Relapse: Signs to Watch Out For

in Addiction
Published Dec 1, 2020

Relapse can be a feature of recovery, especially during stressful times like the holidays. While the goal of most people’s recovery is relapse prevention, sometimes relapse happens. What’s important is how we support loved ones with relapse and help them back to get back on the road to recovery.

What is a relapse?

Relapse simply means returning to use, whether that is one drink or a prolonged episode of drug use. And it is not an uncommon feature of addiction.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) 40 to 60 percent of people with substance use disorder will relapse at some point. The rate of relapse depends on the type of drug, too. For example, the rate increases to 80 percent for those with opioid addiction.

The chronic nature of addiction sometimes means that for some people in recovery a return to use is part of the process. NIDA state that relapse rates for substance use disorder are similar to other chronic illnesses — if a person stops their medical treatment plan it is likely they’ll relapse.

Signs of relapse

Gallus Clinical director, Steve Carleton, LCSW, explains more about the cause of relapse.

Return to use is most often a slow drift back into high risk situations. Change is such a difficult process and over time there is a natural move back towards old thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. There are certainly times when unforeseen triggers arise and despite best efforts the pressure to use is overwhelming, however, these are more rare. In short the main causes a person returning to use are triggers.

He continues, “If I were to pick the two most common causes of returning to use, ambivalence and not being prepared for a trigger.”

While addiction treatment is designed to help people become aware of the people, places, things, experiences, and internal cues that lead to thoughts about using, it isn’t always possible because it’s hard to overcome years of conditioning.

Humans spend the majority of our lives on auto-pilot. Overcoming years of auto-pilot that results in use requires a tremendous amount of awareness. Identifying and anticipating triggers is the work of recovery. If addiction is a Ferrari with really crappy breaks speeding out of control, Recovery is like a mail truck driving on the opposite side and making frequent stops. Slowing down the process is essential to success,” explains Carleton.

Some common symptoms of relapse might include:

  • Hidden empty bottles or drug paraphernalia
  • Smelling alcohol on their breath
  • Spending lots of time in the bathroom or leaving the house frequently
  • Impulsiveness
  • If the person attends meetings, they may stop going
  • Changes in mood: irritability, highs and lows, anxiety, and intolerance
  • Isolation and withdrawal from social situations
  • Changes to sleeping and eating patterns
  • Defensiveness when asked if they have been using
  • Changes in physical appearance: loved ones may seem to lose weight, or not shower as regularly


What to do when a loved one relapses?

The first thing to do if you, or a loved one relapses and that is to show non-judgmental compassion. Addiction is an illness, not a moral failing (read more about that here). Loved ones need support and encouragement to get back on the road to recovery. They may already feel shame and embarrassment and would benefit from love, support, and kindness, not further criticism – they’re probably already criticizing themselves!

Support might mean cheering them on, or helping with relapse prevention techniques and strategies, like removing alcohol from the house, or being by their side for a few days.

In closing, Carleton reminds us of the effort required for long-term recovery:

It would be so great if commitment to change were static! But as we have all learned (addiction or not) our minds go back and forth. People have to have safe outlets to share when the inevitable thoughts about using arise.

If you or a loved one is struggling with opioids, please contact us to see how we can help.

At Gallus Medical Detox Centers, we bring compassion to the commotion. Peace to the pain. Empowerment to the powerless. If you or someone you know needs support with addiction problems, bring us your battle. Call us today and take the best, first step towards recovery: 720-704-1432


Other posts you may find helpful…

Common Triggers of Relapse

Key Strategies for Relapse Prevention

Celebrities Share Lessons Learned From Relapse