The Three Stages of Relapse

Written by Steve Rose

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

As you navigate the intricate journey of recovery, understanding the stages of relapse allows you to spot the signs of a relapse before it happens. Relapses typically unfold in stages that subtly transition from emotional unease to mental conflict, and, without intervention, may culminate in physical relapse.

In the initial stage, you might find yourself grappling with emotions and behaviors that quietly undermine your recovery foundation. You may not be thinking about using again, but your feelings of anxiety, isolation, or neglect of self-care are like quiet whispers, hinting at the possibility of relapse without directly acknowledging it.

As you move into the mental relapse stage, the whispers become a conversation—a battle, even—between the part of you that cherishes your progress and the part that yearns for escape. It’s here that the idea of using begins to take a more definite shape, tempting you with memories of use that gloss over the pain and struggle that followed.

If this inner turmoil goes unaddressed, you may find yourself stepping into the realm of physical relapse, where you act on your thoughts of using. It might start with a decision that seems inconsequential but can quickly spiral back into the cycle of addiction.

This article aims to illuminate these stages, offering you the insights and tools to recognize and counteract them. By understanding the nuanced progression of relapse, you empower yourself and your support network to act decisively, reinforcing your journey toward lasting recovery.

Emotional Relapse: The Silent Prelude

Understanding Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse is the first and most deceptive stage in the relapse process. During this phase, you’re not consciously thinking about returning to substance use, but your emotions and behaviors may be silently laying the groundwork for a potential relapse. It’s characterized by feelings and actions that erode your emotional stability and recovery resilience, often without your direct awareness.

Recognizing the Signs

The signs of emotional relapse are subtle, yet recognizing them is crucial for maintaining your recovery journey. They include:

  • Increased Anxiety: You might feel more anxious than usual, with a persistent sense of unease that’s hard to shake off.
  • Intolerance and Anger: Small irritations become major issues. You may find yourself quick to anger and hard to please.
  • Mood Swings: Your emotional state may fluctuate widely, feeling fine one moment and overwhelmingly negative the next.
  • Isolation: Pulling away from friends, family, and support groups, you might start skipping recovery meetings or avoiding calls.
  • Not Asking for Help: Even when you know you need it, there’s a tendency to internalize your struggles rather than reaching out.
  • Neglecting Self-Care: Poor eating and sleeping habits start to creep in, along with neglecting your hygiene and personal well-being.

Navigating Through Emotional Relapse

Recognizing these signs is the first step toward averting the progression to further relapse stages. Here are strategies to help you navigate through emotional relapse:

  • Stress Management: Engage in activities that reduce stress. Yoga, meditation, exercise, and hobbies can offer relief and a positive outlet for your emotions.
  • Build Your Support System: Lean on friends, family, and recovery groups. Share your feelings and experiences, even if you don’t feel like it. The act of sharing can lighten your emotional load.
  • Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle: Prioritize sleep, nutrition, and physical activity. A healthy body supports a healthy mind, making you more resilient to emotional turmoil.
  • Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness and meditation can help you stay grounded in the present, making it easier to manage negative emotions and stress.
  • Seek Professional Help: If you find it challenging to manage your emotions or notice a significant impact on your daily life, consider seeking help from a counselor or therapist specialized in addiction recovery.

Emotional relapse doesn’t have to lead to substance use. By acknowledging your emotions and taking proactive steps to manage them, you can reinforce your foundation in recovery and continue moving forward on your journey.

Mental Relapse: The Inner Conflict

Understanding Mental Relapse

In the stage of mental relapse, the inner conflict between wanting to use and wanting to remain in recovery becomes pronounced. This stage is characterized by a mental tug-of-war: part of you may start reminiscing about the days of substance use, while another part remembers the reasons you chose sobriety. Mental relapse is marked by an increased struggle with thoughts about using, making it a critical time to employ strategies that can steer you back towards recovery.

Recognizing the Signs

Identifying the signs of mental relapse is essential for preventing a return to substance use. These signs include:

  • Glamorizing Past Use: You might catch yourself fondly remembering the times you used substances, conveniently forgetting the negative consequences that followed.
  • Lying: Small lies to yourself or others about where you’ve been or what you’ve been doing can signal a shift towards old behaviors.
  • Hanging Out with Old Using Friends: Reconnecting with friends who use can increase temptation and rationalize your thoughts about relapsing.
  • Fantasizing About Using: You may find yourself daydreaming about using, imagining scenarios where you indulge in substance use.
  • Planning Relapse: The thought process might shift to planning how to use again, possibly scheming to use around others’ schedules to avoid detection.

Navigating Through Mental Relapse

Engaging in proactive strategies is crucial to combat the mental urges and keep relapse at bay. Here are some effective ways to navigate through this challenging stage:

  • Play The Movie Until The End: When having thoughts of using, you’re only seeing the metaphorical highlight reel, not the full movie. Take a step back and watch the full move, hour by hour, until the end.
  • Talk About It: Sharing your thoughts with someone you trust can significantly lessen their power over you. Whether it’s a friend, family member, or therapist, talking can provide perspective and support.
  • Engage in Healthy Activities: Fill your time with activities that bring you joy and satisfaction without substance use. Hobbies, exercise, and volunteering can redirect your focus and energy.
  • Avoid Triggers: Stay away from people, places, and situations that trigger your desire to use. Creating a safe environment is key to maintaining your recovery path.
  • Use Delay Tactics: When thoughts of using become overwhelming, tell yourself to wait for 30 minutes or an hour. Often, the urge will pass or become more manageable within that time.

