It is common for people quitting or trying to control an addictive behavior to relapse at least once during recovery. Some people relapse several times before successfully overcoming their addictive behaviors. Many people do not understand why this happens – is it a lack of willpower, a lack of motivation or a lack of control over their own behavior?
Understanding why relapsing happens is the first step toward making your own relapse prevention plan. That’s important to avoid or deal with situations that might cause you to relapse.
It sounds like a cliché, but stress is the top cause of relapse. Many people, whether they realize it or not, develop addictions as a maladaptive way of trying to cope with stress. The addictive behavior seems to provide temporary relief from stress, so they do it again and again, hoping to avoid stress completely.
You can’t eliminate all the stress from your life, and nor should you. Research shows that a moderate amount of stress is psychologically healthy. But you can avoid situations of negative or extreme stress by making changes in your lifestyle, relationships and priorities.
You can also learn positive ways to successfully manage the stress that does occur in your life. There are many ways to do this. Central to them all is the use of healthy techniques that improve your overall wellness, such as improving your ability to rest and relax with such stress-control strategies as mindfulness and relaxation training; managing your time more effectively so that you are not operating in panic mode; and by increasing healthy behaviors, such as moderate exercise and healthy eating habits.
2. People or Places Connected to the Addictive Behavior
One of the most obvious triggers for a relapse is being around people who shared your addictive behavior, and who are still engaging in it. Examples could include your old drinking buddies in the pub you went to every night; people you smoked marijuana with at your drug dealer’s house; or, perhaps, fellow shopaholics at the mall. Most people in recovery know they should avoid these people and places, at least in the early days.
It tends to get more difficult when you happen to come across people or places that trigger your addiction, even though they are only related to the addiction indirectly. For example, someone who was abused at school and became addicted to drugs as a way to handle their distress may be triggered by seeing schools or even playgrounds. As this isn’t a situation you can easily avoid on a long-term basis, it is important to have ways to handle your feelings when that happens, so that you have another way of coping besides relapsing to your addiction.
For many people, family members can be connected with the addiction, even if those family members were not directly involved in the addictive behavior. And while you may not be able to, or want to, avoid all future contact with family, it helps to keep in mind that seeing them may trigger your addictive behavior and make you feel more child-like and helpless. This is because most of your relationships with them occurred at an earlier stage of your development.
3. Negative or Challenging Emotions
Negative emotions are a normal part of life, and everyone experiences them to some extent on a daily basis. People with addictions need to have effective ways of tolerating, managing and rationalizing – or making sense of – their negative or challenging feelings.
People with addictions commonly cite frustration, anger, anxiety and loneliness as emotional triggers for relapse. Alcohol, drugs or addictive behaviors may provide some temporary relief from those feelings, but they will not make them go away. The feelings are part of a bigger cause in your life that you need to address.
Loneliness is a good example. Many people with addictions keep drinking or using drugs because they have an instant network of people who do the same thing when they go to a bar or drug dealer. But these relationships are based on an unhealthy way of coping and are often lacking in substance.
For example, if you are feeling isolated, forming strong relationships is the only way of dealing with your loneliness. If you feel lonely even with relationships, you may need to learn to tolerate feelings of being alone or disconnected from others, while improving the quality of the relationships you have.
4. Seeing or Sensing the Object of Your Addiction
During recovery from an addiction, a slight reminder of the object of your addiction can be a strong trigger for relapse. A whiff of cigarette or marijuana smoke while you are walking down the street, people drinking in bars or restaurants, a couple locked in an erotic embrace – whether in real life, on an advertisement or on the TV – are reminders that seem to be everywhere in the early stages of quitting.
While it makes sense to avoid these situations as much as possible, it is unrealistic to think you can do so for ever. What you need is to develop skills for managing your own urges and cravings. Having a substitute behavior, as well as doing relaxation techniques, are often very helpful in accomplishing this. But remember, those helpful skills take time to develop; eventually, they will become second nature.
5. Times of Celebration
While most of the situations that trigger relapses are negative, sometimes positive situations can be just as risky. Birthdays, parties, holidays and celebrations can be times when you feel happy and in control – and you think you can handle that one drink, that one smoke or that one mild flirtation with the attractive stranger. But can you keep it under control.
When you’ve been addicted, you often lose the capacity to know when to stop. So that one drink could become a binge, which can be particularly dangerous after a period of abstinence. That one hit of cocaine or heroin could cause an overdose if your tolerance is low. And treating yourself to buying a new pair of shoes you don’t need could lead to a shopping spree that breaks the bank.
Having a buddy can be a good way of easing back into situations where you are at risk of relapse. It should be someone you trust and respect, and, ideally, someone who can kindly but firmly persuade you to stop what you are doing if you do start to relapse. Avoid going into situations where you are at high risk of relapse alone, as you might be surprised how quickly your resolve and good intentions disappear once the party gets started.
Will One Drink or Drug Use Make a Difference?
Does It Matter If You’ve Been Abstinent for a While?
In a word, yes!
But whether a small relapse is helpful or not to your quitting depends on how you handle it. The key is to turn it into a learning experience that will make you better equipped to handle a clean and sober lifestyle.
The following pitfalls are common after that one drink or drug use, but can be used to your advantage.
Fear of Failure
After having that one drink or drug use, people often get scared that alcohol or the drug has a “hold” over them and that they will never be free of it. Fear increases anxiety, and when you are anxious, what do you want to do? You want to have a drink or take the drug that used to make you feel better.
So getting scared when you have had a drink or taken a drug after previously quitting can lead you right back to where you started.
One way to handle this kind of fear is by learning relaxation exercises, and practicing them on a regular basis, especially when you feel the urge…
After having one drink or drug use after quitting, some people have such a good time that they start craving it even more. This is partly because of the increased excitement for doing something forbidden, partly because of the decrease in tolerance you have for the alcohol or drug, giving you a stronger effect, and partly because in order to become addicted, your brain built up pathways as a fast-track to stress relief.
The best way to handle the increased desire to return to your addiction is to think seriously about other ways to enjoy yourself. They may not seem very exciting compared to drinking or drugs, but keep an open mind, and think about activities or experiences you have always wanted to try but never did (maybe because you were spending all your money on your addiction).
There may even be things you wanted to do but never dared or things you did when you were younger and really enjoyed doing. This is time to think about that skydiving holiday, joining a knitting club, or learning a new language.
Once an Addict…
When you give in to the craving for just one more drink or hit, you may feel resigned to the idea of being an addict forever. Yet this simply is not the case.
Very few people started out in life being addicted, and most have to work hard to get addicted in the first place. Your addiction may be something that feels very familiar to you, but that doesn’t mean that is all that you are.
Think about other sides to yourself, not related to your addiction. Counselling can be very helpful to realising you have choices about what you spend your time doing.
The Good News About Relapse
“Falling off the wagon” is not all bad. Most people who eventually succeed in quitting find that this can be their best learning experience. It can help you really pinpoint what your triggers are, what pushes your buttons, and ultimately, what lead to your moment of weakness.
So if you have woken up with a hangover for the first time in weeks, or otherwise partied in a way you shouldn’t, think back over what lead up to it. Was it running into an old friend? Stressing about paying the bills? Feeling really pleased about your performance at work?
Whether it was that great drinking buddies feeling, escape from everyday hassles, or finding yourself in a celebratory mood, looking at what caused you to take that one drink or drug can help you prepare for next time, so you have a different way of handling it.
As long as you keep your long-term goal of getting clean and sober at the forefront of your mind, one mistake should not make you quit quitting.