Relapse Prevention Plan | Warning Signs & Coping Skills

You should congratulate yourself on making it this far. It has been a long journey, and whether you have completely beaten your addiction or you are well on your way, you should be proud of your work thus far. It has not been easy, and you have probably had some help, but you are here now, and that is what matters most. However, the journey is not over, and the next step is understanding how to avoid relapse. Relapse might be one of your greatest fears right now. Maybe this is the first time you have achieved the level of success you are at now, or perhaps you have experienced relapse in the past. The last thing that you want to do is go back. If you are a loved one of someone who is recovering, you probably share the same fears about a relapse. Just as breaking the addiction cycle in the first place depended on having a solid plan and support network, so does relapse prevention. Developing a relapse prevention plan with a professional counselor is one of the most important factors for success.

Relapse Does Not Mean Failure

First off, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is treatable and can be managed for lifelong success. Relapse does not mean that the treatment or the person has failed. Relapse prevention is simply part of the process. Relapse rates for those who are recovering from substance use disorder are similar to those for people attempting to make lifestyle changes to manage chronic diseases such as diabetes, asthma, and hypertension. Relapse simply means the treatment needs to be reinstated, changed, or adjusted to achieve the long-term goals. The goal for making any lifestyle change is to ensure it’s sustainable, and this takes long-term commitment. It is not a one-time event.

Recognizing the Warning Signs

The warning signs of relapse can occur weeks or months before the relapse. The most important element of a relapse prevention plan is recognizing the warning signs of relapse and developing a plan should you begin to see these warning signs in yourself or your loved one. The road to addiction was not a one-time event but a process that occurred over time, and so is the road to relapse. Learning to recognize the stages early on can help you head it off and regain control. Certain cues that are linked to the substance use can cause stress and lead to relapse. These include being exposed to the people, places, and things associated with that time and being in certain moods. Any of these things can trigger a relapse, and recognizing the potential when exposed to these situations is the first step in developing a plan that includes coping skills for long-term success. The early stages of recovery can be the most difficult in terms of relapse. Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, anxiety, weakness, mood swings, and poor sleep can complicate relapse prevention. For the person in a treatment program, they often have sufficient support for managing this difficult initial stage. Managing relapse becomes more difficult when the person is back in their old environment and exposed to stress and old emotional triggers. The person must recognize the warning signs of relapse and have a plan in place to manage them effectively.

Stages of Relapse

One of the most important things to understand is that the precursors to relapse begin weeks or even months before the actual relapse occurs.

Emotional relapse

In this stage, you may not be thinking about using again, but you are experiencing some of the same emotions and behaviors that set you up for using in the first place. These emotional factors include stress, anger, defensiveness, anxiety, mood swings, feelings of isolation, and poor eating and sleeping habits. Another thing to watch out for is not going to meetings to ask for help. It is easy to think at this stage that you can do it on your own, but you should know by now that it is time to ask for help if you are experiencing any of these signs.

Mental relapse

At this point, the emotional relapse has been going on for some time, and you may be facing an internal struggle. Part of you wants to find relief through substance use, and the other part wants to stay clean. You may find yourself hanging out with old friends, fantasizing about using, and missing some of the people and places associated with your old behaviors. This stage progresses from casually thinking about using to more pervasive thoughts about using. At this point, avoiding a relapse becomes more difficult and is more likely to occur. It is essential that you reach out for help if you arrive at this stage. Otherwise, you may find yourself going down that road that you do not want to go down again.

Physical relapse

If you do not seek help in the earlier stages, the old triggers will eventually win, and you’ll begin using again. You already know that you cannot overcome this with brute force or willpower. It is time to get help.

