Learning drug & alcohol relapse prevention tactics plays an important role in keeping a recovering addict sober. From cravings to triggers, knowing what signs to look out for is an effective way to remain healthy emotionally, mentally and physically.

Understanding how and why an addict may relapse is the best strategy for relapse prevention. A drug or alcohol relapse can be truly heartbreaking for addicts as well as their loved ones. Unfortunately, relapse is extremely common amongst those in recovery for substance abuse.

What Is Relapse?

Relapse is very normal and also very common. It happens when a person is trying to stop using drugs or alcohol. They can make mistakes along the way, slip up and begin using drugs or alcohol all over again. The return to their addiction is known as relapse. While a person is going through the phases of trying to beat a drug or alcohol addiction, it is common that they will experience a few relapses during that time.

There are four main focal points in relapse prevention.

  1. First, it’s important to understand that relapse is a process that happens over time. It doesn’t begin the moment a person picks up a drink or uses drugs again. The goal of substance abuse relapse prevention is to help addicts recognize the early signs of relapse – that’s when chances of success are the best.
  2. Second, each stage of recovery has different risks of relapse.
  3. Third, the primary ways to deal with relapse prevention revolve around developing positive and healthy coping mechanisms.
  4. Fourth, most relapses can be avoided with the right measures. It’s important for addicts to avoid situations where it is easy to drink or use drugs, to be completely honest with themselves, friends and family members, to ask for help when help is needed and to practice self-care.

Preventing relapse is similar to losing weight and dieting in the sense that it does take practice and dedication. However, relapsing can be very dangerous and sometimes even life-threatening. It is possible and easy for an addict to overdose if they have stopped using drugs for some time and then turn around and take the same amount that they did prior to quitting.

Relapse Triggers

Relapse triggers can be mental, environmental and even mental. Gaining a deep understanding of relapse triggers is the best way to recognize them early on and take measures to prevent relapse.

The following are a few common relapse triggers:

Negative Thinking

Negative thinking can sabotage any recovery. This includes thoughts that one can’t handle life without using, that life won’t be fun without using, that others won’t like them if they’re not using, that recovery is too much work, etc. This kind of negative thinking is usually black-and-white thinking in which one forgets the positives and accentuates the negative. These thoughts can lead to anxiety, mood swings, sadness and fear – all of which can lead to relapse.


Fear is a common trigger in addiction. It includes fear of how other people view them, feeling like a failure, fear of being bored without drugs and alcohol, etc. Ironically, one of the biggest fears that can sabotage recovery is the fear of not being able to remain sober. If a person has relapsed before, they tend to see it as proof that they will relapse again instead of just as a normal part of recovery. Those struggling with addiction need to believe in themselves and have a support network of people who make this possible.


Stress is probably the most common relapse trigger there is since it has such a big effect on both the body and mind. Being hungry, tired, or even lonely can lead to stress. Losing a job or even a loved one can trigger stress and create health problems. It is necessary to be mindful and proactive about preventing stress.

Being Uncomfortable

Recovery involves learning to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. Addicts often assume that non-addicts don’t have the same problems in life or suffer from the same negative emotions – but the truth is that everyone does. Negative feelings are not a sign of failure or a reason to use drugs to escape – they are just a natural part of life. But if people have gotten used to drinking or using drugs to cope with uncomfortable feelings, then it can be difficult to sit with them and understand that they will pass. It takes time and effort to develop new coping skills, but learning to be okay with the initial discomfort is a critical part of preventing a relapse.


Addicts who are over-confident while they are in the recovery phase put themselves at a greater risk for relapse. It is good to have self-confidence, but being too over-confident crosses the line of having “healthy confidence.” It is necessary for those in recovery to remain humble and avoid putting themselves in risky situations because they feel overly confident.

Physical or Mental Illness

Addicts who suffer from anxiety and depression put themselves at a much higher risk of relapsing since their body is already stressed. It is necessary to get whatever treatment possible to help with underlying mental illnesses to help prevent relapse.

Strategies to Aid Substance Abuse Relapse Prevention

Being proactive is critical to preventing relapse. There are various strategies that addicts can use to help prevent relapse.

