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How to recognize warning signs of relapse

Not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol or participates in bad behavior will develop addictive behaviors. Similarly, not everyone who seeks recovery will relapse. However, relapse is a normal and common part of recovery. Some start using or drinking again, thinking they can “control it this time,” or to fit back in socially, or to escape the difficulties and challenges of sobriety. There are warning signs you should be aware of that would put you at risk for developing those addictive behaviors again, and slipping into relapse.

Common triggers for drug relapse 

While there is no absolute way to determine if you will relapse, experts have reported very specific risk factors that might make you justify using again. Triggers usually fall into three categories: emotional, environmental and exposure.

Triggers include:

-          Negative emotions like anger, fear, frustration, irritability, anxiety, depression, loneliness, and stress
-          Being exposed to drugs you used to use
-          Social pressures
-          Catching up with old friends who used to use
-          Coming across items or things that remind you of your addiction
-          Other substances or behaviors you are starting to rely on (for example, someone who was once addicted to heroin may become addicted to a new relationship in order to escape the stresses of recovery)
-          Positive emotions like feeling better, which could cause overconfidence

There are also other situations that could also cause relapse, like loss of a job, a divorce, financial strain or even boredom.

Stages to relapse

There are stages to relapse, and each stage has its own warning signs. In order to understand how to prevent a full relapse, make yourself familiar with these stages. Relapse can begin months before you find yourself physically acting out.

The three stages to relapse are emotional, mental and physical.

Emotional warning signs for drug relapse 

Emotional relapse means that you’re not actually thinking of using – not yet. You are, however, feeling certain things that may be leading you toward the next stage of relapse.

-          You are lethargic and unmotivated
-          You are constantly anxious, scared, suspicious or paranoid, often for no reason at all
-          You are always craving your drug
-          You are depressed, aggressive, irritable or frustrated
-          You start to experience financial strain, legal problems, and your relationships are beginning to fall apart, just like they did when you first admitted you had a problem
-          You are defensive when someone gently reminds you to keep at recovery
-          You are experiencing extreme mood swings, going from happiness to agitation in a matter of minutes
-          You’re no longer going to meetings
-          You’re not asking for help

Mental warning signs for a drug relapse 

In this stage, you’re starting to think about maybe using again. There’s still a part of you that doesn’t. In the beginning of this stage, you’re just thinking about what it was like to use, and what it might be like to use again. As you get deeper in this stage, you’re definitely thinking about – and considering – using.

Some of the signs of mental relapse include:

-          Fantasizing and thinking fondly of your past use
-          Thinking about the people, the places and things you enjoyed when you were using
-          Lying to people about what you’re thinking or doing
-          Seeking out and hanging out with old friends who used with you
-          Planning your relapse

This is a very challenging phase, but if you make the right choices here, you can avoid physical relapse. When you are in this stage, tell someone right away that you’re thinking about using again. Call on a sober friend, your therapist, and increase the number of times you attend meetings.

Consider the ABC method, which stands for anticipation, behavior and consequence. Play your movie out in your head. Think of how exciting it is to anticipate going back to that old lifestyle. Pretend you’re going through with it. And then realize that the consequence of going through it all again is just a nasty, vicious cycle, and you’ll end up right back where you started. It isn’t so appealing when you think about it this way.

Warning signs of physical relapse 

The effects of your drug use will start to show on your body. The American Society of Addiction Medicine lists the following as physical signs of an addiction or relapse:

-          Bloodshot eyes
-          Chronic congestion
-          Weight loss
-          Sores on face, arms, legs or torso
-          Poor dental health
-          Chronic nosebleeds
-          Poor sleeping and eating habits
-          Poor personal hygiene (you could be neglecting to brush your teeth, wash your hair, or even bathe)
-          You are experiencing severe cravings, and are angry, depressed or anxious when you aren’t taking your drug
-          You are isolating yourself from your friends and family and only spending time with those who use
-          You are constantly calling in sick because you feel physically unwell, almost like you always have the flu

If you avoid the warning signs in the first two stages of relapse, you may find yourself in physical relapse before you know it. At this final stage, it’s very hard to stop the process of relapse.

How do I prevent relapse?

It isn’t easy to control situations or circumstances that might come your way every day that you’re in recovery, so the best thing to do is always be prepared. Recognize your triggers and lean on your support system to help you avoid those triggers. Ask someone to help you know and watch out for these triggers and warning signs. Avoid any people or places that encourage your cravings, and keep going to support group meetings to talk about what you’re feeling and thinking. Finally, avoid exposure to any drugs.

If you need help with any stage of relapse, or just have questions and need guidance, contact us today. 


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