How to Prevent a Relapse

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

Recovery from addiction is often described as a lifelong journey, with ups and downs, twists and turns, and unexpected obstacles along the way. One of the most critical challenges faced by individuals in recovery is the risk of relapse. Relapse refers to the return to substance use after a period of abstinence, and it can be a significant setback on the road to long-term recovery. So how do you prevent a relapse?

Relapse prevention requires understanding the early warning signs, recognizing common rationalizations for relapse, effectively dealing with cravings, building a strong support system, using effective psychological coping skills, and managing triggers.

By taking these proactive steps to prevent relapse, individuals in addiction recovery can increase their chances of achieving long-term sobriety. Let’s delve further into each of these strategies.

Understand Early Warning Signs of Relapse

The journey to long-term recovery is not a straight path; there are often detours, pitfalls, and difficult terrains to navigate. To prevent relapse, it’s crucial to understand the process and identify the warning signs that may lead to a return to substance use. Relapse is not a singular event but a process that typically occurs in three stages: emotional, mental, and physical.

Stages of relapse

Emotional relapse: During this stage, individuals may experience negative emotions such as stress, anxiety, or anger, which may not be directly related to substance use but can increase the risk of relapse. Think of this stage as an unexpected storm on your journey, making it harder to see the path ahead.

Mental relapse: This stage involves an internal struggle between the desire to remain abstinent and the temptation to use substances. It’s like standing at a crossroads on your journey, unsure which direction to take.

Physical relapse: Finally, the physical act of using substances occurs. This stage is like taking a wrong turn on your journey, leading you away from your destination of long-term recovery.

Triggers and warning signs

To stay on course in your recovery journey, it’s essential to recognize the triggers and warning signs of relapse. Common triggers include stress, exposure to substances or drug-using environments, and negative emotions. Warning signs may include isolation, poor self-care, changes in behavior, or a decline in mental health.

Just as a seasoned traveler knows to pay attention to their surroundings and adjust their course as needed, individuals in recovery must remain vigilant and self-aware. Early intervention in the relapse process can help prevent a full-blown return to substance use. Recognizing warning signs and addressing them promptly can keep you on the path to long-term recovery.

Sometimes, the earlier stages are referred to as “the relapse before the relapse.” A mental relapse precedes the physical relapse. Knowing this, you can look out for common early warning signs such as those in some of the following sections.

For more early warning signs of relapse, you can check out my article on the topic here. In that article, I summarize the responses of 75 persons in recovery

Recognize Common Rationalizations

Rationalizations are mental tricks we play on ourselves to justify going back to addictive substances or behaviors. These rationalizations may seem reasonable or logical at the time, but they can ultimately lead individuals back into their addictive behaviors. Here are some of the most common rationalizations that can lead to relapse:

“I can just use one time”: This is one of the most common rationalizations for relapse. Individuals may convince themselves that they can use their addictive substance just one more time without it leading to a full-blown relapse. However, this type of thinking often leads to a slippery slope, where one use turns into several, and the individual finds themselves back in the cycle of addiction.

“I’m different now”: This rationalization involves the belief that the individual has changed and is now able to use the addictive substance in moderation. They may believe that they have gained control over their addiction and can use the substance without becoming addicted again. However, addiction is a chronic disease, and it is unlikely that an individual can regain control over their substance use once they have become addicted.

“I deserve it”: This rationalization is often used to justify substance use as a form of reward or self-care. Individuals may feel that they have been working hard or going through a difficult time and that they deserve to indulge in their addictive behavior as a way of coping. However, using addictive substances as a reward can be dangerous and lead to relapse.

“It won’t hurt just this once”: This rationalization involves the belief that using the addictive substance just once won’t have any long-term consequences. However, even a single use can trigger a relapse and lead individuals back into their addictive behaviors.

“I can handle it”: This rationalization involves the belief that the individual has control over their addiction and can use the substance without it leading to a relapse. However, addiction is a chronic disease that requires ongoing treatment and support, and it is unlikely that an individual can handle their addiction on their own.

Rationalizations that justify the use of addictive substances can be a major trigger for relapse. By being aware of these common rationalizations, individuals in addiction recovery can develop strategies to counter them, such as engaging in healthy coping mechanisms, seeking support from others, and staying vigilant about their sobriety.

With these tools and strategies, you can avoid falling into the trap of relapse and continue on their journey towards healing and recovery.

Develop a Relapse Prevention Plan

A personalized relapse prevention plan serves as a map to guide you through the challenges and obstacles that may arise on your journey to long-term recovery. Like any good map, a relapse prevention plan should include essential landmarks, directions, and resources to help you stay on course.

A relapse prevention plan should be tailored to your specific needs, strengths, and weaknesses. It should take into consideration your unique triggers, coping strategies, and support network.

An effective relapse prevention plan should include the following components:

Identifying triggers and high-risk situations: Make a list of your triggers and high-risk situations that could lead to relapse. This list serves as a “roadmap” to help you navigate potential obstacles on your journey to recovery.

Coping strategies for dealing with cravings and urges: Develop a “toolbox” of coping strategies for dealing with cravings and urges. These strategies may include distraction techniques, self-soothing activities, or reaching out to a support person. Consider this toolbox as your “travel kit” to help you stay on track when facing challenges during your journey.

For more on this topic, see my article on How to Cope with Cravings.

Building a support network: Create a network of supportive friends, family members, and professionals who can offer guidance, encouragement, and accountability. This support network serves as your “travel companions,” providing assistance and encouragement throughout your recovery journey.