Seek Professional Help

If mental relapse signs persist or your struggle intensifies, seeking professional help is a critical step. A therapist specialized in addiction recovery can provide the tools and strategies to navigate through this stage, reinforcing your commitment to recovery and helping you maintain sobriety.

Mental relapse is a challenging stage, but it’s also a test of your resilience and commitment to recovery. By recognizing the signs and employing effective strategies, you can navigate through this stage and continue on your path to long-term recovery.

Physical Relapse: Crossing the Threshold

Understanding Physical Relapse

Physical relapse is the stage where the mental debates and emotional unrest culminate in the act of substance use. It represents a critical juncture where the theoretical risk of relapse becomes a reality. This stage signifies a moment of action that reverses the progress made in recovery, highlighting the importance of immediate intervention to return to the path of sobriety.

Recognizing the Signs

Physical relapse may not always start with a conscious decision to return to substance use. It can be triggered by a series of seemingly minor decisions that lead to a situation where the temptation to use becomes overwhelming. Recognizing the early signs of emotional and mental relapse is crucial to preventing physical relapse. However, once physical relapse occurs, it’s essential to acknowledge it quickly and seek support.

Navigating Through Physical Relapse

If physical relapse occurs, it’s vital to treat it as a setback rather than a failure. Here are steps to navigate back to recovery:

  • Immediate Acknowledgment: Recognize the relapse as soon as it happens. Denial can lead to prolonged substance use and delay the return to recovery.
  • Seek Support: Reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or sponsor in your recovery network. Honesty about the relapse can open doors to support and guidance.
  • Revisit Your Recovery Plan: Review and adjust your recovery plan with the help of a professional. Understand what led to the relapse and how to address those triggers moving forward.
  • Re-engage with Treatment: Whether it’s returning to therapy, attending support group meetings, or considering inpatient treatment, re-engaging with professional help is crucial.
  • Practice Self-Compassion: Relapse can bring feelings of guilt, shame, and failure. It’s essential to practice self-compassion, recognizing that recovery is a journey with potential setbacks.

Prevention Strategies

Preventing physical relapse starts early in the recovery process by addressing the emotional and mental stages of relapse:

  • Early Intervention: Engaging in prevention strategies during the emotional and mental relapse stages can halt the progression to physical relapse.
  • Emergency Action Plan: Have a plan for moments of strong temptation, including people to call and safe places to go.
  • Continuous Self-Care: Maintaining a routine of self-care, including healthy eating, exercise, and mindfulness practices, supports emotional and mental health.
  • Education: Understanding the nature of addiction and the process of recovery can empower you to navigate through difficult times with awareness and resilience.

Physical relapse is not the end of the recovery journey but a part of the learning process. It offers an opportunity to deepen your understanding of your triggers, enhance your coping strategies, and strengthen your commitment to sobriety. With immediate action, support, and a compassionate approach to self, returning to the path of recovery is not just possible—it’s a pivotal step toward lasting change.

Reaching Out for Support: A Pathway to Resilience

As you navigate the complex and deeply personal journey of recovery, it’s crucial to remember that you are not alone. Each step you take, whether it feels like progress or a setback, is a part of your path toward healing. If you find yourself struggling with the stages of relapse or feeling overwhelmed by the challenges of recovery, I invite you to reach out for support.

The Power of Connection

In moments of doubt or difficulty, the support of others who understand your journey can be incredibly empowering. Whether it’s sharing your experiences, listening to others, or simply being in the presence of those who empathize without judgment, connection is a powerful tool for recovery.

Professional Support

As an addiction counselor, I offer a safe space to explore your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with substance use and recovery. Together, we can develop strategies to manage the stages of relapse, address underlying issues, and build a resilient foundation for your recovery journey. Seeking professional support can provide you with personalized guidance and tools to navigate the complexities of addiction and recovery.

Peer Support

Support groups and peer-led meetings offer a sense of community and understanding that is unique to shared experience. Engaging with others who are on similar paths can provide comfort, insight, and the motivation to continue forward. These connections remind you that you’re not alone in your struggles or your achievements.

Family and Friends

The support of family and friends can be an invaluable resource during recovery. Open communication about your needs, boundaries, and experiences can strengthen these relationships and provide you with a network of care and encouragement.

Taking the Step

Reaching out for support is a sign of strength and an important step in your recovery. It’s an acknowledgment that you are committed to your well-being and willing to take action to sustain your journey toward health. Whether you’re facing the early signs of relapse or simply seeking to strengthen your recovery, support is available to you.

Remember, recovery is not a journey to be walked alone. It is a path best navigated with the support of others—professionals, peers, family, and friends—who can offer guidance, understanding, and encouragement every step of the way. If you’re feeling ready to reach out for support or have questions about the recovery process, I am here to help. Together, we can work towards a future defined by hope, resilience, and lasting recovery.

If you have questions, you can reach out to me here, or schedule a free virtual consultation here.

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 BetterHelp.com. 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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