Breaking the Cycle of Relapse: Tips for Staying Sober

Breaking the Cycle of Relapse

One of the most challenging aspects of the recovery process is preventing relapse. Many people who are successfully treated for addiction experience at least one of these setbacks. However, it’s key to understand that, rather than being a personal failure, this is just another step on your recovery journey. 

Despite being hard to deal with, you can often learn a great deal from a relapse: it can grant you the wisdom to recognise what precipitated it, along with the foresight to prevent a future occurrence. 

In this article, we’ll look at some of the risk factors of relapse along with strategies that can help you stay on track. Whether it’s treatments, a support network, or a healthy routine, we want to empower you to overcome the obstacles you face so you can live a healthier, happier life.

Remember, recovery is a unique and personal journey—what works for one person may not work for another. However, by utilising the methods and tools that work for you, you’ll be able to build a sturdy foundation for lasting sobriety.

What is a relapse? 

In the context of addiction recovery, relapse refers to the recurrence of drug or alcohol use after a period of abstinence. Typically, there are three stages to relapse: emotional, mental, and physical. 

  • The emotional stage involves experiencing negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, and depression, which can lead to thoughts of using drugs or alcohol to cope. 
  • The mental stage involves rationalising drug or alcohol use and minimising the negative consequences of using. 
  • The physical stage entails using drugs or alcohol and returning to addictive behaviours.

While feelings of guilt, shame, or inadequacy may arise in the event of a relapse, it’s important to realise that it’s actually a common occurrence among people in recovery. Data shows that 40% to 60% of those with substance use disorders will experience some kind of relapse post-treatment. 

Identifying the early warning signs

Identifying the early warning signs of relapse can help you prevent one from occurring. These can include: 

  • Contemplating or dwelling on former drug use
  • Refusing or avoiding emotional support
  • Resuming contact with people and locations associated with past addictions
  • Noticing returns to behaviours associated with when you were using
  • Discontinuing the medication recommended for an addiction condition.

If you notice signs like these, we recommend you seek support as soon as you can. Even something as simple as talking to a trusted friend can help you resist cravings and stay on track.

What can trigger a relapse?

depressed woman indoors at home, mental health and alcohol addiction concept

While there are many risk factors for relapse, one of the central ones is a lack of understanding of what recovery entails. This can lead to a false presumption, namely, that when the substance use has ended, the worst is over. Unfortunately, this is far from true. 

Post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) refers to symptoms that can persist well after the initial detox period. Depending on your substance use, co-occurring mental disorder, or unique biochemistry, these can result in anxiety, irritability, sleep problems, fatigue, depression, brain fog, or a combination of the above. 

The triggers for relapse cover a wide spectrum: they can be as subtle as a wayward thought, or as explicit as a friend coming over with a bottle of wine. Ultimately, recovery is a lifelong process; one that requires constant vigilance and discipline. This is why proper education, aftercare and long-term support are essential for breaking the cycle of relapse.

Risk factors for relapse

One of the reasons relapse is so common, and recovery often proves challenging, is due to the number of risk factors there are. These can be psychological, internal, behavioural, and environmental.

Psychological risk factors

  • Poor self-efficacy—a lack of belief in your ability to control an addiction.
  • Positive outcome expectancy—the preconception that the substance or behaviour will result in a positive effect, such as improved mood, less anxiety, or sociability.
  • Lacking the drive and motivation to take steps towards recovery.
  • Not having the necessary coping skills.
  • A lack of emotional or social support.
  • The persistence of cravings.

Internal risk factors

  • Co-occurring mental health disorders can trigger a desire to use a substance to cope with symptoms.
  • Simply “being bored” can give rise to the temptation to use.
  • HALT is an acronym used by many recovery programs and refers to being hungry, angry, lonely, or tired.

Behavioural risk factors

  • Staying in contact with others who use or sell drugs.
  • Withdrawing/isolating from others—without healthy social interaction, the temptation to use can increase.
  • Being in the presence of alcohol or drugs (like at a bar or party).
  • Failing to reach out to your support network when under duress.

Environmental risk factors

friends enjoy talking, drinking wine and eating pizza in the party
  • Living or working in a location where substance use is common.
  • Exposure to substance use in your home life. For example, if a partner, roommate, or parent has an alcohol or substance use disorder.  
  • Lack of accessible AA meetings or other recovery support groups.

Even these considerable risks aren’t the whole story, and research shows that a person’s epigenetics can also be a deciding factor in their likelihood of relapsing. 

This is why achieving lasting sobriety requires not only a heroic degree of personal commitment, but also a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to your unique needs. 

What is sobriety? 

Sobriety generally refers to a state of abstinence from alcohol or drugs. With respect to addiction recovery, it’s used to describe a person’s commitment to living a drug or alcohol-free life. 

As previously mentioned, maintaining abstinence is an ongoing process, usually requiring making positive changes to your lifestyle, thoughts, and behaviours. 

