Tackling Drug or Alcohol Relapse With a Healthy Mindset
by Michael Walsh
Recovering from an alcohol or drug problem is tough work, and the rate of slips or relapse across all programs of recovery is higher than most people want to talk about. [updated March 2023]
But, rather than push away this unwanted reality, I’d like to unpack some of the thinking around drug and alcohol relapse.
Like most people in long term recovery, I spent a few years trying to get sober before finally stopping completely over 15 years ago. While I sometimes find myself wishing I could have quit sooner than I did, I also realize that the time I spent in limbo, going back and forth between drinking and being abstinent was not wasted time.
It was part of my journey, and ultimately served to prepare me for long term sobriety.
The truth of the matter is that the road to recovery is rarely a straight shot.
But, a slip or relapse doesn’t have to put you back at ground zero. And you never (at least with me) lose the gains you've made prior to a slip or a relapse.
When treated with respect and care, a relapse or slip can be a valuable learning opportunity to propel you further along the path to long term sustainable abstinence.
So let’s dive in and look at:
- How to manage healthy expectations around recovery
- What to do when you experience a drug or alcohol relapse, and
- How to avoid slips in the future
Stages of Drug and Alcohol Relapses and Slips
There are many things that can contribute to a relapse or slip, including social pressure, difficulty in adopting new coping strategies, and challenging life situations that can send you back to old ways of managing stress.
But understanding the various stages of drug and alcohol relapse can help you catch warning signs and prevent the full relapse from occurring in the first place.
The stages of drug and alcohol relapse include:(1)
During this stage, a person is not actively thinking about using drugs or alcohol, but they are engaging in behaviors and emotional situations that make them more prone to physical relapse. This might include skipping support meetings that they previously found helpful, isolating from supportive friends/family, or taking on too much responsibility at work. Maintaining good self-care routines and healthy boundaries will help you avoid an emotional relapse.
During this stage of relapse, a person begins thinking or even fantasizing about the use of drugs or alcohol. They might daydream about how nice it would be to catch up over drinks with an old friend, and begin to run through potential scenarios of using the substance, while downplaying the potential negative consequences.
This stage of relapse is what we most often think of when we talk about drug and alcohol relapse. This is where the person has decided to drink or use drugs or alcohol.
Staying aware of your own thoughts and behaviors allows you to notice when you’ve entered into an emotional or mental relapse, and can therefore help you avoid a physical relapse.
Maintaining a Healthy Mindset Around Drug and Alcohol Relapses and Slips
Even with great effort and vigilance, slips happen. It’s important to remember that letting go of old habits and learning new skills is no easy feat.
The last thing you want to do when you relapse or slip is to let your mind run wild with negative self talk, creating a downward shame spiral.
Imagine for a moment that you haven’t worked out in many years. Maybe you’ve got multiple young kids at home, or a demanding job that leaves you feeling burnt out most days of the week.
Slowly but surely, you notice that you’ve stopped running and training for those half marathons you used to do twice a year. And before you know it, it’s been over five years since you completed a half-marathon. You miss the feeling of accomplishment that running gave you, and decide to put a plan in place so you can get back into running.
Sobriety is much like the half-marathon.
Just as you wouldn’t expect perfection in reestablishing a workout routine and reaching a record-breaking time at your next half-marathon, you shouldn’t expect perfection in recovery. There will likely be periods where you fall back into old habits, and times where you throw in the towel and don’t complete the run.
BUT you keep at it, and before you know it, you’ve beat your old record time.
The important part is that you stay persistent while also honoring the natural ups and downs that come along with any big life change. Keep tabs on your overall progress and give yourself credit for doing the hard work, even when it’s not perfect.
What to Do When You Experience a Relapse or Slip
Now that we’ve explored the importance of mindset around drug and alcohol relapses, let’s talk about what you can actually DO when you experience a drug or alcohol relapse.
1. Stop drinking or using as soon as possible after the relapse
This one goes without saying, but it’s so important to keep your slip contained, rather than allow it to spiral into an extended period of drinking or using again. It’s easy to feel defeated after you’ve put so much energy and time into changing a behavior only to end up back at what feels like ground zero. But it’s not ground zero.
The sooner you can shake the relapse, and get back to your program of recovery, the sooner you can reflect on what happened and leverage this new knowledge in staying sober.
2. Seek support as soon as possible after the relapse
Ask anybody in long term recovery. The road to recovery is ultimately a personal journey, but it’s rarely traveled alone. If you haven’t already created a list of support people, start by reaching out to family or friends and opening up about your
struggle. Even if they can’t directly relate to what you’re experiencing, it can feel relieving to get your thoughts out of your head.
It’s also critical to find people who can relate more directly with your struggle. There are plenty of options including finding a qualified Recovery Coach, therapist, or checking out a local or online community support group.
3. Identify your triggers for drug or alcohol relapse
Triggers are anything that cause you to crave alcohol or drugs, potentially leading to a drug or alcohol relapse or slip. They can include anything from being around people who drink alcohol to places that bring back memories of drinking or using,
to stressful situations, or even certain foods that make you crave drugs or alcohol.
Becoming aware of your triggers can help you avoid or minimize situations that could lead to relapse. And the more attuned you are to your relapse triggers, the more empowered you are to set yourself up for success.
If you haven’t used a trigger worksheet before, try this one to help get you started.
4. Make a plan to prevent future drug or alcohol slips
Focusing on your setbacks for too long will keep you stuck. Try shifting your attention to the future by creating a thoughtful plan to avoid future relapses. This should include your relapse triggers from above, coping tactics, and specific people
in your support network that you can reach out to when you feel vulnerable to relapse.
Just as you're focusing on removing harmful things from your life, it’s also helpful to focus on adding positive things. Consider making a list of new hobbies or interests you’d like to explore so you have things to look forward to. Maybe it’s a new physical activity like mountain biking, a new style of cooking, or a music class you’ve been wanting to take for years.
Working with a Recovery Coach to Help Avoid & Manage Drug and Alcohol Relapse
While the steps outlined above seem straightforward, there are many complexities involved in getting and staying sober. It can be really scary to arrive at the realization that you have a drinking problem, no matter how big or small.
But it’s a lot less scary when you have an experienced guide to help you sort things out.
I’m an accredited Addiction Recovery Coach offering worldwide virtual support, and in-person support across Canada. If you’re interested in exploring 1:1 recovery coaching to help you cut back your drinking or stop drinking entirely, I’m happy to answer your questions.
I offer a no-charge consult call to anyone who has questions about their own substance use, or the substance use of a family member. These calls are completely confidential with no pressure to make a decision before you feel entirely ready.
I’d also like to invite you to read more about my personal story here.
If you’re ready to explore the potential of working together, I’d love to chat. Michael is based in Victoria British Columbia Canada. The other Recovery Coaches on the team are based in Nanaimo, Vancouver British Columbia Calgary, Edmonton Alberta, Toronto Ontario, Montreal Quebec, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Because we all work virtually — we can work with anyone no matter what city, province or country around the world. We have clients all across Canada and the USA, Seattle, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, New York City, Denver, Nashville, Berlin, Tel Aviv, London, Singapore and Australia.
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- Guenzel N, McChargue D. Addiction relapse prevention. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Publishing July 10, 2020.