Using Your Strength to Stop the Relapse Cycle

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No one's recovery journey goes in a perfectly straight line. There will be many ups and downs and twists and turns. Life is unpredictable, after all. You'll need to readjust your substance use disorder (SUD) treatment plan over and over again to acclimate to new circumstances. No matter how prepared you feel during treatment, relapsing could become part of your recovery journey. That is why it is vital to understand the relapse cycle.

Relapse can occur at any point in your recovery journey. You could relapse after a few months of sobriety or years of sobriety. Fortunately, there are preventive measures you can take to protect yourself at any stage of the relapse cycle.

The Relapse Cycle: Chronic Relapse

Skills you learned during a treatment program are only useful if you continue to practice them post-treatment. Progress made during an inpatient treatment program can be deceptive. After all, during inpatient treatment, your recovery skills are not being tested in stressful real-life situations. An inpatient treatment program can create a recovery bubble where you are removed from the adversary of everyday life.

This is why aftercare programs and treatment plans are vital in preventing chronic relapse. You are at higher risk for chronic relapse when you don't seek immediate treatment. Of course, you might be hesitant to reach out for help because of the stigmatization surrounding relapse. However, relapsing is a reality in recovery that many people have to face.

How to Stop the Relapse Cycle

The relapse cycle can become costly and frustrating. After all, finishing inpatient treatment only to relapse and re-enter treatment can be disheartening. It can decrease your motivation for long-term sobriety. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to prevent or break the relapse cycle.

Create a Comprehensive Aftercare Plan

The most important measure you can take is creating an aftercare plan. A mental health professional should be able to help you make your aftercare plan comprehensive. The goal of your plan is to make it easier to monitor your SUD symptoms and give resources you can rely on when you feel like your symptoms are unmanageable.

Your aftercare plan might include an aftercare program, intensive outpatient treatment, or a sober living program. It should also include communicating your post-treatment concerns with your support network. Additionally, it should include outpatient therapy, support groups, and involvement in your community.

Remember: the more you engage with your aftercare plan, the more effective it can be.

Identify the Stages of Relapse

Being able to identify the stages of relapse is another preventative measure you can take. After all, you will relapse emotionally and mentally before you relapse physically. The earlier you recognize yourself in a phase of relapsing, the easier it will be for you to get back on a positive path.

Understanding the stages of relapse will give you a guideline for checking in with yourself. This makes it easier to identify when something in your treatment plan needs adjusting.

#1. Emotional Relapse

Relapsing begins before you even consider using substances again. This is the first stage of relapse, the emotional relapse.

In the emotional relapse stage, you stop using the tools you learned during treatment to manage your substance use symptoms. Denial is heavily present in this stage. Since you are not actively thinking of using, it can be easy to convince yourself that you are not entering a relapse cycle.

Some signs of emotional relapse include the following:

  • Bottling up your emotions
  • Self-isolating
  • Not going to recovery meetings
  • No longer sharing at recovery meetings
  • Poor general self-care (poor eating, sleeping, emotional management, physical management, etc.)

#2. Mental Relapse

At this stage of relapse, you begin to think about using. There might be a mental war going on inside of your head “to us or not to use.”

Bargaining is often a part of this phase. This could include creating situations where it's “acceptable” to use substances. You might think “I'll only do it once” or convince yourself that you can healthily manage your substance use.

Some other mental relapse symptoms include:

  • Craving the substance
  • Thinking about things associated with using the substance (i.e., people or places)
  • Glamorizing past substance use and minimizing consequences
  • Looking for opportunities to relapse
  • Planning to relapse

#3. Physical Relapse

The last phase of relapse is physical relapse. This is when you physically give in to the temptation to use.

Without seeking treatment, this inevitably turns into chronic use of the substance. However, with the proper support system, you may never get to this final stage of relapse.

How Strength-Based Training Can Stop the Relapse Cycle

A large part of recovery involves accepting responsibility for wrongdoings and identifying your shortcomings. However, it is equally important to identify your strengths.

Strength-based training uses the practices of positive psychology. During a strength-based training session, a mental health professional focuses on your existing resources, resilience, and positive qualities. The better you understand your strengths, the more equipped you will be to use them in a pinch.

This will build your confidence. Strength-based training can also give you a more positive world perspective, which can be a powerful tool in relapse prevention. If you view yourself as a competent person with access to helpful resources, you are less likely for setbacks to initiate a deeper psychological spiral that could lead to relapsing.

Relapse may be a part of your recovery journey. Encountering relapse doesn't mean that you've failed in your recovery or that you have to start over again. The sooner you identify that you are entering the relapse cycle, the quicker you can get help, and the easier it will be for you to get back on a healthy recovery path. Pathways Recovery Center believes in strength-based training, which can help you identify your positive qualities and existing resources. We also have a sober living program that can serve as a preventive relapse measure. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, call (888) 771-0966 to learn how we can meet you where you are in recovery.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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