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Drug Relapse Signs & Triggers

This article will provide an overview of common signs of drug relapse and how to achieve and maintain sobriety.

What Is Drug Relapse?

Drug relapse refers to the recurrence of drug use after abstinence. Relapsing is a part of the addiction recovery process and should not be considered a sign of failure. Many different factors could cause a relapse. While developing relapse prevention strategies, understanding the signs of drug relapse can help people in recovery be more aware of potential risks.

Drug Relapse Signs & Triggers

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Why Do People Relapse?

Addiction is a chronic disorder, meaning it is a condition that persists over time or is recurring. Thus, for many, relapsing can occur one or more times before reaching a full recovery. Some common factors that can contribute to the signs of drug relapse include:
  • Exposure to Drugs or Drug Use: Research indicates that exposure to stimuli associated with drug use is one of the most significant relapse triggers. This could involve going to parties, seeing people they used to engage in drug use with, or being near the substance.1 
  • Negative Emotions: Negative emotions, such as anxiety, depression, or boredom, can lead to relapse. Individuals may self-medicate with drugs to alleviate unwanted emotions. In fact, one study found that as the severity of depressive symptoms increased, the ability to remain abstinent after treatment decreased. 2
  • Lack of Support: Social support is an important part of recovery. Relapse is more likely to occur when people do not have others to help and encourage them.
  • Lack of Proper Treatment: Those who do not receive proper treatment or stop addiction treatment early are more likely to relapse.
  • Lack of Co-Occurring Disorders: Co-occurring disorders refer to individuals who simultaneously have two disorders (usually a mental health and substance use disorder). Turning to substances as a coping mechanism for adverse symptoms is common. Thus, the risk of relapse increases when co-occurring disorders are not treated together.

Stages of Relapse

There are three stages of relapse: emotional relapse, mental relapse, and physical relapse. The signs of drug relapse differ depending on the stage. The signs of drug relapse will be detailed below.

Stage One: Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse is the earliest stage, characterized by mood and behavior changes. The signs of drug relapse presented in this stage may include increased stress, anxiety, depression, and irritability. Individuals may also begin withdrawing from friends and family and neglect self-care and healthy habits.

Stage Two: Mental Relapse

In this stage, individuals begin to think about using drugs or alcohol again. They may fantasize about substance use or make plans to obtain drugs or alcohol. Additionally, those experiencing a mental relapse may justify drug use to minimize the negative consequences.

Stage Three: Physical Relapse

Physical relapse is the final stage, involving the actual use of drugs or alcohol again. The signs of drug relapse in this stage can occur after days, weeks, or even months of emotional and mental relapse.

How Common Are Relapses?

Relapse is a common occurrence among individuals in recovery from substance abuse. Studies have shown that relapse rates vary depending on the substance of abuse and the length of time an individual has been in recovery.

Nonetheless, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the drug relapse rate is estimated to be between 40% and 60%. Opioids alone have a relapse rate of 91%. These numbers may be higher for more severe addiction cases and those who have relapsed multiple times. 3

Is Relapse a Sign of Failure?

Relapsing is not a sign of failure. Instead, it is a step in the process of recovery. As a chronic illness, recovering from addiction takes time and patience. And, like many other chronic illnesses, relapse is common.
Addiction is a long-term condition that requires ongoing management and treatment. Relapse can be an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and adjust treatment plans. Signs of drug relapse are not equal to failure but are a normal part of recovery.

What Addiction Relapse Triggers Should You Look Out for?

The following are common addiction relapse triggers that every person in recovery should be aware of:
  • Life Stressors: Stressful life events can trigger a relapse. Examples include financial problems, relationship issues, and job loss.
  • Easy Access: Having access to drugs or alcohol can lead to temptation. Keeping substances at home or staying in contact with people who have access to drugs can lead to relapse.
  • Revisiting Negative Connections: Being around people or places associated with drug use can trigger cravings and relapse.
  • Social Isolation: Signs of drug relapse can also look like avoiding going out, refusing to socialize, and feeling disconnected from others. Isolation can make it more difficult to maintain recovery. 
  • Illness: Physical or mental health issues can lead to drug use to cope with adverse symptoms. Self-medication is common, especially when health concerns are not properly addressed.
  • Major Life Transitions: Significant changes in life, such as a new job, moving, or the birth of a child, can be stressful and trigger a relapse.
  • Boredom: A lack of structure or purpose in life can lead to feelings of boredom and apathy, which can increase the risk of relapse.

