How to prevent Relapse: Stages of Relapse

By: Ellen Nghikembua – Psychological Counsellor

A relapse is a return to alcohol or drug use after a period of not using. Relapse is a process and not an event. This is because relapse can start weeks or even months before the actual use of drugs and/or alcohol. Before one starts using again, there is an process which happens that will eventually lead to physical relapse. One of the key aspects of relapse prevention is to be able to recognize the early stages of relapse in hope to take the necessary precautions to avoid getting to the physical relapse that is the actual use of drugs and/or alcohol. In order to do this, it is necessary to recognize the stages of relapse.

Emotional relapse

During this stage one may not be thinking about using, however emotions and behaviours may be setting one up for a relapse. These may manifest as restlessness, irritability and discontent or emptiness.  Other signs include anxiety, intolerance, anger, defensiveness, mood swings, isolation, not asking for help, not going to therapy or support groups, poor appetite and poor sleeping habits. During this stage, it is important to recognize that you are in emotional relapse. This will help one change his or her behaviour in order to avoid slipping into emotional relapse.

Mental relapse

This is a very hectic and exhausting stage. One may have a strong urge to use but at the same time there is a strong urge to stay sober. Initially, one may be fantasizing about using, however in the last stages one is definitely thinking about using. Signs include, thinking about people, places and things associated with past use, Glamorizing past use, lying, reconnecting with people who use, thinking about relapsing and schedule to use during times your loved ones will not be able to see you. At this stage it is very easy for one to be convinced that they are in control of their drinking and that they can have a drink or two. Some people also tend to plan their relapse when they are far from their loved ones for example when they travel with work because no one will know they have relapsed. However, it is important to note that one drink usually leads to more drinks and one may find themselves in a place of shame,  guilt and disappointment.

This guilt usually makes things worse as it becomes motivation to keep using. An important aspect during this stage is to recognize and to accept that you are headed for relapse. It is very important to tell someone that you are having urges of using. It is also important to distract yourself. Do not stay idle. Do something that will distract you. Call someone or take a walk. Make sure to distract yourself for at least 30 minutes as most urges last between 15 to 30 minutes.

Physical relapse

At this stage it is hard to stop the process of relapse. Once in the mental relapse stage, it is very easy for one to slip into using again. This is why it is important to recognize early warning signs of emotional and mental relapse. Once you have reached this stage it is important that you make contact with your support system.