The stages of relapse and what to do about it

Alcoholism and drug addiction is a chronic condition, much like heart disease or the condition of diabetes. This means that there is no cure for the disease, but it instead is managed or kept in a state of remission. When a person who suffers from alcoholism or drug addiction is sober or not using mood-altering chemicals, they are considered to be in “Recovery.”

It usually requires professional treatment for people to recover from chemical dependency, and then the goal is recovery maintenance over the years by participating in aftercare support groups such as TARP and TAP support groups and 12-step recovery fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

Even after being sober for years the potential for relapse is possible. A relapse isn’t necessarily one situation where a person in recovery slips up and has a drink or takes a drug, but it’s seen as a process where someone eventually continues their using habits as they did before recovery and sometimes the situation can be even worse than before.

It is important to keep in mind that if someone relapses, it does not mean that they have failed at recovery. One can view relapse as a learning experience and take notice of what not to do the next time around for their recovery. Although relapse is often unplanned and impulsive, there are certain warning signs that can point to a potential return to drug or alcohol use. The following are examples of the stages of relapse and what to watch out for.

Emotional relapse

During this stage, a person may not be actively thinking about using alcohol or drugs, but their behavior and actions may be setting them up to head down that path. It is during this stage that one may experience Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS), in which a person may experience emotional and psychological withdrawals rather than physical withdrawal. Some symptoms of emotional relapse can be anxiety, intolerance, anger, defensiveness, mood swings, isolation, poor eating and sleeping habits, failure to attend recovery meetings.

Mental relapse

During this stage, a person’s mind may be battling between the decision to use or not use their substance of choice. Part of the person wants to drink or use, while the other part of them wants to continue their recovery. Some of the signs of mental relapse may include reminiscing about the people and places associated with their past lifestyle, glamorizing their past use, lying, spending time with old using associates, thinking about and planning relapse.

Helpful Tips to Prevent Relapse

1. Call Someone. It can be a sponsor from the recovery fellowship, a supportive friend, or a family member. Talking your urges through may bring some clarity as to why alcohol or drug use will not solve any problems, but is sure to create more.

2. Don’t isolate yourself. You may not feel like spending time with friends or family, but use a skill called Opposite Action. Do the opposite of what the negative thoughts and feelings are telling you.

3. Use the 24-hour Rule. Make yourself wait 24 hours before acting impulsively on an urge to drink or use. You might have to make yourself wait 30 minutes at a time. Try to focus on making it one day without drinking and using.

4. Surround yourself with people who will support your recovery efforts. Stay connected to a recovery support group of people who are walking the road to recovery.


Both TARP and TAP have after-care groups for recovering persons and their families. For more information on locations and times, please call TARP at 800-522-8277 or TAP at 800-253-8326.