Why Do Addicts Relapse?

The seemingly infinite downsides to addiction lead many to assume that once someone gets sober, relapse would be unlikely. Yet the data tells us otherwise… So why do addicts relapse?

If you have someone in your life who is an addict, witnessing a relapse can be heartbreaking. However, the unfortunate reality is that on the road to recovery, relapse is actually quite common. 

The thing we need to remember is that drug addiction is, by definition, a chronic relapsing disease. Therefore, the experience of relapse doesn’t mean the individual isn’t still on the path to recovery. 

Between 40 and 60 percent of people, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, relapse during their recovery journey. Although this rate may seem high, other chronic diseases requiring behavioral changes, including Type 1 diabetes and hypertension, exhibit comparable rates of relapse. 

With this in mind, let’s consider an important question: Why do people in recovery from addiction relapse?


Withdrawal is a very intense and difficult experience. In fact, many individuals relapse within the first week of attempted sobriety due to the intensity of withdrawals. 

The seriousness of withdrawal symptoms depends on a number of factors, most notably:

  • Frequency of use
  • Duration of use
  • Quantity of use
  • Substance used

Withdrawal can encompass a number of unpleasant physical symptoms, including hot and cold sweats, vomiting, diarrhea, and muscle pain. In addition, the individual is experiencing intense physical cravings to use the substance. 

A detox program is highly advised to minimize the likelihood of relapse. Additionally, supervised detox treatment ensures patient safety throughout the process. 


Unfortunately, stress is a common part of daily life, which is why people have developed a multitude of different ways to cope with stress. 

For example, some individuals choose to sleep their stress away while others process and expel their stress by working out. Others turn to drugs and alcohol, which refers to a pattern of behavior known colloquially as self-medication.

After completing a treatment program and returning home, the individual must assume full accountability for his or her stress management. In the absence of alcohol and drug use, there will need to be several strategies and techniques on hand to ensure that the individual isn’t overcome by stress.

Of course, learning healthy, effective methods for dealing with stress and stressful situations is beneficial for anyone, not just those with a history of substance abuse.

Physical Pain

Some individuals turn to substance abuse to deal with the physical pain they are experiencing. In fact, many individuals who find themselves addicted to opioids developed their addictions as a product of their desperation to find relief from chronic physical pain, whether from an injury or some other condition. 

When dealing with pain that inhibits a person’s ability to live a full life, the most crucial first step is to identify and address the root of the pain. With proper medical care to address physical pain, the individual will have far greater chances of sustaining his or her recovery. 

Emotional Hardship

Aside from stress, people deal with a plethora of unpleasant emotions, triggered either by real-life experiences or emotional disorders. Much like how people turn to substance abuse to alleviate physical pain, alcohol and drug use is commonly employed as a means of masking emotional hardship so people can disconnect from their emotions and avoid dealing with complex emotions.

However, alcohol and drugs aren’t a solution. When someone using alcohol and drugs to emotionally cope becomes sober, those negative emotions quickly return with a vengeance. Without the tools to deal with negative and intense emotions, the individual is much more likely to resume using the substance to self-medicate in the future.


Being around people or places associated with past addictive behavior can be a significant trigger and contribute to a relapse. In fact, this is one of the key reasons why inpatient and residential-style rehab programs are more effective; they separate individuals from the circumstances under which their addictions developed and flourished.

Therapy allows the patient to identify environmental triggers as well as learn strategies and techniques to learn how to prevent relapse in the future. 

Relationships & Intimacy

Relationships can be challenging, even when everything else is going right in your life. This is especially true for anyone recovering from addiction, which is why people in recovery are often discouraged from starting romantic relationships for the first couple of years after getting sober. Just as addiction impacts relationships, a person’s relationships can lead to relapse.

Virtually any type of relationship can lead to a relapse. For example, relationships between one’s mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, spouse, and children.


Believing in your recovery is crucial, but being overconfident can be a stumbling block that leads to relapse. 

When you’re overconfident, you’re more likely to put yourself in risky situations. For example, attending a party with the assumption that you can handle any possible temptations. 


It takes time to build a new life that isn’t centered around one’s addiction. This includes finding new hobbies, new friends, and other ways to fill your time. Not having things to fill one’s time, especially after a very structured rehabilitation experience, can lead to boredom, making the individual susceptible to addictive substances once again. 

Lack of Aftercare

With addiction, attending an in-patient or out-patient rehab facility is an important first step. However, substance abuse and addiction have environmental and genetic influences and require life-long care. Think of it as a condition such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, or diabetes, which may require immediate care to address the situation and lifelong support after the condition is first identified. In other words, individuals completing treatment will need to create some sort of aftercare plan, which ensures continued support and reinforcement of their sobriety.

Recovery is a Continuous Process 

The key to ensuring a stable, long-lasting recovery is to ensure that the individual has access to the right support and resources to minimize the likelihood of relapse. 

You can learn more about the addiction recovery process by following us on social media, where we continually share information about the substance abuse recovery process.

April 19, 2022

Adam Snyder


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