Relapse prevention is one of the main reasons people seek treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. Either they’ve gone through drug detox before and they relapsed afterward, or they have gone through detox, inpatient rehab, and sober living and still relapsed. Although relapse is a part of the recovery process, it doesn’t have to define you or your recovery.

There are many different factors and causes of relapse, but these will vary based on the individual. Understanding the process and knowing the warning signs of relapse is key to recognizing a relapse and getting help before the physical substance use actually occurs.

If you’ve recently completed a drug and alcohol detox program but you need help staying clean, here are the most important things you need to know about relapse.

What Is a Relapse?

Relapse is an emotional, mental, and physical process—not a one-time occurrence. It is something that happens over time and is characteristic of many chronic diseases, not just addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a relapse does not mean the drug abuse treatment or detox has failed, it just means that treatment needs to begin again immediately or another type of treatment should be reinstated.1

Relapsing either after detox or rehab happens to many individuals in recovery, but the more knowledge you have, the better equipped you’ll be to handle it and get right back on track with your recovery.2

What Causes Relapse?

Relapse can happen for a variety of reasons and typically depends on the individual, their personal experiences, and circumstances, as well as their support system (or lack thereof). Below, are some of the most common causes of relapse.3

  • Stress – Whether you recently started a new job or you’re dealing with ongoing family conflict, the stress of everyday life can quickly become overwhelming. For many, reverting to drug and alcohol abuse is the easiest way to cope with that stress.
  • Negative emotions – Challenging and negative emotions like loneliness, depression, helplessness, or hopelessness are often caused by extreme social isolation, exclusion, and a lack of support after leaving a detox center or rehab program. These feelings are very difficult to process on your own and can lead to relapse if they are not addressed in a healthy way.
  • Celebratory events – Drug and alcohol abuse are typically viewed as more acceptable on celebratory occasions. During these times it may be even more difficult to resist. In addition, just as negative emotions can cause a relapse, positive ones can too.
  • Reminders of past drug use – Certain people, places, or things can dredge up memories of previous drug and alcohol abuse and lead to romanticized thoughts of using again. Often times these memories are stronger than we expected and the resulting cravings for the drug or alcohol are too overwhelming to resist.
  • Boredom – Even something as simple as boredom can lead to relapse. Without meaningful activities to fill your day, you’ll inevitably search for something else to fill your time. In the past, drugs and alcohol did that. Now, you’ll need to find something else to fill your time.

Common Signs of Relapse

The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine categorizes relapse into three main stages: emotional relapse, mental relapse, and physical relapse.4 Whether you are concerned about yourself and your own potential for relapse or you are looking out for a loved one, here are some of the most common signs of relapse.

  • Emotional Relapse – Emotional relapse is characterized by unconscious emotions and behaviors. In this stage, you are in a state of denial. You isolate yourself emotionally or physically by not going to recovery meetings, or by going to meetings but not sharing. You bottle up your emotions and you let your eating, sleeping, and hygiene habits fall by the wayside. You feel exhausted, restless, irritable, and discontent. Although you are not consciously thinking about using drugs or alcohol at this stage, you are setting yourself up for failure by ignoring your own emotional and behavioral cues.
  • Mental Relapse – During this stage of relapse, you feel very conflicted. Part of you wants to use drugs or alcohol again but the other part of you doesn’t. You feel a need to escape everyday life and you begin to think that drugs and alcohol will provide that escape. You experience strong cravings, you romanticize past use, you think about the people and places you used to associate with using, and you start bargaining with yourself. You may even begin lying to friends, family, and other people in your life as you look for opportunities to relapse. You may also begin to plot out a specific time when you feel it would be okay to use, just one more time. You convince yourself that you can control your use or that you can limit it to just once or twice a year. The longer you remain at this stage, the more likely you are to progress to physical relapse.
  • Physical Relapse – This final stage of relapse is when you start using drugs or alcohol again. Obsessive thoughts about using a drug or drinking alcohol may lead you to take advantage of a situation in which the opportunity presents itself or you feel like you won’t get caught. Once you have had one hit or one drink, it is all too easy to fall back into a lifestyle of uncontrolled usage.

How to Prevent Relapse

Relapse can be particularly dangerous right after completing a drug and alcohol detox program because you will have no tolerance for the drug. As a result, whatever dosage you used to take regularly, will now be an extremely potent or potentially deadly dose. Unfortunately, this increases the risk of overdose too.

There are several things you can do to prevent relapse after detox:

  • Enroll in a long-term inpatient rehab program immediately after completing your drug detox program.
  • Regularly attend 12-step program meetings.
  • Seek treatment with an addiction treatment provider that utilizes evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and contingency management.
  • Learn to recognize the stages of your own relapse process so you can be more self-aware.
  • Continue to communicate with your sponsor/counselor/support group after leaving a detox center or rehab program.
  • Enroll in an aftercare or sober living program for continued support in recovery.

Taking advantage of all recovery support services available is a great way to reduce the likelihood of relapse after you complete drug and alcohol detox. Your detox counselor at Hill Country Detox will also provide recommendations for ongoing treatment options, which may include inpatient or outpatient addiction treatment. It’s important to take those recommendations seriously and consider the benefits of doing so.

If you recently completed an alcohol and drug detox program elsewhere and have relapsed, you are not a failure and there is still hope for your recovery. The caring professionals at Hill Country Detox can help you reach a stable, sober state once more and connect you to ongoing treatment options that meet your needs. Please contact Hill Country Detox today to get back on track and resume your sobriety journey.



  1. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery
  2. https://easyread.drugabuse.gov/content/what-relapse
  3. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0130711
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/
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