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How to Make a Relapse Prevention Plan That Works for You

What is a relapse prevention plan and how does it help individuals to maintain sobriety post-treatment? Find out here.

Understanding the Basics of Addiction

Addiction isn’t just about drugs or alcohol. It covers a wide range of behaviors. This can include activities like gambling, eating, or even internet use.

Any activity or substance that provides a rewarding feeling can become addictive if it starts to interfere with daily life. About 21 million Americans suffer from addiction, emphasizing the significance of evidence-based and holistic treatment for sustained recovery.1

This is where a relapse prevention plan comes in.

relapse prevention plan
Table of Contents

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Physical vs. Psychological Addiction

Physical addiction occurs when an individual’s body has started to rely on a substance. Without it, the individual might experience physical withdrawal symptoms.
On the other hand, psychological addiction is about the emotional and mental dependence on a substance or activity. It’s when someone believes they need it to function or feel good.

It’s possible to have a psychological addiction without being physically addicted. For example, an individual might crave the experience of gambling without any physical symptoms. However, substances like alcohol or opioids can lead to both physical and psychological addiction.

Physical vs. Psychological Addiction

Impact of Addictionon the Brain

Both behavioral (for instance, porn or gambling addiction) and physical addictions (such as an addiction to alcohol or opiates) can lead to significant changes in the brain’s structure and function, affecting areas related to pleasure, motivation, and self-control.
These alterations often result in compulsive behavior, cravings, and difficulty in quitting, reinforcing the addictive cycle. Addictions can disrupt the brain’s chemical balance, particularly involving neurotransmitters like dopamine.
Behavioral addictions, such as gambling, stimulate dopamine release, reinforcing addictive behavior, while physical addictions, like substance abuse, can lead to tolerance and reduced dopamine production, intensifying cravings and dependency.

How an Addicted Brain Works

Symptoms and Manifestations of Addiction

For physical addiction, symptoms can include nausea, shaking, sweating, or headaches when not using the substance. Psychological addiction might cause constant thoughts about the substance or activity, irritability, or anxiety when the individual can’t access it.

A relapse prevention plan needs to address both types of addiction. For physical addiction, medical treatment might be necessary to help manage withdrawal symptoms. For psychological addiction, therapy and counseling can help address underlying emotional risks.

How and Why Does Relapse Occur?

A relapse is a return to a previous behavior or condition, most often referring to the resumption of substance use after a period of abstinence. For those in recovery, it can be a setback, but it doesn’t signify failure. Relapse is a part of many people’s recovery journey.

Differentiating Between Lapse and Relapse

A lapse is a one-time or occasional return to substance use. On the other hand, a relapse is a full return to previous patterns of addictive behaviors.
Understanding the difference is critical. While a lapse can be a single incident, a relapse indicates a need to revisit and possibly revise the relapse prevention plan. Responding promptly to a lapse can prevent a full-blown relapse.

The Stages of Relapse

The stages of relapse are categorized into three main phases: emotional, mental, and physical:
  • Emotional relapse: This is when an individual is not thinking about using the substance or engaging in the addictive behavior. However, one’s emotions and behaviors set the stage for a possible relapse in the future.
  • Mental relapse: At this point, many people struggle with wanting or not wanting to revert to the substance or behavior. As this internal conflict grows, the risk of relapse increases.
  • Physical relapse: This involves the act of returning to the substance use or engaging in the addictive behavior. Once an individual starts thinking about relapse, if they don’t use strategies from their relapse prevention plan, it can commonly lead to actual engagement.

Early Warning Signs of Relapse

For emotional relapse, the signs might include anxiety, mood swings, and not attending recovery meetings or support groups. Individuals might also isolate themselves from loved ones or neglect self-care.

In the mental relapse phase, an individual might romanticize past use or behavior, start reconnecting with old friends who enable addiction, or think about places and people associated with past addictive behaviors.

There might be a growing urge to return to the behavior. Individuals may even start planning their relapse around other people’s schedules to avoid detection.

Psychological Preparation for Engagement

Before the actual act of using or engaging in the behavior, there’s often a psychological setup happening.
Individuals convince themselves that returning to the substance or behavior is a good idea, or that they can control their engagement this time. Bargaining is common, such as thinking “I’ll only do it this once” or “I deserve it after refraining for so long.”

