decided to go back to your old method of dealing with things. Maybe someone hurt you, and you didn’t want to deal with it.

In recovery, we learn to deal with life on life’s terms. That means that even when things go wrong, also when you feel bad, you don’t resort to the use of drugs or alcohol. Preventing a relapse sometimes requires you to face painful truths, or cope with a life event sober for the first time in a very long time. It’s tough. The great news is that you’re tougher now, and you have the tools you need to confront those events or resists temptation. Your best bet at preventing a relapse will always be to have as many coping mechanisms as possible in place for when things get bad. And of course, your meetings and counseling sessions will be vital. If you have a mental health diagnosis, you mustn’t forget to take your medicines or attend your counseling sessions.

Why Do People Relapse?

Why people are relapse is a mystery to people who have never used drugs or alcohol, but it’s no mystery to anyone who’s ever been addicted. Drugs and alcohol offer a quick, immediate solution to the pain or stress we feel. In short, it, unfortunately, provides an instant escape from what’s bothering us. It’s a terrible coping mechanism for life, and drinking at least is also a celebratory action in good times that so many other people can enjoy. Still, unfairly, addicts and alcoholics don’t have that same luxury to celebrate with impunity.

People use drugs again for a variety of reasons, but one of the top reasons is that they forget how lousy addiction was. They also stop going to meetings or participating in recovery, and they, in turn, forget just how good recovery is. If you ignore the hell you’ve just escaped from, take a trip to a meeting or talk to a counselor. There are a host of reasons you might use again, but the primary one will always be that you slipped out of treatment and started trying to handle things all on your own again. Thanks to treatment and caring professionals and peers, you never have to confront your addiction alone again. Please don’t choose to.