Additional Relapse Triggers

Among the factors listed above, the three main relapse triggers are reexposure to drugs, stress, and reexposure to cues associated with drug use. 4

Recognizing Relapse Warning Signs

There are some key warning signs of drug relapse to note. Some signs of drug relapse include:

  • Overconfidence: Too much confidence can have reverse effects on recovery. It can lead to refusal to seek help or fully participate in therapy due to the belief that they cannot relapse. This is one of the earliest signs of drug relapse in some people.
  • Significant Change in Attitude: This can look like a shift in attitude towards recovery, such as becoming apathetic or resentful towards the recovery process.
  • Significant Change in Behavior: A change in behavior, such as neglecting responsibilities or engaging in risky or self-destructive behaviors, is one of the visible signs of drug relapse.
  • Self-Imposed Isolation: Withdrawing from friends, family, and support groups or avoiding previously enjoyable activities can indicate a relapse.
  • Reviving Old (Negative) Connections: Rekindling relationships or connections with people or places associated with drug use is a sign that relapse has occurred or will occur soon.
  • Neglecting Personal Hygiene: Neglecting personal grooming or hygiene usually results from drug use, indicating a relapse.
  • Dishonesty: Lying or being secretive about thoughts, feelings, or actions is one of the common signs of drug relapse. People who experience a relapse may feel ashamed or want to continue using substances, leading to dishonest behavior.

Is it Possible to Prevent Relapse?

These warning signs may not always indicate an imminent relapse. Still, they can show an individual’s emotional and mental state. If these signs of drug relapse are recognized early, it may be possible to prevent a physical relapse.

Common Risk Factors for Relapse

There are many risk factors that can initiate a drug relapse. The most common include:
  • Exposure to Triggers: Being in environments or situations that drive individuals to drug use.
  • Stress: Exposure to stressors, such as pressure from school or work, a lack of money, or an unstable home life, is one of the most common signs of drug relapse.
  • Interpersonal Problems: Conflict or problems in relationships with friends, family, or romantic partners can increase the risk of relapse.
  • Peer Pressure: Pressure from friends or peers to use drugs or alcohol can be a powerful trigger for drug relapse.
  • Lack of Social Support: A lack of support from friends and family can make it more difficult to maintain recovery.
  • Pain Due to Injuries, Accidents, or Medical Issues:Physical pain or discomfort can increase the risk of using drugs or alcohol to cope.
  • Low Self-Efficacy:People who do not believe in their ability to resist the urge to use drugs or alcohol can increase the risk of relapse..
  • Positive Moods:Feeling good can be a risk factor for relapse. Individuals may feel that they have overcome their addiction and can handle using drugs or alcohol again.

How to Avoid Relapse

Here are some helpful tips to avoid relapse and get back on track:
  • Revisit Your Relapse Prevention Plan: Review your relapse prevention plan regularly and make any necessary adjustments. Identify and avoid high-risk situations, learn how to recognize the signs of drug relapse, and ensure you have a plan to deal with cravings or triggers.
  • Increase Meeting Attendance: Attend support group meetings or therapy sessions regularly and seek additional support if needed.
  • Commit to Healthy Routines: Establish and maintain healthy habits such as regular exercise, healthy eating, and good sleep patterns.
  • Build a Sober Network: Surround yourself with supportive people who do not use drugs or alcohol and avoid people who do.
  • Increase Self-Care Practices: Make self-care a priority. For example, you can practice relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, or deep breathing.
Relapse is a normal part of recovery; it doesn’t mean treatment has failed. With the proper support and treatment, anyone can regain control and maintain long-term recovery.

Help a Loved One Cope With Addiction Relapse at Ripple Ranch Recovery

Ripple Ranch Recovery offers the best addiction treatment programs for individuals and their families. Our experienced team utilizes evidence-based therapies and techniques for the most effective results. We also take an individualized approach to address each client’s unique needs.
We are here to provide you with all the information you need. If you have any questions about addiction treatment, such as the signs of drug relapse or how to start your recovery journey, please reach out to Ripple Ranch Recovery today.