Setting realistic goals and expectations: Establish short-term and long-term goals for your recovery, and be prepared to adjust your expectations as needed. Remember that the journey to long-term recovery may have detours and setbacks, so it’s crucial to remain flexible and adapt to changes along the way.

Incorporating self-care and stress management techniques: Develop a self-care routine that includes healthy habits such as exercise, proper nutrition, and stress management techniques. This self-care routine serves as the “fuel” for your journey, providing the energy and resilience needed to maintain long-term recovery.

Enhance Emotional and Mental Well-being

Maintaining emotional and mental well-being is like having a well-tuned vehicle for your journey. By ensuring that your emotional and mental “engine” is running smoothly, you’ll be better equipped to navigate the challenges and obstacles that may arise during your recovery journey.

Emotional regulation strategies
Develop techniques for managing negative emotions and increasing positive emotions. These strategies may include journaling, deep breathing exercises, or practicing gratitude. By learning to regulate your emotions, you’ll be better equipped to handle the emotional storms that may occur during your journey.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for addiction
CBT is an evidence-based therapy that focuses on changing maladaptive thought patterns and behaviors. By working with a therapist trained in CBT, you can develop new ways of thinking and behaving that support your recovery journey.

Mindfulness and meditation techniques
Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help you stay present, focused, and aware during your journey. These techniques can enhance self-awareness, reduce stress, and improve emotional regulation.

The role of therapy and support groups in maintaining emotional stability
Regular participation in therapy and support groups, such as 12-step programs or SMART Recovery, can provide ongoing emotional support and guidance.

Building a Healthy Lifestyle

Creating a healthy lifestyle is like building a strong and sturdy vehicle for your recovery journey. By incorporating healthy habits into your daily routine, you’ll be better equipped to navigate the challenges and obstacles that may arise along the way.

Importance of a balanced diet and regular exercise
A balanced diet and regular exercise can improve your physical and mental health, increase energy levels, and reduce stress. Prioritizing nutrition and fitness is like performing regular maintenance on your vehicle, ensuring that it remains in good working order throughout your journey.

Developing healthy sleep habits
Getting adequate sleep is crucial for maintaining physical and mental well-being. By establishing a consistent sleep schedule and practicing good sleep hygiene, you’ll be better prepared to face the challenges that may arise during your recovery journey.

Engaging in hobbies and recreational activities
Participating in hobbies and recreational activities can help you develop new interests, build self-esteem, and create a sense of purpose. These activities serve as “scenic routes” on your journey, providing opportunities for enjoyment, growth, and fulfillment.

Fostering positive relationships and social connections
Building and maintaining positive relationships with friends, family, and peers in recovery can provide essential support and encouragement during your journey. These connections serve as a “supportive convoy,” offering camaraderie and assistance as you navigate the challenges and obstacles of recovery.

Ongoing Monitoring and Accountability

Regular monitoring and accountability are like a GPS system for your recovery journey, helping you stay on track and alerting you to potential detours or setbacks.

Regular check-ins with a therapist or support group
Schedule consistent check-ins with a therapist or attend support group meetings to discuss your progress, challenges, and achievements. These check-ins serve as “mile markers” on your journey, providing an opportunity to assess your progress and make necessary adjustments to your course.

Utilizing recovery apps and tools for tracking progress
Recovery apps and tools can help you monitor your progress, track triggers, and stay accountable to your goals. These digital resources serve as a “navigation system” for your journey, offering guidance and support as you work toward long-term recovery.

Importance of self-reflection and learning from setbacks
Regular self-reflection can help you identify patterns, learn from setbacks, and make adjustments to your relapse prevention plan as needed. By engaging in self-reflection, you can recalibrate your “internal compass” and ensure that you remain on the path to long-term recovery.

Celebrating milestones and accomplishments in recovery
Recognize and celebrate your achievements in recovery, both big and small. These celebrations serve as “rest stops” along your journey, providing an opportunity to acknowledge your hard work and appreciate the progress you’ve made.

Coping with Relapse

Despite our best efforts, relapse may occur during the recovery journey. It’s essential to recognize that relapse is not synonymous with failure, but rather an opportunity to learn, grow, and adjust your course.

Recognizing that relapse is not synonymous with failure
Relapse can be a discouraging detour on the road to recovery, but it does not mean that you’ve failed. Instead, view relapse as an opportunity to reassess your prevention plan and make necessary adjustments to get back on track.

Strategies for getting back on track after a relapse
If relapse occurs, take immediate action to address the situation and get back on the path to recovery. Reach out to your support network, attend a therapy session or support group meeting, and reassess your relapse prevention plan. These steps can help you “recalculate your route” and return to the journey of long-term recovery.

Lessons learned from relapse experiences
Reflect on the circumstances that led to relapse and identify any lessons learned. By understanding the factors that contributed to relapse, you can make adjustments to your prevention plan and develop new strategies to avoid future setbacks.

Adjusting the relapse prevention plan as needed
As you learn from your relapse experience, make necessary adjustments to your relapse prevention plan. This ongoing process of reassessment and adaptation ensures that your “roadmap” remains up-to-date and relevant throughout your recovery journey.


Preventing relapse is a critical aspect of the journey to long-term recovery. By understanding the relapse process, developing a personalized prevention plan, enhancing emotional and mental well-being, building a healthy lifestyle, implementing ongoing monitoring and accountability, and coping with relapse if it occurs, you can navigate the challenges and obstacles that may arise during your recovery journey.

Remember, the road to long-term recovery may not always be smooth, but with perseverance, self-awareness, and a strong support network, you can overcome setbacks and continue moving forward.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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