Viewing Relapse Differently
Traditionally, people have been tempted to see relapse as either a moral failure or a failure in treatment. Even today, a certain amount of social stigma surrounds the idea of relapse. However, recent research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows that we’ve been thinking of relapse in the wrong way.
NIDA views drug addiction as a chronic, lifelong illness. For perspective, other chronic, lifelong illnesses include Type I diabetes, depression, hypertension, and asthma.
In most lifelong illnesses, relapse is a normal part of treatment. A person who takes asthma medication may have a sudden, unexpected asthma attack. Somebody with depression may experience an episode in spite of being on antidepressants. In these cases, has the depressed or asthmatic person committed a moral failure? Has his or her treatment failed? Of course not. The person’s disorder has simply relapsed. The individual didn’t ask for the relapse, and the treatment may have worked perfectly well for a time. We accept that these individuals just need to see a doctor and have their treatment plans adjusted. Why not view drug addiction relapse in the same light? Just like with many other illnesses, drug addiction requires consistent treatment and occasional treatment modifications.
The relapse rate for addiction is 40-60%. For comparison, the relapse rate for hypertension is 50-70%.
Don’t Self Sabotage
Have you ever tried to develop healthy eating habits? If you’ve been eating healthy foods and then cave in to the temptation to eat a cookie, what do you do next? If you’re like a lot of other people, you think, “Well, my diet is ruined. I might as well have five more.” While recovering from addiction is certainly not the same thing as resisting cookies, the human tendency to self-sabotage still applies. If you relapse, you may be tempted to think, “Well, I failed, so I might as well go back to using drugs again.” This kind of thinking is a trap. Don’t let it get in the way of your sobriety. Instead, if you do relapse, talk to your doctors and therapists about adjusting your treatment. If necessary, you can revisit your rehab program.
Have you experienced a relapse? Call 800-492-QUIT.
The Dangers of Relapse
Nevertheless, a person with an addiction should try to avoid relapse if at all possible. Relapse can become extremely dangerous. To understand, why, let’s take a closer look at the concept of tolerance. In drug addiction, tolerance refers to the brain and body’s ability to process and react to a drug. When you try a drug for the first time, you experience a strong reaction. If you keep abusing that drug, however, you’ll eventually get used to it. As a result, you’ll need larger and larger amounts of the substance to feel any impact. When you stop taking that substance, you’ll lose your tolerance for it. Many people who relapse go back to using the doses that they grew used to before getting treatment. Without the same level of tolerance, those dose sizes can cause overdose.
You should have an emergency plan in place just in case you do relapse. If you live with other people, let them know about these dangers. Be prepared to call 911 or seek medical treatment if you do relapse.
Tips for Avoiding Relapse
Whether or not you’ve already experienced relapse, it’s a good idea to have a mental “toolbox” of sorts to prevent relapse in the future. Below, we’ve listed the things that everybody with a substance use disorder should do to avoid relapse.
- Find a supportive community. (If you don’t already have one, try going to 12 Step meetings or a support group.)
- Follow AA’s HALT principle: Don’t get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.
- Learn how to avoid your triggers.
- Stick to a regular routine.
- Go to therapy.
- Have a plan to deal with urges and cravings.
- Pick your favorite sober stress-management technique.
- If you’ve been to rehab, find out if they have a “refresher course” for former participants.
Additionally, we’ve also come up with a list of tips that have helped many people but depend on the individual. Take a look at the list below, try out a few of these tips, and keep up with the ones that work for you.
- Develop a spiritual practice such as prayer or meditation.
- Practice yoga.
- Try hobbies that keep your hands and mind busy. (e.g., knitting, woodworking, making jewelry, etc.)
- Keep a gratitude journal.
Need More Help?
If you or someone you love has experienced a relapse, or even if you’re just worried about the possibility of relapse, we’re here to help.