The Act Itself

This is the culmination of the previous stages. It’s when an individual partakes in the substance or engages in addictive behavior, signaling a full relapse. However, a relapse prevention plan can greatly minimize this risk.

The Anatomy of a Relapse Prevention Plan

Every relapse prevention plan should have a set of fundamental elements that serve as its foundation. These components ensure that the plan is comprehensive, offering a holistic approach to prevent relapse.

Here’s a breakdown:

Risk Identification

Risk factors are any event, situation, or emotion that can prompt thoughts or desires related to substance use or the undesired behavior.
There are several kinds of risks that can potentially lead to a relapse, such as:
  • Emotional risks: These are feelings or emotions like stress, anger, sadness, or loneliness that can make one think about resorting to old habits.
  • Environmental risks: Certain places or situations, such as a bar or a party, can prompt thoughts or desires related to previous substance use or behaviors.
  • Social risks: Meeting someone from the past or being around certain groups can be a reminder of past behaviors.

How to Help Recognize Potential Triggers

Identifying these risks is a pivotal step in the relapse prevention plan. In order to identify these risk factors, many individuals can:
  • Journal: Keeping a daily journal helps track feelings and thoughts. Over time, an individual can identify patterns and pinpoint situations or emotions that act as risks.
  • Engage in therapy sessions: Discussing experiences with a professional can provide insights into risks that the individual might not have recognized on their own.
  • Undergo self-reflection: Taking time to think about the times one has felt a strong urge can help identify what was happening around them or how they were feeling at the time.

Coping Strategies to Mitigate the Risks of Relapse

Coping strategies are deliberate actions or techniques an individual uses to handle stressful situations, emotions, or risks that might lead to a relapse. They are tools that can help when an individual is faced with challenging moments. The two main types of coping strategies are proactive and reactive.
Proactive strategies are actions someone takes in advance to prevent being faced with a risk or stressful situation. For example, if someone knows a certain place or event might lead to temptations, avoiding it is a proactive strategy.
On the other hand, reactive strategies come into play when someone has already faced a risk or stressful situation. These are on-the-spot actions to manage and mitigate the impact.

Some common examples of coping strategies include:

Some common examples of coping strategies include:
  • Deep Breathing: When an individual feels overwhelmed, taking slow and deep breaths can calm the mind and body. It helps in reducing anxiety and creating a moment of pause before making any decisions.2
  • Exercise: Physical activity releases endorphins, which act as natural painkillers and mood elevators. A short walk, a few minutes of stretching, or a workout can be an effective way to cope.3
  • Distraction Techniques: Engaging in activities like reading, listening to music, or calling a friend can divert one’s attention from risks.

Daily Routine

A daily routine is a structured set of activities that someone does at roughly the same time every day. This means waking up, eating, working, relaxing, and sleeping at consistent times.
Uncertainty can be unsettling. By having a predictable day, individuals give themselves a framework to focus on the day’s tasks instead of potential stressors.
Some tips for setting a daily routine include:
  • Prioritizing tasks: List out daily tasks and rank them based on importance. This helps individuals allocate adequate time to each activity without feeling rushed.
  • Setting Specific Times: Consistency is key. Try to eat, sleep, and perform other daily activities at the same times every day. It will give the body a sense of rhythm.
Also, setting aside time to partake in self-care activities can act as a buffer against stress.

Regular Check-Ins

Regular check-ins involve taking intentional moments to assess one’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Think of it as a personal audit to ensure everything aligns with the goals of the relapse prevention plan.
The depth and focus of these check-ins can vary based on their frequency:
  • Daily Reflections: Every evening, consider how the day went. Were there any unexpected feelings or temptations? This can help keep a person grounded. 
  • Weekly Reviews: These are more comprehensive, focusing on the entire week. Individuals can notice patterns, triumphs, and challenges faced over multiple days.
  • Monthly Assessments: This is a look at the broader patterns over weeks. This helps identify recurring challenges and celebrate consistent wins.

