Understanding the Three Stages of Relapse

We tend to see relapse as something that happens suddenly. However, a relapse is actually a process that unfolds in three separate stages, each distinct with its own warning signs and implications.

Recovering from addiction is a challenge that takes a lot of time and effort to work through. The possibility of relapse is ever-present, creating fear and stress that can make recovery even more difficult. 

People tend to see relapse as something that happens suddenly and unexpectedly, but it is a process, not an event. In fact, relapse usually occurs in three separate stages, each distinct with its own warning signs. 

Organizations like Silicon Beach Sober Living provide valuable support to individuals in recovery, including giving them a safe space in which to apply relapse prevention skills. Having the ability to recognize the risk of relapse is a vital part of long-term sobriety as well as an important part of being a support system for someone in recovery.

What is Emotional Relapse? 

Emotional relapse is the first stage of relapse, characterized as when someone who’s in recovery is confronted by emotional triggers for alcohol or drug use. While they may not always be apparent, there are certain behaviors that can foreshadow an emotional relapse. If you’re familiar with these signs, you’re better able to curb a relapse before it occurs. 

Early Signs of Emotional Relapse

Many early warning signs of emotional relapse are observable behaviors with greater implications for the individual’s mental and physical health, such as:

  • An individual might bottle their emotions, avoid recovery meetings, or self-isolate from their loved ones. 
  • He or she may also focus on other people’s problems in order to avoid their own. 
  • Emotional relapse is indicated by poor eating and sleeping habits.
  • Other warning signs include breaking a set routine for sobriety and refusing help. 
  • Someone working through an emotional relapse will have trouble with their own self-care. 

There are a number of negative emotions that can trigger an emotional relapse, including anxiety, depression, intolerance, anger, and defensiveness. Mood swings are also common during an emotional relapse. Having a greater awareness of, and focus on, one’s own mental health can mitigate symptoms of emotional relapse and curtail subsequent stages of this process. 

While an emotional relapse presents challenges on its own, it serves to herald the second stage of relapse. 

What is Mental Relapse? 

Whereas an emotional relapse concerns a patient’s declining mental health, a mental relapse reintroduces the addictive substance into the equation. During a mental relapse, an individual returns to old coping habits by beginning to consider using again. Mental relapse does not happen in a vacuum, which is how old triggers can resurface after addiction treatment and lead to a relapse. As their time in mental relapse continues, the individual becomes increasingly torn between the desire to use again and wanting to stay sober.

Unfortunately, the signs of mental relapse are difficult for an individual’s loved ones to catch. For this reason, it is largely up to the individual himself or herself to be cognizant of mental relapse and to take the necessary steps to deter a physical relapse. 

The individual can lie about his or her thoughts, feelings, and urges, in which case the individual’s loved ones would be unable to intervene.

One indicator of mental relapse is craving the addictive substance itself. The individual may start thinking about situations associated with alcohol or drug use and possibly begin planning to use again. In such scenarios, the individual may minimize the potential damage that alcohol or drugs can cause. However, the individual could potentially lie about his or her thoughts, feelings, and urges, in which case the individual’s loved ones would be unable to intervene even as the relapse becomes more and more likely. 

Mental relapse does not necessarily mean that the individual has resumed alcohol or drug use. Rather, when a patient becomes ready to use alcohol or drugs again, he or she transitions into the final stage of relapse.

What is Physical Relapse? 

Physical relapse is the third and final stage of relapse, defined as when the individual returns to previous coping habits by engaging with addictive substance(s) again. 

At this stage, relapse most often happens when there’s an opportunity for the individual to use without getting caught. Additionally, the individual may become more likely to put himself or herself into dangerous scenarios in which their sobriety might be compromised. Holidays and trips are an example of when mental relapse can lead to physical relapse as alcohol consumption is very common in these situations. And once the individual’s coping mechanisms have eroded to the point of mental relapse, it can be quite difficult to turn down alcohol or drugs when opportunities to use arise. 

Physical relapse, itself, occurs in multiple stages. First, there’s the initial “lapse” when the individual encounters and, ultimately, uses the substance for the first time. When simply an isolated occurrence, this lapse in judgment is often referred to as a “slip”. However, when the slip leads to more instances of alcohol or drug use, you’re looking at the second stage of physical relapse. This is when the individual effectively resumes the alcohol or drug use, picking up where he or she had left off. 

In a word: relapse.

Physical relapse is extremely dangerous and frequently leads to overdose since the individual’s tolerance decreased over the course of his or her sobriety. However, physical relapse is completely avoidable. The key to preventing a physical relapse is to notice as many of the early warning signs as possible and act on them before it’s too late. 

How to Prevent a Relapse 

Although sobriety can be difficult, there are strategies and techniques that you can employ to prevent an emotional, mental, and physical relapse. 

The best way to prevent emotional relapse is by having actionable strategies for dealing with emotional triggers. For loved ones, this means being able to recognize changes in mood and demeanor. Taking the time to communicate about the individual’s discomfort, discontent, restlessness, irritability, or stress can provide clarity with which to stave off mental relapse. Acknowledging these feelings can help the patient process them as well as to realize his or her need for self-care. 

Finding someone the resources for stable recovery will save his or her life.

When in mental relapse, the individual begins to feel the urge to use. By accepting that such urges are there, he or she can prevent further harm. Other techniques for preventing a mental relapse include envisioning the consequences of substance abuse, finding ways to relapse, or simply waiting the urges out. As with emotional relapse, communication with friends and family can assist in preventing mental relapse.

Organizations like Silicon Beach Sober Living provide valuable support to individuals in recovery, including giving them a safe space in which to apply relapse prevention skills. Having the ability to recognize the risk of relapse is a vital part of long-term sobriety as well as an important part of being a support system for someone in recovery.

Taking the time to understand someone’s emotional and mental relapse is crucial to preventing a physical relapse. It is also important for the individual to develop healthy exit strategies in preparation for times when alcohol or drugs might become accessible unexpectedly. If a patient relapses, then the best action for them to take is to seek help. Providing someone with the right resources for stable recovery is how you save his or her life.

If you are in need of assistance and would like to spend some time in Los Angeles, rehabs provide an opportunity to start a new chapter in your life. Don’t lose another day to this deadly disease. 

Stay on the Road to Recovery with Silicon Beach Sober Living 

You might expect a relapse to be a single moment in time, but that is not the case. A relapse occurs as the product of three separate stages during which time the individual’s fortitude in sobriety breaks down. When you can recognize indicators of relapse at different stages—whether in yourself or in a loved one—you are better able to prevent a return to active substance abuse.

If you are struggling with addiction or in the early stages of recovery, understanding the stages of relapse is just one way to stay sober. We can offer you a number of resources to help you live the life that you want to live. With several luxury sober living homes in Los Angeles, Silicon Beach Sober Living is your next step in your recovery from addiction.


July 13, 2022

Silicon Beach Sober Living

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