No matter how committed someone is to their recovery from substance use, the risk of relapse is an ever present threat. Even individuals with decades of sobriety under their belt are not bulletproof. Anyone in recovery can succumb to the lure of that misguided notion—It’s safe to have “just one beer”—and find themselves mired in relapse.
Having a realistic attitude about the power of a substance use disorder is the first important step in preventing substance relapse. Understanding how deeply entrenched the neural pathways are that kept one trapped in the cycle of substance use can provide a certain level of respect for the foe. Keep your enemies close, as the saying goes, so they cannot wreak havoc in your life.
Whether one has just completed a recovery program and is new to sobriety or has decades of sobriety tenure, it is always cogent to remind oneself of the stealthy signs that a relapse may be in the making. Knowing the warning signs provides opportunity to take protective measures and actionable steps in an effort to ward off a substance relapse.
6 Early Warning Signs of a relapse
Some of the predictors of substance relapse might include:
- Becoming lax in recovery efforts. Most individuals who complete a recovery program are highly motivated to maintain sobriety. They are pumped. They have the recovery tools at hand. They may get a sponsor. Early recovery usually involves strict adherence to new healthy habits and activities that help reinforce and sustain recovery, such as participating in a recovery community, engaging in outpatient therapy or groups, disengaging from dysfunctional acquaintances or former friendships, changing daily habits to improve physical and mental wellness, and seeking out new sober social activities. When someone begins to eliminate these positive changes from their routine, such as abandoning therapy and meetings and revert to old social habits, it is a warning sign that a relapse is in the making.
- Unregulated stress. Stress is the number one trigger for both substance misuse and relapse to substance use in recovery. During inpatient treatment, the individual is taught holistic methods to help reduce stress, increase relaxation, and regulate emotions. These are highly effective tools that should be included in daily life after treatment, as they become important coping skills in recovery. These activities include such things as getting regular exercise, yoga, meditation or prayer, journaling, massage therapy, deep breathing techniques, and art therapy. When these coping skills are no longer included in the usual routine it can allow stress levels to become a destabilizing force in recovery, possibly leading the individual to reach for the substance as a coping tool instead.
- Withdrawing socially. Social support is an essential component in a sustained recovery. This is because in sobriety the individual must make new friends who will be supportive of their recovery efforts, as well as keeping them accountable. It is a reciprocal relationship; friends helping friends stay strong in recovery. New sober friendships can be made through recovery communities, sober Meetup groups, and through sober acquaintances at work. Slowly pulling away from socializing is a warning sign of impending relapse, with isolation and loneliness becoming a serious threat to recovery.
- Negative life event. Emotional distress is a powerful trigger for relapse. If someone in recovery experiences one or more seriously traumatizing life events, such as the sudden loss of a loved one, physical or sexual assault, a serious medical diagnosis, a serious accident or injury, or a natural disaster, they may be at much higher risk for relapse to substance use. Managing these difficult life events without the substance may seem impossible to the individual in recovery, so it is important to recognize when to get additional support.
- Denial. At some juncture along the recovery continuum it is common for individuals to reach a point when it feels safe to go ahead and enjoy a glass of champagne at the wedding or a beer at the ballgame. After a certain number of years of sobriety this can be very tempting. Concurrently, there is also a propensity to begin cutting off individuals that were a source of accountability, and surrounding oneself with people who are not as supportive of sobriety, only intensifying the potential for putting recovery at risk by indulging in an impulse that could result in full blown relapse back to substance use.
- Change in personal habits. In early recovery, individuals are motivated to restore their health and wellness, as well as establish new, healthy daily routines. This means getting on a regular sleep schedule, and improving dietary intake by limiting sugary or processed foods, caffeine, and high fat foods. Self-improvement efforts also include physical activity, attention to personal hygiene and grooming, and acquiring new organizational skills to help keep order in one’s life. When there is an impending relapse, a softening, or outright abandonment of these positive habits may be an important warning sign.
Supportive Aftercare Program
Shore up recovery by maintaining adherence to a supportive aftercare program following inpatient treatment. Include outpatient counseling, exercise, recovery group participation, and possibly sober living housing to reinforce sobriety. Be proactive when the signs of relapse begin to emerge.