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What Causes Relapse? Why Some Slip Back into the Addiction Cycle

It is widely known that substance addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease – just like hypertension, diabetes, and asthma, says the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). If you or a loved one has recently relapsed back into drug abuse, you are not alone. Studies show that more than two-thirds of individuals relapse within months of beginning addiction treatment. As disheartening as it can be, for many, relapse is a part of the recovery process.

What does relapse mean, exactly? Relapse happens when someone who is suffering from a disease returns to a former, unhealthy state, after a temporary improvement. In the case of substance addiction, it means that a person returns to drinking or drug use after an attempt to stop. Relapse does not mean that someone has failed, nor does it mean that their prior treatment has failed. Rather, it means that treatment must be resumed or revised to meet that person’s changing needs.

What causes relapse? Like with other chronic diseases, drug relapse most often happens when a person stops following his or her ongoing treatment plan. As Shatterproof.org explains, “Any chronic condition that’s being managed—diabetes, arthritis, multiple sclerosis—can “flare up” from time to time. Maybe the medication stops working, or maybe the disease progresses and more aggressive care is needed.”

There are many different reasons a person in recovery might relapse into using drugs again. Typically, however, these are related to some sort of trigger – something that causes them to physically feel compelled to use drugs. Relapse triggers, or causes of relapse, will vary from person to person. Some are environmental, some are mental, and some are emotional.

Environmental causes of relapse are usually drug-related cues that trigger memories of using in a person’s brain. These can include:

  • A place where you used to use drugs or drink alcohol
  • A person who you associate with prior substance abuse
  • A song that reminds you of the period of time you used
  • An object (such as a pipe or spoon) that reminds you of drug use
  • Stressful situations that you used to alleviate with drug use

Emotional or mental causes of relapse can range, as well. Stress is among the most prominent causes of relapse, due to the powerful effects that it can have in a person’s brain. Not only does high stress make a person more vulnerable to addiction, but it also makes those who are battling addiction hyper-sensitive to stress, according to Scholastic. This increases the risk of relapse for a person in recovery.

Similar to stress, high anxiety and anxiety disorders can also cause a person to relapse. In fact, anxiety is one of the most common co-occurring disorders with substance addiction, as those battling anxiety often attempt to self-medicate their symptoms with drug use. For example, a person with social anxiety drinks excessively or uses drugs before an event, to feel more at ease in a crowd or in conversation.

Depression is another common co-occurring disorder or emotional trigger that can cause relapse in an individual. Someone who feels disconnected, sad, or forlorn may turn to drugs to escape their negative feelings or heal an emotional pain. Other relapse triggers that are inter-connected include: hunger, anger, loneliness, tiredness, and any negative moods or emotions with which a person may not know how to cope. A bad relationship, an argument, a difficult job, or a stressful situation can also turn a person towards drugs if he or she has not practiced healthy coping mechanisms.

Often, emotional relapse triggers are stirred by trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse. Those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can experience flashbacks or reminders of past traumas, which can trigger them to want to use again. PTSD commonly co-occurs with substance abuse.

Drug addiction is a chemical addiction that has actual, physical effects on the brain and body. Detoxing from drug use – “getting sober” – is often the easier part of treatment. Changing deeply-rooted, behaviors takes time and effort. Detox does not reverse the effects that drug use has on the brain. The healing brain, especially in early recovery, will be very susceptible to cravings and compulsion to use. That is why so many will relapse within the first year of sobriety.

While relapse is a common part of the recovery process, it is important to remember that substance addiction is in fact treatable with proper management and ongoing care. Relapse is also preventable. With long-term, behavioral addiction treatment, clients can learn the proper coping mechanisms needed to handle difficult emotions and cravings, and to tackle the “causes” of relapse head-on. If you recognize any of the signs of relapse, do not hesitate to intervene and call professional help. Relapse can be very dangerous and even fatal, depending on a user’s drug of choice.

If you or your loved one has already relapsed, do not be discouraged. Again, this does not mean that treatment has failed, or that this person has failed in recovery. Rather, this relapse indicates that the person needs to speak with their doctor to resume treatment, modify it, or try another method. Learn from this experience and make changes to overcome it.

For more information about the causes of drug relapse, or to start professional treatment for your loved one, please do not hesitate to reach out. Call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 to learn more.