Emergency Contacts

In a relapse prevention plan, emergency contacts are not just numbers an individual dials in a crisis. They are a person’s immediate support network.
But who makes a good emergency contact? The criteria for selection depend on availability, the level of understanding of the journey, and the ability to offer the needed support without judgment.
Generally, they are:
  • Trusted Individuals: Emergency contacts should include close friends, family members, or anyone else the individual feels comfortable sharing their feelings and struggles with. 
  • Medical Professionals: It’s advisable to include a medical professional or therapist in the contact list. They can offer professional guidance, especially if someone is experiencing intense emotions or physical symptoms.
  • Support Groups or Helplines: There are numerous support groups and helplines available, tailored to those in recovery. These can be beneficial because they offer a platform where people can speak with someone who truly understands the challenges of relapse.

Goals and Aspirations

Setting and recognizing goals provides a sense of purpose. This purpose often acts as a deterrent against relapses in a relapse prevention plan. When an individual is aware of what they’re striving for, it becomes easier to resist temptations and stay on the recovery path.
Identifying goals starts with self-reflection. Some ways to do this include:
  • Writing It Down: This can be broad ideas like “I want to rebuild my relationship with my family” or specific ones such as “I want to return to school within the next year.”
  • Prioritize: With the list in hand, decide which goals are the most immediate or critical for overall well-being and recovery.
  • Break It Down: For each goal, split it into smaller, actionable steps. If you wrote down “return to school,” an actionable step might be “research courses” or “speak with a counselor about enrollment.”

Being Aware of Potential Setbacks

A relapse prevention plan isn’t a static document. As an individual progresses in recovery, it’s important to revisit, reevaluate, and adjust treatment strategies. This dynamic approach ensures that the plan remains relevant and effective for one’s changing needs.

Common Setbacks in Implementation

A relapse prevention plan is only as good as an individual’s commitment to it. However, it’s common to encounter obstacles when trying to stick to the plan.
Here are some typical problems an individual might face:


It’s natural to feel a sense of accomplishment after achieving sobriety or breaking free from addictive habits. However, this pride can sometimes lead to overconfidence.
Someone might believe they have completely overcome their issues and no longer need support or a relapse prevention plan. However, no matter how long someone has been sober for, risks can still arise unexpectedly.


On the flip side of overconfidence is self-doubt. An individual might question their ability to stay on track. Such doubts can undermine motivation and commitment, making it harder to stick to the relapse prevention plan.


Stress is a part of life, but for someone trying to maintain sobriety or avoid old habits, it can be a significant risk.

External pressures, whether from work, relationships, or financial situations, can push someone towards seeking relief in familiar but harmful ways. Without a proper strategy to manage stress, it can easily derail the relapse prevention plan.


Being alone or feeling isolated can be a challenge in the recovery journey. Isolation can stem from a desire to avoid risks, but it can also be a result of shame or a fear of judgment. However, isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness, which might intensify cravings.

Forms of Support and Help In a Relapse Prevention Plan

The roadblocks one encounters don’t define their overall journey, but how they overcome these struggles is important.
Some ways to overcome hurdles during this time include:

Harnessing the Power of Support

Making a successful relapse prevention plan isn’t a solo journey. Leaning on others provides the foundation a person needs. There are various forms of support available.

Peer Support

Peer support comes from individuals who have faced the same challenges and can offer a unique perspective.
Some of the benefits of support groups and peer counseling include:4
  • They offer understanding from firsthand experience.
  • They provide a safe space to share and learn coping strategies.
  • They build a sense of community and reduce feelings of isolation.
Good examples include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Both are global networks where people come together to share stories, successes, and strategies.

A Closer Look at Group Therapy

Professional Support

Sometimes, individuals need expertise that peers can’t provide. That’s where professionals come in. These doctors or therapists offer trained, objective insight into various challenges. They can provide tailored strategies to prevent relapse, and they can track progress and make adjustments as needed.

Family and Friends

Family and friends are the backbone of many recovery stories. They can offer unconditional love, understanding, and encouragement. Family and friends provide daily motivation and accountability. They can also offer emotional comfort during tough times.

Mindfulness and Self-Awareness

Mindfulness is a practice that encourages being fully present in the current moment. This means observing one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgment.

