Process of relapse



3- Process of Relapse


This page describes why relapse is a process that typically goes through three key phases. Knowledge of this information aims to raise your awareness of where you may be in this process, so that you can use recovery tools to prevent yourself from falling prey to addiction again.


1. Emotional relapse

2. Mental relapse

3. Physical relapse  


The potential to relapse is part of the nature of addiction, and statistics show that around 50% of those of us who enter recovery use drugs again in the first year. Recovery from the disease of addiction like other chronic illness is a daily affaire. If we don’t take the right measures to address our recovery on a daily basis, if we don’t adjust our lifestyle in accordance with the requirements of our disease, then we are bound to go back to using drugs because that is how we have learned to cope with life.

In the case with the disease of addiction, a relapse begins before we physically use drugs again. Relapse is a process that goes through emotional and mental phases before we finally find ourselves in a place where we think we have no choice but to use drugs again. When we go back to our old attitudes, old feelings, and old behaviors, when we stop working our program and ignore the support of our Fellowship then we go back to doing what we have done for a lifetime — we use drugs to deal with or escape from life. As they say in the Fellowship, by the time we pick up a drug, we have already relapsed in our minds! So it is our emotions and thinking patterns that require our vigilance, if we hope to maintain our recovery. If we become aware that our attitudes and feelings are slipping back to our old and destructive ways, we can then take healthy actions and employ coping mechanisms and recovery tools to stop the process from disintegrating into a final physical relapse. For these are the phases where we still have power of choice and control to stop our disease from sabotaging us into using drugs again.


Below is a description of the phases that lead us addicts in recovery towards a relapse. Through knowledge of what happens during each of these phases, you can use recovery tools to prevent yourself from using drugs again.


Process of relapse - 3 Phases of addiction relapse


Phase 1 – Emotional Relapse

Before you actually start using drugs again you have what is called an emotional relapse. In an emotional relapse, you’re not thinking about using drugs, but your emotions and feelings are paving the way for you to do so. This is when in recovery; you are constantly feeling stressed and overwhelmed. When you find it difficult to process or manage your feeling and emotions and either disregard them or allow them to dominate your life. If you become aware that you are finding it difficult to cope with your emotions, then this is the time to take healthy actions by using recovery tools and principles to better manage these feelings. Failure to do so can increase your emotional stress and negative feelings, leading you to the next phase of the relapse process – Mental relapse. This is when your old addictive thinking patterns emerge to finally convince you the only way to cope with these feelings is to use drugs again. We can be in an Emotional relapse for weeks or even years and not regard them as warning signs. But as many bitter experiences has shown, if we don’t manage our feelings in recovery, eventually we go back to our old and instinctive ways of coping or escaping from life.

Remember that we are more prone to Emotional relapse in our early days in recovery when we may be suffering from withdrawal symptoms that tend to make us feel super sensitive. Both our mind and body are adjusting to going without their chemical supply, and part of the healing process is for our emotions to be erratic and to experience physical discomfort. But recognizing that such things as mood swings or poor sleep patterns are part of withdrawal symptoms — and therefore temporary – will help you deal with them. Or if you see yourself getting anxious and defensive and tending to isolate, then you can use the tools of the program to deal with these feelings and behaviours.

There is extensive information and suggestions on how to cope with your withdrawal symptoms in Drug Detox & withdrawal.


The signs of emotional relapse are:

  • Feeling emotionally overwhelmed
  • Unable to cope with feelings
  • Feeling constantly stressed
  • Anxiety
  • Intolerance
  • Anger and frustration
  • Defensiveness
  • Mood swings
  • Isolation
  • Not asking for help
  • Not going to meetings
  • Poor eating habits
  • Poor sleep habits


Phase 2 – Mental Relapse

In Mental relapse there’s a war going on in our mind. The “addict” part of you wants to use, but the “recovery” part doesn’t. In the Fellowships they often refer to Mental relapse as our “stinking thinking”. This is when our thinking patterns revert to its familiar yet distorted and insane ways. This is when instead of using healthy and recovery tools and our support system, our addict way of thinking slowly eludes us to use drugs again. We may on the surface, be doing all the right recovery things, sitting in a meeting and doing service and all, but our head is elsewhere, fantasizing about how drugs will bring relief and escape. We need to remember, our disease of addiction is fundamentally rooted in our minds, and this is how it tries to sabotage us by taking us back to our destructive yet natural ways of coping with life. But if we recognize that our thinking is reverting back to its old ways, then this is the time that we still have the power to take action by employing recovery measures to prevent a final relapse. This is when we need to ask for help and use the tools and the support our Fellowship offers to draw us back into recovery mode. At times the disease of addiction is likened to the devil, for it plays such subtle games on our minds that half the time we are not even aware of what is going on before it is too late. This is why when it comes to breaking free from addiction we can never rely on our thinking. We learn that we must rely on a Higher Power to relieve us of our obsessions, and that we must seek the support of our Fellowship. It is imperative that we take the right recovery actions during the mental relapse. The alternative is that we give in to our addictive thinking, which leads to the final stage – physically using drugs again.

There is extensive information on the types of feelings and thinking that dominate us during this phase of a relapse in: Relapse Warning Signs.


Some signs of mental relapse are:

  • Thinking about people, places, and things you used drugs with
  • Glamorizing your past drug use
  • Lying to yourself and others
  • Hanging out with old using friends
  • Fantasizing about using drugs
  • Thinking about relapsing
  • Planning your relapse


Phase 3 – Physical Relapse

When you fail to manage your emotional stresses and are once again wrapped in your old insane thinking patterns, you will eventually fall victim to a physical relapse. In other words, you will use drugs again because your disease – thinking has convinced you there is no other way to cope with life. This is a general pattern amongst most of us who relapse and one that may take weeks, months or years. But the truth is, recovery is about changing our whole way thinking, our attitudes and our behaviors. If we don’t learn how to feel and deal with life in healthy ways, eventually we are bound to go back to what is familiar.

We have had a relapse and used drugs again. So what do you do now? Do we use it as an excuse and continue using drugs or do we pick ourselves up again and start again. The great danger is that once we start using drugs again we set into motion the vicious cycle of our disease. Mentally and physically activated, our obsession to use drugs and our cravings come back, making it ever more difficult to restart our recovery. But what we have to remember is that we have a choice. A physical relapse does not mean we are doomed to continue using drugs. Instead we can remind ourselves as people suffering from a chronic disease we have momentarily lapsed in recovery and have gone back to our old ways because this is what we are most familiar with. It is our choice then to make the decision to pick ourselves up again and continue in our journey towards daily recovery. Remember relapse can be your biggest friend because it can teach us about our character and help us grow in life and recovery.

For information and suggestions on how to take healthy actions and get yourself back into recovery, please refer to: Actions After a Relapse

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