Why Does It Happen? Understanding Relapse

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Why Does It Happen Understanding Relapse After Alcohol Rehab

Why Does It Happen? Understanding Relapse After Alcohol Rehab

While everyone hopes that seeking treatment will produce permanent sobriety, the fact is that relapse after alcohol rehab is often part of the recovery process. Relapse does not mean that your recovery is over — and a lapse in your sobriety doesn’t have to mean a return to active addiction.

Understanding relapse after alcohol rehab can help you not only get back on track but prevent relapse from happening again.

How Addiction Changes the Brain

To fully understand the risk of relapse, it’s first essential to recognize the lasting brain changes that drinking alcohol can produce. Research has shown that people with alcohol use disorder have distinctive changes in certain regions of their brains, particularly regions associated with the feeling of reward and motivation.[1]

The practical meaning of these changes is that people in early recovery are wired to experience alcohol cravings, not to feel the same level of reward for non-substance-related activities, and to struggle with the motivation to stay sober. These brain changes can reverse in time, but it requires a significant period of sobriety before the brain recovers fully.

These changes are why alcohol use disorder is often referred to as a brain disease.[2] A person with an addiction relapses, in part, because their brain makes the prospect of staying sober seem impossible.

Relapse as a Process

Also critical in understanding why relapse occurs is that relapse is not a singular event. Instead, relapse occurs as a process: a slow shift away from recovery and toward more risky situations and behaviors that make relapse even more likely.

One model of the relapse process conceptualizes it in three distinct stages:

1. Emotional Relapse

The first stage is emotional relapse. In this phase, people begin to show signs such as:

  • Bottling up their emotions
  • Isolating themselves from their support system
  • Refusing to ask for help
  • Not practicing self-care
  • Not having fun in their recovery

People can begin to stew in their feelings and remove themselves from any support groups that may be helping them stay sober. They disconnect themselves from the recovery process.

2. Mental Relapse

As a result of emotional relapse, people can start to feel run down, depressed, or anxious. The next phase is known as mental relapse. In this stage, people begin to plan their return to alcohol use by thinking about when and where they will take their first drink.

In this stage, people may start to put themselves into situations where alcohol use is likely. They may attend parties they would have otherwise avoided to maintain their sobriety, begin to visit bars or other drinking establishments, or start seeing friends with whom they used to drink heavily.

3. Physical Relapse

The final stage is physical relapse, and this occurs when they finally take a drink. It can be a significant turning point for people who reach this stage. A relapse can be just that — a momentary lapse before deciding to return to living a life in recovery — or it could be a return to active addiction.

Understanding Triggers

Another critical element of understanding relapse is recognizing the impact of triggers and high-risk situations. These are two connected concepts, both of which are important to understand if you hope to resist relapse and maintain your sobriety.

A trigger is something that sparks a craving for alcohol. Examples of triggers may be:

  • Seeing an alcohol advertisement
  • Experiencing a stressful event
  • Smelling alcohol
  • Seeing other people drunk
  • Mental health symptoms

When people experience a trigger, the urge to drink alcohol can often come as a natural response. Treatment programs often coach people on how to avoid and deal with triggers, but they often cannot be avoided.

Understanding High-Risk Situations

A high-risk situation is a scenario where relapse is a high possibility. Everyone has different high-risk situations, but some examples may include:

  • Holidays with your family
  • Waiting at an airport
  • Going to a party where alcohol is served
  • Spending too much time alone
  • Celebrating a birthday or achievement

As you can see, high-risk situations can be positive, negative, or relatively neutral. What matters is what’s high risk for you. Do you usually drink on your birthday? If so, it might be a high-risk situation. Do you typically spend time at the bar when waiting for a plane? Then airports may be a high-risk location or situation.

Most people follow relatively stable patterns of routines and behaviors. Identifying when a situation may be considered high-risk is about recognizing the patterns that lead to drinking and learning to disrupt the pattern before relapse occurs.

Strategies to Prevent Relapse After Alcohol Rehab

Despite the many different paths to relapse, it is no guarantee. Addiction treatment and therapies are designed to help people identify the stages of relapse, recognize when people are placing themselves at high risk for relapse, and develop a support network to help people maintain their motivation to achieve long-term sobriety.

Some of the strategies we teach at our treatment center, and which you can put into practical application after completing treatment, include:

  • Identifying your triggers so that you can learn to avoid them
  • Recognizing your high-risk situations and developing strategies to stay sober when entering these situations
  • Learning to manage mental health stressors, whether it be through therapy, mindfulness, self-care, or exercise
  • Staying connected to a support network of people who support your journey to recovery
  • Seeking professional help if you feel you can’t stay sober on your own

While relapse can be part of the recovery process, it doesn’t have to be. By following these steps, you can stay on the path to a lifetime of recovery. Finding help from a therapist or addiction treatment center can help you stay on track.

Start Treatment at Silver Sands Recovery

If you or a loved one is struggling with relapse, reach out to the team at Silver Sands Recovery by filling out our confidential online contact form. You can resist relapse or get back on track — and our team can help.



[1] https://www.nature.com/articles/npp2009110

[2] https://doi.org/10.1056/NEJMra1511480

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