  • Support—If necessary, try to join different organizations that will support living a sober life. There are religious organizations and family groups that addicts can join.
  • Make friends—It is also helpful to make new friends since their prior friends may not be suitable to hang out with, especially if they use. They can be social and sober.
  • Stay healthy—Make sure they get enough sleep each night and ensure a healthy diet to make sure they are getting adequate nutrition.
  • Keep busy–The more they stay busy, the better it will be for them mentally. They should try taking up a new hobby to keep themselves occupied.
  • Be reasonable with goals – Make sure that any goals set are reasonable during the journey to recovery. Make sure that they are not being too hard on themselves or setting expectations that they cannot meet. Avoid putting too much on themselves at once.
  • Start Therapy—Cardinal Recovery offers many types of therapy, both group and individual, to help people on the road to recovery. Therapy can be incredibly helpful in recovery as it gives people a place to explore their feelings and ask for support.
  • Practice Mindfulness—Mindfulness is another excellent tool for people in recovery. It involves daily practice of training the mind to stay in the present moment instead of getting swept away by memories of the past or worries about the future.

Stages of Relapse

The key to relapse prevention is to understand that relapse happens gradually. It begins long before a person starts to use substances again. At Cardinal Recovery, we find it helpful to think of relapse in terms of three stages: emotional, mental and physical.

Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse is the first stage of relapse, where it is still possible to prevent it. People haven’t started using yet and they don’t want to. But their emotions and behaviors are setting them up for relapse down the road. Denial is a big part of this phase. Other signs of emotional relapse include avoiding others, poor self-care, skipping therapy or meetings and not expressing feelings.

In emotional relapse, the primary goal is to focus on self-care. Self-care is incredibly important throughout all stages of recovery and relapse. It could be as simple as trying to have better sleep habits to more complex things, like setting up steady therapy sessions or meetings with a sponsor. A lot of people find it hard to devote time to themselves and treat themselves well. But it is a critical part of dealing with addiction. When people live in emotional relapse for too long, it starts to feel so uncomfortable that using begins to feel like a reasonable escape.

Mental Relapse

Mental relapse is when a person has desires to drink or use drugs again combined with a desire to remain sober. This is where it is critical to start improving lifestyle and self-care before the balance tips into a further need for escape. Some of the signs of mental relapse include craving drugs or alcohol, thinking about people, places and things related to past use, glamorizing past use, lying to others, convincing themselves that they could drink or use just once or in moderation and even actively planning a relapse.

Occasional cravings are a normal, natural part of recovery. It doesn’t mean that a relapse will definitely happen. But these thoughts do need to be addressed quickly in order to ensure that it doesn’t escalate into actual use. Mental relapse can become very worrisome when the thoughts about using or drinking become more persistent over time.

Physical Relapse

Physical relapse is when someone starts to use substances again. Once a person has had one drink or used drugs one time, it can quickly escalate into compulsive use. It can also lead into obsessive or compulsive thinking about using, which can also lead to physical relapse. Most physical relapses occur when a person has a window of opportunity where they feel they can drink or use without anyone else finding out. Part of substance abuse relapse prevention involves a tactic called “playing the tape through,” which involves carrying these situations out in the mind and figuring out healthy exit strategies in the event that they happen.

Warning Signs of Relapse

There are some immediate signs that indicate an addict is experiencing a relapse in their recovery. Some of the most common signs of relapse include:

  • Feeling lonely, bored, depressed and unsatisfied
  • Avoiding recovery meetings
  • Exercise, eating and sleeping habits have deteriorated
  • Drug or alcohol cravings that start to give in
  • Lying to counselor or therapist
  • Convincing oneself that it is okay to have just one drink

Where to Get Relapse Prevention Help

It is important for addicts to not try and go through the recovery phase on their own. The process will be much easier with the right support. Addicts may want to consider seeking help through their doctor or even via an addiction treatment center to help with controlling any withdrawal symptoms they are experiencing.

Counselors and therapists are beneficial because they can help teach the addict different ways to cope with negative thoughts or cravings that may make them start using drugs again. Addicts can also try seeking help through their family, friends and even various support groups. AA and NA are very helpful when it comes to preventing relapses. Cardinal Recovery has a full staff of trained recovery treatment professionals who can help them regain control of their life.

Relapse Prevention Plans

When addicts attend rehab, there are many plans that are created to help with different situations that may arise when they may feel the need to use drugs or even drink. Any plan for relapse should be realistic and easily attainable. Some people may even choose to write down their prevention plans in a workbook or journal. Either way, the plan should contain both scenarios and actions in order to maintain sobriety. The more people they have on their side, the better. It’s helpful to let friends and family know what they are going through and to ask for their support.

Do you need help to create a drug and alcohol relapse prevention plan geared specifically towards your needs? Cardinal Recovery is here for you. Reach out to us today to get started on your recovery journey.