How to Avoid Relapse

The first step in avoiding a relapse is recognizing the danger signs that could trigger the first stages of an emotional relapse. The earlier the emotional signs are caught, the greater the chance that a relapse can be avoided. Once the relapse stages progress, avoiding relapse becomes more difficult. The key is having a plan that includes seeking help early. Seeking help at the first signs of relapse is an indication that you are gaining control and a positive sign that you will one day achieve your goals. Reaching out for help early is the most important coping mechanism that you can master. It should be seen as a positive step in the recovery process. Avoiding triggers, both emotional and physical, is an important step in relapse prevention. During the initial treatment process, you learned about what types of things trigger your substance use. Avoiding them is a big part of the recovery process and essential to preventing relapses. This is easier said than done, especially when some of the triggers are environmental factors that are beyond your control. The most important thing to remember is that substance use disorder is a chronic condition. Between 40 to 60 percent of those recovering from it will relapse at some point in their lives. It is a normal part of the recovery process and can be seen as a stepping stone and an opportunity to grow. During a relapse, you will strengthen your coping skills and perhaps learn something new that will help you do even better in the future. Relapse is not the end of the road; it’s part of the journey.

Set Realistic Expectations

Substance use has both physical and psychological factors. During the recovery process, both of these factors must be managed to avoid significant relapse episodes. Although it does occur, many substance users do not simply go through the treatment process and come out with no desire to use again. A more realistic expectation is that over time, relapses will be fewer, farther between, and less severe. Recovery is a process that includes coping with relapses from time to time. That is why having a plan is essential. Coping with the recovery process can be seen as building a muscle. Each time, the muscle grows stronger, and old triggers have less influence than in the past. During the initial treatment process, the focus is on both the physical and emotional factors. During the recovery process, the physical factors are reduced, and physical dependence is no longer an issue. With the physical factors no longer an issue, the emotional factors become more important in the relapse process. The emotional factors are the beginning stage of a relapse. The key is getting help before relapse moves to the physical stage.

The Importance of Support

The importance of having a support network to avoid a relapse cannot be stressed enough. The first line of defense is having family and friends who can help recognize the early emotional factors that may eventually lead to a relapse. By the time the former substance user recognizes the signs, they are often more severe and more difficult to cope with. Loved ones and friends may notice small changes before they become problematic, so your support group should definitely be a part of the relapse prevention plan. Creating an open and supportive environment where the recovering substance user and loved ones can talk about any emotional changes that may be having an effect on the potential for relapse is essential. Loved ones and family can also play an important role in encouraging the person to seek help in the early phases of a relapse. Having a support network may be the key to helping the person seek help early when treatment will be most likely to be effective. One has to remember that substance use causes changes in the neurobiological circuitry of the brain. The brain learned the circuitry involved in the addiction through repetition. Psychotherapy has been shown to cause changes in the brain that can be detected at a cellular and molecular level, just as the circuitry involved with addiction can be detected. However, these changes do not happen overnight and take time. Every time you head off a relapse, it is strengthening the muscles and reinforcing positive changes. A supportive network is the foundation of recovery and the avoidance of relapse. You did not get here alone, and you are not alone in your journey to end your addiction once and for all. You should celebrate your journey thus far and the lessons that you have learned. Your journey may not be over, and reaching out for help is the most important coping skill that you can master.

Develop a Plan

Understand that while you can remove many triggers from your environment, you will still face challenges and situations that have the potential to cause a relapse. Recovery takes effort, and you have to remember that it is a long-distance marathon and not a short sprint. Developing an action plan and steps that you will take if you find yourself facing a trigger or difficult situation can be the deciding factor in how well you cope. One of the most important elements of the plan is to focus on the reason why you want to make this change. Then, you can develop individual actions and strategies for each of your triggers. This plan can be considered part of your toolbox for avoiding relapse. A treatment specialist can help you develop a highly detailed plan that includes how to handle any crisis that should occur. The specialist will help you recognize when to seek assistance and exactly how to get it. The plan should also include how to recognize signs of recovery so that you do not forget to celebrate your victories. In summary, the most important components of the relapse prevention strategy are:
  1. Understanding the triggers that may lead to a relapse
  2. Learning to recognize these triggers in yourself
  3. Identifying the stages and warning signs that a relapse is about to occur
  4. Having a plan for getting help if the early signs of a relapse occur
  5. Developing a network of friends and family who are supportive of your recovery
  6. Creating a detailed relapse action plan with your recovery specialist
  7. Recognizing that this is a lifelong process
  8. Celebrating the small victories along your journey
Don’t struggle alone if you or a loved one is battling old emotional demons. A treatment specialist at Arrow Passage Recovery will be dedicated to helping you or your loved one beat substance use.

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