8 warning signs that you may be heading toward a relapse

by Michael Walsh

“8 warning signs that you may be heading toward a relapse” - article by Michael Walsh

Relapse is a cardinal feature of addiction, and one of the most painful. Most people who struggle with substance use will have one or more relapses – the return to drug or alcohol use after a period of abstinence – during their ongoing attempts to recover.

Unsurprisingly, this can be extremely frustrating for patients and for families, as they have already experienced great pain.

There are usually significant behaviours (mental relapse) that can signal high risks for relapse. It is important for anyone in recovery to understand these warning signs and triggers.

What leads to relapse? Multiple – and often interactive – factors can increase the likelihood of relapse. These are some of the commonly cited precursors and triggers:

  • drug and alcohol-related “reminder” cues (sights, sounds, smells, using thoughts or dreams) tightly linked to use of the preferred substance can trigger craving and seeking
  • negative mood states or stressors
  • positive mood states or celebrations
  • Associating with old friends or partners still using substances
  • Environmental i.e. driving by the liquor store or bar on the way home from work

The motivation to seek a drug, once triggered, can feel overwhelming and sometimes leads to very poor decision making: the user will pursue the drug, despite potentially disastrous future negative consequences (and many past negative consequences.)


8 warning signs that you may be heading toward a relapse


1. Stopping all recovery related activities

The most common one for some is stopping going to peer-support meetings. They will make excuses: they’re too tired or it’s to far or I hate that meeting or there is someone there that is annoying. They may even lie and say they are going when they are not. Meetings are a lifeline for some people in recovery as it keeps them accountable.

The recovering person might stop therapy appointments because they are not ready to go that deep yet. Some will stop Sober Coaching appointments because they are not able to fulfil the commitment.

Another one is “recovery burnout.” Some people go full on recovery and then get sick of it, so much they resent the whole process. It is ok to take a break as long as you are staying healthy in other areas and seeking out some kind of support. Perhaps you need to re-evaluate your recovery plan to balance things out.

2. Glamorizing the old using days

This might take the form of remembering the good times when you were drinking or experimenting with drugs. Most recovering people had a time during which they had few consequences with substance use. They may even have had fun. At some point though they became dependent on the substances and consequences piled up. Rituals i.e. the seeking, purchasing, setting up and using substances are often glamorized and can be triggering. “Playing the tape” back to the dark days is a great tool and can often be a stark reminder to put things into perspective on why you are clean and sober today.

3. Acting your old way: selfish and moody

Sometimes this is called a “dry drunk.” You act like you did when drinking, even without the drink. Those in recovery attempt to change their attitudes. They learn that they have a tendency to personalize things and overreact. They discover that they have a low tolerance for frustration, and can get rather ornery if they don’t get what they want, when they want it. They are the focus of everything. If someone doesn’t smile at them, they take it personally. If someone else gets a promotion, it says something bad about their work.

If you have been working on this behaviours then start to see it reappear, this is a warning sign.

4. “Maybe one won’t hurt!”

If you find you are talking yourself into “just one,” this is one of the most obvious signs of an impending relapse. Those in recovery know full well the consequences of substance use, so the first step in using again is to somehow convince themselves that it wasn’t that bad, or that they have “changed” and won’t have the same issues this time around.

The rule of thumb is that those who relapse pick up right where they left off. It might take a few days or weeks, but you will rapidly be in the same place you were when you last quit drinking or using drugs.

5. Connecting with old friends again

You might excuse this as just trying to find out how old friends are doing, but if you start seeking out old drinking or using buddies or people who shared your interest in using drugs, you are heading into dangerous territory.

6. Slowly removing elements of balance and focus on sobriety

Maybe you stop journaling, stop calling healthy friends, and quit going to the gym that always helped you clear your head. You probably already stopped doing the things that are important for sobriety, but now you are removing things that keep you calm and centred. You might say you are getting lazy, and your life is likely getting more chaotic and stressful.

You might also notice you are slipping back into old deceptive patterns; you might start lying to loved ones to keep them from challenging you.You are not taking care of your emotional, spiritual, and physical health.

7. You want to reward yourself

This is an interesting one. You have achieved six months of sobriety and tell yourself you can do it! So you celebrate by using and it spirals. You get a promotion at work or nailed a killer presentation – so you celebrate. Be aware if this motive appears.

8. You are extremely defensive when anyone brings up the changes in your behaviour and attitude

This feeling will be familiar: it’s the same feeling you had when you first were encouraged to get clean and sober and wanted everyone to mind their own business. It’s very uncomfortable when others begin to notice our movement back toward a way of living that made us and most people around us miserable. Why? Because you are now in the place of moving with purpose back toward drinking and using, and the addictive personality in you is determined to get that drink or drug. For some, this can be the ultimate point of no return: you either wake up and change direction, or end up taking that inevitable first drink or drug.


There is always a way back from this movement toward a drink. The important thing is to recognize it’s happening and be honest about your attitudes and behaviours. Many a time those in recovery have heard stories where someone says, “I don’t understand; I just suddenly heard myself ordering a drink.” In truth, if that person looked back over the past few weeks and months, they would see this was the natural result of a progression toward relapse.

The sooner you catch yourself slipping back into old behaviours, the better chance you have of not slipping.

Sources: Anna Rose Childress, Ph.D.Promises Treatment Center

Michael Walsh

About the Author

Michael Walsh

When I say I’ve been there, I mean it. I am a different person now, and I am fired up about helping other people get to the place where they, too, are living better, healthier, and bigger lives.

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