You may be humming along in recovery for months or even years when, seemingly without warning, you find yourself returning to substance use. The word “seemingly” is key, as relapse is most often a process, not an event. Prior to that moment when the decision is made to return to substance use there were probably warning signs flashing—signs that may have been dismissed.
For many, even those with a solid recovery under their belt, the disease can begin to re-emerge incrementally. The risk for relapse grows steadily if proactive steps are not taken to take back control. By learning the early signs of a relapse you are better equipped to recognize the dangers and to act on them.
How to Detect Early Signs of Relapse
No one in substance use recovery is shielded from the possibility of experiencing a relapse. However, relapse doesn’t just happen; it typically evolves over a period of weeks. Detect the early signs of relapse, such as:
- Diminishing contact with sponsor. Many have utilized the help of a recovery sponsor or mentor as an important source of support and accountability. If you find yourself avoiding contact with your sponsor it is a red flag that recovery is wavering.
- Neglecting recovery practices. Even the most committed individual can slowly lose interest in the efforts needed to maintain sobriety. Check in and do an honest inventory: Are you missing meetings? Did you cancel your therapy appointments? Have you been hanging out with old friends who engage in substance use?
- Increasing symptoms of anxiety or depression. Deteriorating mental health can be a risk factor for relapse. Symptoms of emotional distress, such as mood swings, angry outbursts, depression, suicidal thoughts, or anxiety, often precede a relapse.
- Neglecting appearance. In the weeks or days preceding a relapse it may become apparent that you are no longer taking care of your personal appearance or attending to routine hygiene practices. You may simply cease to be concerned about how you look.
- Romanticizing past substance use. You might find yourself longing for the relief that a substance once provided. Romanticizing the past is a common trap that may blur the memory just enough to result in a relapse.
- Becoming socially isolated. Isolating behaviors increase as relapse nears. Avoiding contact with friends and family can increase feelings of loneliness and reduce accountability in recovery, both which can lead to relapse.
How to Avoid Relapse
One of the foremost challenges of the recovery journey is adjusting to life without the substance that once served to dull life’s difficulties. Raw emotions and stressors that were previously softened and blurred by the substance are now fully experienced in recovery. These uncomfortable emotions can set off a domino effect that may threaten sobriety. By acknowledging the presence of triggers or troubling behavioral changes it is possible to head off a relapse by following up with actions:
- Revisit your relapse prevention plan. The relapse prevention plan is a blueprint for maintaining accountability to yourself and your recovery. When recognizing the warning signs of a relapse, go on the offense and engage in the actions defined in your relapse prevention plan. Remind yourself why you went into treatment and what you have to lose, and make a mindful decision to wrest back control over your recovery.
- Increase meeting attendance. While recovery meetings or having a sponsor are no guarantee to maintaining sobriety, they can add an added layer of accountability and social support, which is known to be protective. Recommit to daily meetings for a month or two to solidify your recovery. Engage more openly with your sponsor, and if you don’t have one, get one. Also, volunteer to serve in some capacity at meetings or sober events.
- Commit to healthy routines. As the warning signs for relapse begin to gather momentum, the healthy routines you established in recovery may begin to fall away. Lapsing back to pre-recovery habits, such as eating unhealthy foods, not getting sufficient sleep, neglecting responsibilities, or a lack of physical activity are signs of impending relapse. Recommit to keeping a regular daily routine, including a healthy diet, regular exercise, and a consistent sleep schedule to avoid a relapse.
- Build a sober network. Loneliness and isolation are both detrimental to emotional health and can trigger a relapse. Having a go-to social network is essential in maintaining a positive mindset in recovery. Seek out sober Meetup groups where a common interest will provide opportunities to make new sober friends. Socialize with sober friends and attend events, movies, concerts, or ballgames together.
- Increase self-care practices. Neglecting self-care can be detrimental in recovery. Substance use recovery is difficult, especially during the first year or so. If you feel yourself wobbling, recommit to activities that will improve mental health, such as continuing to participate in outpatient therapy and practicing relaxation techniques. Other helpful self-care practices include therapeutic massage, acupuncture, and meditation. Stay up to date on preventative healthcare and dental visits as well. Strengthen the mind-body connection to stabilize recovery.
Recovery exists on a continuum, with peaks and valleys encountered along the journey. When a valley comes into view, take proactive steps to get back onto level ground as early as possible.
Ashley Addiction Treatment provides comprehensive substance recovery in the state of Maryland. For information about our evidence-based treatment program, please contact us today at (866) 697-9369.