July 6, 2023

What Is a Relapse?

A man looks out at the ocean representing tapering off klonopin.

Relapse occurs when someone fails to maintain their goal of reducing or abstaining from alcohol or drugs and reverts to their previous levels of substance use. Like all chronic conditions, addiction has high relapse rates of between 40% and 60%.

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This guide explores the interlinked nature of addiction and relapse, highlighting these key issues:

  • What is a relapse?
  • What does it mean to relapse on drugs?
  • What does relapse mean for long-term recovery?
  • Is it okay to relapse?
  • How can you connect with substance abuse relapse treatment in Southern California?

Alcohol and Drug Relapse Definition

What is a relapse in addiction? Alcohol and drug relapse refers to the return to previous substance use levels after a period of abstinence or attempts to moderate use. Relapse in recovery is characterized by the inability to maintain sustained recovery, often resulting in a resumption of problematic drinking or drug abuse. 

Relapse can occur due to various factors, including triggers, stress, social pressures, underlying psychological issues, or inadequate coping strategies. Addiction relapse is a common challenge in recovery, and seeking support and appropriate treatment can prevent and address relapse effectively.

A woman lays her head on her crossed arms to represent the question what is relapse.

Is Relapsing Part of Recovery?

While relapse can be discouraging and disheartening, relapsing does not signify failure. In fact, relapse is often viewed as a common and expected part of the recovery process.

A relapse typically unfolds through a series of three stages:

  • Emotional relapse: The emotional relapse stage occurs even before the act of picking up drugs or alcohol. During this phase, individuals may struggle to manage their emotions in a healthy manner. They may suppress their feelings, isolate themselves from others, deny the existence of their problems, and neglect self-care. Although thoughts of substance use may not be at the forefront of their minds, avoiding emotions and challenging situations can lay the groundwork for a potential relapse in the future.
  • Mental relapse: In the mental relapse stage, conflicting feelings about sobriety manifest. While part of the individual desires to stay sober, another part wrestles with cravings and entertains thoughts of relapse. Mental relapse may involve romanticizing past drug use, downplaying the negative consequences associated with substance use, and actively seeking opportunities to engage in substance abuse.
  • Physical relapse: The physical relapse stage represents the final act of using drugs or alcohol. It begins with a momentary lapse, such as having one drink or taking a single dose of drugs. Unfortunately, this lapse can quickly escalate into a full-blown relapse, where individuals feel a loss of control over their substance use.

What is relapsing influenced by, then? Factors include:

  • Tempting situations: Certain situations or environments that remind someone of their past drug use can act as triggers for relapse. Being in places or circumstances where the person used to consume alcohol or drugs can create strong temptations to return to substance use.
  • Coping mechanisms: Difficult life circumstances such as unstable housing, setbacks in personal or professional life, social pressures, or social stigma can serve as triggers for substance use. Some individuals may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with these challenges.
  • Pre-existing mental health and emotional issues: Having underlying mental health or emotional problems can increase the risk of relapse. These issues may include depression, anxiety, trauma, or unresolved emotional conflicts. Substance use can sometimes be used as a self-medication strategy to temporarily alleviate symptoms of emotional distress.
  • Pre-existing physical health issues: People with pre-existing physical health problems – especially those experiencing chronic pain – may be prone to using non-prescription drugs as a means of managing their discomfort. Poor physical health can contribute to the temptation to misuse substances for pain relief.
  • Guilt and lapse: Experiencing guilt or internal conflict after a relapse can have a significant impact on the likelihood of continued substance use. If not effectively managed, feelings of self-blame and guilt can perpetuate a cycle of substance use as a coping mechanism.

Relapse should be viewed as an opportunity for learning and growth rather than a reason to give up. Addiction is a chronic condition and setbacks are a normal part of the journey. It is essential to approach relapse with compassion, self-reflection, and a commitment to getting back on track. Recognizing these circumstances and factors can enable individuals to develop strategies to prevent and manage relapse. Seeking professional help, developing healthy coping mechanisms, and addressing underlying mental and emotional issues are essential components of maintaining long-term recovery from addiction to drugs or alcohol. By recognizing the signs and seeking appropriate support, it is possible to interrupt the relapse process and recommit to the recovery journey.

A woman sits with her hands on her head to represent substance abuse relapse.

I Relapsed, Now What?

Managing relapse is an integral part of long-term alcohol and drug recovery. Effective solutions involve both immediate actions and long-term behavioral changes. Here’s what you can do to manage relapse rather than allowing it to derail your recovery.

Immediate Steps

  • Seek medical support: Call for medical assistance if unusual or significant symptoms present, especially after a prolonged period of abstinence. Seeking medical assistance will ensure their safety and well-being.
  • Provide immediate support: If possible, ensure that the person has supportive individuals nearby who can help them stay safe and provide emotional support during this challenging time.
  • Engage support network: Reach out to the person’s established support network, such as friends, physicians, or a 24-hour substance abuse information/counseling service, as they can offer guidance and assistance in navigating the situation.

Short-Term and Medium-Term Steps

  • Normalize relapse: Help the person understand that relapse is not uncommon and should not be seen as a failure. Emphasize that it can be a part of the recovery journey, and multiple attempts may be needed before achieving sustained change.
  • Learn from the experience: Encourage the person to view the relapse as an opportunity for self-reflection and learning. By exploring the triggers and circumstances that led to the relapse, they can gain insight into their substance use patterns and develop effective coping strategies.

Remember, relapse does not mean that recovery is impossible. Instead, treat relapse as a setback that can be used as a stepping stone toward greater understanding and resilience in the recovery process. By providing immediate support and focusing on learning from the experience, individuals can continue to progress on their journey to lasting recovery.


What’s a relapse?

A relapse is when an individual experiences a setback or regression in their recovery journey, leading to a resumption of the negative behaviors or symptoms associated with their previous condition or addiction. It often signifies a temporary loss of progress and may require renewed efforts to get back on track.

What does relapse mean?

Relapse is the reoccurrence of symptoms or a setback in recovery from a condition or addiction that was previously under control. It signifies a return to old habits, behaviors, or patterns that were harmful or detrimental to well-being.

A group of people stand with their arms around each other to represent Gratitude Lodge's addiction and relapse treatment program in California.

Get Help for Drug and Alcohol Relapse at Gratitude Lodge

Shortcut the search for drug and alcohol relapse by reaching out to Gratitude Lodge in Southern California. Our pet-friendly rehab centers in Newport Beach and Long Beach are dedicated to promoting holistic well-being and sustained recovery from drug addiction or alcoholism.

Engage with our supervised medical detox program to ensure that drug or alcohol withdrawal is as safe and comfortable as possible. Once detox is completed, seamlessly transition into our 30-day inpatient program, where you’ll receive personalized care and evidence-based interventions that include:

We prioritize your long-term success with our comprehensive aftercare services that include access to support groups for relapse. Take the first step towards a sober life of gratitude and fulfillment by calling our admissions team at 888-861-1658. Trust in Gratitude Lodge for compassionate and effective addiction treatment.

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Joe Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been working in the addiction industry for half a decade and has been writing about addiction and substance abuse treatment during that time. He has experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.
Jenni Bussi

Jenni Russe MS, LPCC

Jenni Busse MS, LPSS is the Clinical Director at Gratitude Lodge. Jenni oversees the clinical program and the clinical team at Gratitude Lodge as a whole. Jenni has worked in treatment for almost 14 years. Her background as a licensed therapist and her passion for helping others intersected with addiction recovery when she started working primarily in detox residential treatment.

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