In addiction recovery, mindfulness helps an individual become aware of risks, cravings, and emotional states that might lead to a relapse.5

Self-awareness, on the other hand, is recognizing and understanding one’s own emotions, behaviors, and thought patterns. Being self-aware in recovery means understanding the root causes of addiction and knowing what strategies work best for maintaining sobriety.

Incorporating Mindfulness and Self-Awareness

Some ways to incorporate these practices include:
  • Daily Meditation: Dedicate 5-10 minutes each day to sit in a quiet space. During this time, an individual can focus on their breathing, observe their thoughts, and bring their attention back to their breath whenever their mind wanders.
  • Body Scanning: Lay down in a comfortable position and mentally scan the body from head to toe. Observe any tension, discomfort, or sensations. This helps an individual stay connected with their physical state and can highlight stress or discomfort.6

Lifestyle Adjustments

A successful relapse prevention plan centers on creating a life where it’s easier not to return to addictive behaviors. This approach often involves making key lifestyle changes that bolster health, mental clarity, and resilience.

Diet and Nutrition

A balanced and nutritious diet can boost mood, energy levels, and overall brain function. By focusing on certain nutrients and foods, an individual can further support their brain’s health and journey toward recovery.
To nurture the brain and enhance the relapse prevention plan, the following foods are beneficial:
  • Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish like salmon, are known to support brain function.
  • Leafy greens such as spinach contain vital nutrients that are beneficial for cognitive health.
  • Berries, especially blueberries, are packed with antioxidants that are good for the brain.
  • Whole grains like quinoa and brown rice can help stabilize blood sugar levels, maintaining steady energy and mood.

Hydration and Recovery

Water is fundamental for both cognitive and physical health. Staying hydrated ensures that every cell in the body, including those in the brain, functions optimally.
People should aim to drink about 8 glasses, or 2 liters, of water a day. However, depending on factors like activity level and climate, an individual might need more.

Exercise and Mental Health

Regular exercise offers numerous benefits for mental health. Engaging in physical activity releases endorphins, natural mood lifters, which can counteract feelings of sadness or depression. Physical activity is a great addition to any relapse prevention plan.
Here’s how different exercises can support mental health:
  • Aerobic exercises such as running, swimming, or cycling can decrease anxiety and improve mood.7
  • Strength training, like lifting weights, can boost self-esteem and improve sleep.
  • Yoga and tai chi are forms of mindful movement that can reduce stress and enhance overall well-being.

Sleep Patterns and Relapse Correlation

Sleep rejuvenates the brain, improving cognitive functions and mood. Inconsistent or inadequate sleep can lead to increased stress, mood swings, and even depression.
When someone is well-rested, they’re better equipped to handle challenges and make decisions that align with their relapse prevention plan.
Here are some tips for improving sleep hygiene:
  • Set a regular sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time daily.
  • Make sure the bedroom is dark, quiet, and cool.
  • Limit screen time, especially blue light from phones and computers, at least an hour before bedtime.
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol close to bedtime.
relapse prevention plan

How to Build a Robust Relapse Prevention Plan with Ripple Ranch

At Ripple Ranch, we believe that your path to recovery deserves personalized attention. Recognizing the unique challenges you face is central to our approach.
Here’s how we ensure you get a tailored relapse prevention plan that aligns with your journey:
  • Personalized Assessments: Before anything else, we dive deep into understanding your specific needs. It’s not about a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s about you, your story, and your challenges. This assessment lays the groundwork for your relapse prevention plan.
  • Integrating Proven Therapies: We blend evidence-based therapies like CBT and DBT into your plan, ensuring a strong foundation to tackle potential cravings and temptations.
  • Regular Interactions with Experts: You’re not alone in this. With our 1:6 staff-to-client ratio, we guarantee that you will get the attention and support you need. Regular sessions with our trained therapists will guide you, offering timely advice and interventions.
  • Feedback-Driven Approach: Your feedback is invaluable. By integrating your insights, we ensure your relapse prevention plan stays relevant and effective.

Reach Out and Begin Healing

Ready to pave a clear path towards lasting recovery? With us, you get more than a program; you get a partnership. Let’s co-author your success story, tailored to your unique needs and journey. Get in touch with our team today to craft your relapse prevention plan.