Understanding the Three Stages of Relapse

Understanding the Three Stages of Relapse

Recovery is a process of personal growth and developmental milestones, with many checkpoints along the way. It is a personal journey that differs from person to person and is not a linear process. For each individual, the road to recovery will be different in terms of relapse and risk, making relapse prevention skills essential at any stage of recovery.

Understanding the process of relapse is a key component in establishing a path to long-term recovery. Contrary to popular belief, relapse isn’t a spur-of-the-moment event and typically occurs as a three-part process. The earlier you are able to identify the signs of a relapse and begin implementing coping skills, the more likely you are to see success.

The three stages typically occur as follows:

Emotional relapse
Emotional relapse is often the first stage of relapse, and it occurs before someone in recovery even begins to consider using again. This stage is the resurfacing of negative emotions which can pave the way to an eventual return to using. Although it is different for everyone, this stage can include some of the following:

  • Abandoning routine
  • Not going to meetings or therapy
  • Keeping an irregular sleep schedule
  • Binge eating unhealthy foods
  • Self-Isolating 

Mental relapse

This stage of relapse is more overt, and the individual begins to actively consider using again. It can be likened to a war of the mind, where a part of them wants to use, and part of them does not. Once direct thoughts about using arise it’s very difficult to stop the process.
This stage can be characterised:

  • Reminiscing or thinking back to previous times of drug use. 
  • Romanticizing, rationalizing, or even pondering the logistics of resuming drug use.
  • Thoughts that centre around “just this one time” and “I’ve stopped once, I’ll be able to stop again”

Physical relapse
At this point, the individual begins to use again, breaking their sobriety This stage is commonly what people refer to when they think of relapse. Although it can occur as a once-off event, it can also lead to continued use, and the potential to enter back into consistent substance abuse is prevalent.

It is important to realise that relapse is a process that can be stopped, and not just something that happens after a moment’s decision. Once the process has begun, it does not mean that a relapse is imminent, and often recognising the signs early on can be helpful in preparing an exit strategy.  
A strong support system, coupled with individualized treatment and aftercare, is a key component to ensuring a long-term recovery — not just from the addiction itself, but from the mental state that preceded it.

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