What is Relapse and What Does it Mean?

Relapse is the recurrence and worsening of a condition that has previously improved. For individuals who are in recovery, relapse and even multiple relapses are common. Due to the addictive and chronic nature of drug and alcohol dependence, there is not a quick and easy “cure” but rather an ongoing journey of recovery. When compared to chronic illnesses, substance use disorders have comparable rates of relapse. On average, 40-60% of those with a substance use disorder will relapse. In fact, relapse is often considered a part of the recovery process.

A relapse happens when one returns to previous patterns of use, returning to baseline. Relapse often occurs when one stops maintaining goals as part of their recovery plan and are not meeting goals to reduce or stop the use of drugs or alcohol.

It is important to differentiate between slip-vs-relapse. A slip is also known as a lapse. It is a single, unplanned use in which one “slips back” into old patterns.

While some individuals who experience a slip are immediately able to return to their path of recovery, others may experience relapse or head down the road of negative spiraling. In this case, the consequences can be devastating as it sets back the recovery process and can be endangering to one’s health.

Did you know that relapse is considered a process? Just like recovery is considered a process, so is relapse. Stages of relapse can range from weeks to months and include several stages.

Emotional relapse. This stage involves one’s behaviors and emotions putting themselves at higher risk of relapse. Triggers such as stress, loneliness, boredom, social isolation, relational conflict, anxiety or depression, and limited social supports are common.

Mental relapse. This state involves thinking about using substances. It may include longing to be in the physical places and in the presence of people associated with substance use.

Physical relapse. This stage involves using drugs or alcohol.

Counseling is an effective treatment intervention for those struggling with emotional and mental relapse since it can help work with the thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that place one at higher risk for relapse. Working with a therapist such as a Licensed Drug and Alcohol Counselor (LADC) can help work towards meeting the goals that are part of a recovery plan.

If you or a loved one are currently experiencing a substance use disorder or are in the physical relapse stage, there are local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based supports that can help.

SAHMSA’s National Helpline 1-800-662-HELP (4357) can help with referral options as well as publication resources.


To schedule an appointment with one of our professional counselors, click here.

Written By: Charlotte Johnson, MA, LPCC

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