When you’re in the throes of addiction, sobriety can feel insurmountable. However, although many people don’t receive the treatment they need, those that do have a high chance of achieving lasting sobriety. For example, 85% to 95% of addiction sufferers reported being sober nine months post-rehab

While staying sober can be a challenge, there are many methods that can support your recovery journey. These can enable you to take back control and build a fulfilling life. 

Six strategies that can help you stay on track

1. Recognise and avoid former habits and routines 

Even when you stop using a drug or engage in addictive behaviour, old routines can make maintaining sobriety much harder. By frequenting the same hangouts or socialising with people who have a negative influence on you, you’ll be more likely to succumb to old habits. 

Therefore, it’s essential you stay away from the people you used to consume drugs with or buy them from. Hanging out with your drug dealer or old drinking companions will likely bombard you with a wave of triggers that will make it harder to resist.

To avoid passing places or encountering people that could derail your recovery, you may also have to change your commute to work or plan all your routes in advance.

2. Foster healthier connections

Interpersonal relationships are a central pillar of recovery. In the light of sobriety, you may have the perspective to recognise which of your former relationships were toxic. Contrary to popular belief, it isn’t only dealers or those you used to do drugs with who can trigger you. Even close friends and family members have the potential to contribute to a relapse. 

Sometimes, distancing yourself or ending a friendship can be one of the hardest actions to take, but your sobriety is of chief importance, regardless of whether a person feels hurt as a result of your decision. 

There’s a reason codependent relationships are so common among substance users. Often, due to feelings of shame, the threat of loneliness, or a desire to help, you may feel trapped in one. 

In other cases, even if you communicate your situation to a friend or colleague, they may still inadvertently enable you. 

Studies show that unhealthy relationships increase the chance of relapse, so be strong and begin fostering connections with people who respect your recovery.

3. Use your support networks

people hugging smiling man with alcohol addiction during group therapy

Today, support for addiction recovery can take many forms. By providing a safe space to connect with people who can empathise with you, support groups have been shown to be a highly effective way to maintain sobriety. Even spending time with loved ones who’ll honour your commitment can be immensely helpful. 

Furthermore, seeking professional help—whether that’s a peer support specialist or psychotherapist—can help you to develop positive thinking patterns and healthy coping mechanisms. 

Remember, no matter how secure you might feel, the temptation can raise its head at any time, or you may begin experiencing sobriety fatigue (the physical and emotional stress of staying sober). This is when an easily accessible support network can be a lifesaver. 

4. Develop a healthy lifestyle

Alcohol and substance use can take a toll on your body and mind. Even after recovery, it may take some time before you can achieve a healthy equilibrium. 

However, there are many ways you can help this process along and get your brain to produce those feel-good chemicals! These include: 

  • A healthy diet. Unhealthy foods can be a trigger in themselves, so make sure you have a balanced diet of whole, unprocessed foods that will be beneficial for your mood, energy, and health.
  • High-quality sleep and rest. Sleep is perhaps the most important component of health and well-being. Ensuring you implement good sleep hygiene and get enough rest will serve your sobriety well.
  • Meditation or mindfulness. These practices can help you create a sense of calm and peace that will help overcome triggers.
  • Engaging in hobbies you enjoy. By providing a healthy outlet, a chosen pursuit can help you build self-esteem, reforge a sense of purpose, and reduce your sense of isolation.
  • Regular exercise. Running, weight training, or simply walking has a hugely positive impact on your health. Not only does exercise keep you fit and give you a bump in your feel-good neurotransmitters, but it has also been shown to be an effective way to decrease cravings.  

5. Replace chaos with order

Often, those who have dealt with addictions end up living disorganised or chaotic lives. Even post-treatment, a lack of structure can derail your commitment to sobriety, which is why it’s crucial you do your best to adhere to an ordered routine.

A clearly defined daily structure can help you accomplish your life goals—whether they’re short-term, like being punctual or reliable, or long-term, such as reentering education or advancing in your career.

Setting and achieving your life objectives isn’t secondary to lasting recovery but part and parcel of the process. Ultimately, creating a newfound purpose and working towards goals will strengthen your commitment to life-long sobriety.

6. Celebrate your victories!

Even when you’ve made it through the hardest stages of recovery, shame can be an annoyingly persistent feeling. It’s essential you know that, despite what you’ve done or who you may have hurt, staying sober is a mountainous achievement. 

By celebrating how far you’ve come, along with the progress you continue to make, you’ll help to engender a sense of well-being, self-esteem, and gratitude—all key for helping you stay on track. Just ensure you reward yourself with healthy perks, like a social gathering or a nice meal.

How can Centres for Health & Healing help?

Online support and outpatient

At Centres for Health and Healing, we’ve enabled countless people to achieve lasting sobriety. Consequently, we understand that recovery doesn’t end when primary treatments finish. 

Maintaining sobriety is a life-long commitment, which is why we offer extensive outpatient support services and follow-up, including psychotherapy, family therapy, mindfulness programs and unlimited access to multimedia resources. 

We also provide 12 months of personalised aftercare and support with all our treatment plans, to guide, motivate and support you as your transition back to everyday life–and aid your successful long-term recovery.  

If you’d like to talk to us about how we can help you stay sober, or anything else, please contact us.

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