Substance addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease. This means it is possible for people in recovery to relapse, or return to drug or alcohol use after a period of abstinence. However, there are several prevention methods that individuals can take to reduce their chances of relapse significantly. For example, long-term drug treatment programs often make relapse prevention a key focus for clients. Those who stick to their treatment program and care plan are less likely to relapse. For those who are not in a treatment program, however, it can help to develop a relapse prevention plan.
What is a Relapse Prevention Plan?
A relapse prevention plan is a strategy designed to help keep you on track in your recovery and prevent a return to drug abuse. It lays out your goals in recovery, the indicators leading to relapse, and the groundwork for what to do in the face of relapse triggers. A relapse prevention plan is typically a written agreement that outlines the signs of relapse, your personal triggers, and a plan to avoid those – or handle them effectively – to prevent a return to substance use.
After completing a drug treatment program, your sponsor or support specialist can help you create a relapse prevention plan. This will identify your unique needs and describe the coping mechanisms you can implement to deal with drug cravings, difficult situations, and peer pressure. Your relapse prevention plan may also contain a list of people in your sober support network—people you can call if you feel like you may relapse.
Why is a Relapse Prevention Plan Important?
When a person is heading towards a relapse, it can become blurry. Relapse often happens in phases, starting with emotional withdrawal from your friends and your recovery. It then becomes more mental, often turning into regular fantasies about drugs and alcohol or thinking about opportunities to use drugs. After that phase, it can become a physical reality, but having a relapse prevention plan can help it from progressing that far.
A relapse prevention plan is important because it can stop relapse signals in their tracks. It will give you specific actions to take, signs to look for, and people to call when you need them most. When you feel like you are lost, you can look to your relapse prevention plan for assurance.
A relapse prevention plan is important because relapse is, unfortunately, a possibility. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an estimated 40 to 60 percent of people in recovery may relapse—rates that are very similar for other chronic, relapsing illnesses like hypertension and asthma. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also notes that relapse is most common in early recovery, with nearly two-thirds of all relapses occurring during the first six months.
Relapse can be dangerous for those who have been sober for a long period of time. This indicates that your body has recovered from the drug use, your brain has returned to normal functioning, and you no longer have the tolerance that you used to. Relapsing to your drug of choice, even in a moderate amount, then, can carry great risk for overdose.
How to Write a Relapse Prevention Plan
Everyone in recovery has a different relapse prevention plan. Yours must be tailored to your own unique needs and circumstances. If you are ready to sit down and write a relapse prevention plan, it is important to take time to assess what your needs are and where you want to go in your recovery. Follow these steps on how to develop a relapse prevention plan:
- Reflect on your current situation and needs.
Think about where you are now and why you are seeking tips for relapse prevention. What is causing you to think about drugs and why did you start using drugs in the first place? Recognizing the root of your substance use can help you create a plan for the road ahead.
- Write down your goals for recovery.
What do you want to accomplish in your recovery? What do you want in your future? If you have specific goals you want to achieve, such as going to college or seeing your family more, write those down as inspiration. Having your goals in front of you can motivate you along the way, and help you steer clear of relapse. These goals will also keep you accountable. If you relapse, you may not be able to achieve the goals you have laid out.
- Write down your relapse triggers—What is likely to make you want to use drugs?
A relapse trigger is anything that might cause you to want to use drugs or drink alcohol. It can be a person who causes stress in your life, a place where you used to use drugs, an item that reminds you of your drug using days. Relapse triggers can also be situational, such as at certain events or when certain issues or conversations come up. Write down things that cause you stress, worry, anxiety, or any other negative emotions. These can be significant contributors to relapse.
- Identify tools for managing and responding to relapse triggers.
After identifying your own personal triggers, make a plan to avoid and respond to them when they come up. For example, this may be driving a different direction home from work, so you don’t go by your old buddies’ house where you used to use drugs. It may mean walking away from certain conversations or people that are going to cause you stress. In addition to avoidance, have coping strategies in place to handle these relapse triggers, as well. Sometimes, these cannot be avoided. It is important to have techniques in your back pocket to bring you back from a state of wanting to use. This involve journaling, meditation, exercise, cooking, going to a meeting, and other stress management mechanisms. Write those clearly in your relapse prevention plan.
- Know the signs of relapse and plan accordingly.
It is important to prepare for the worst and establish a plan for if you feel yourself getting close to a relapse. As mentioned above, relapse often comes in phases. If you feel yourself struggling with negative thought patterns, constant urges to use, or behavioral changes, your relapse prevention plan should have steps outlined to pull you out and prevent a physical relapse. Know the signs of relapse, in you personally, and outline those in your written plan. Having these for reference – for yourself or to show loved ones – can help you stop relapse. Common signs of relapse include:
- You’re no longer attending meetings or support groups
- You are reminiscing about the old days of drinking and drugs
- You have negative feelings towards your recovery
- You have pulled away from loved ones and people who support you most
- You are no longer carrying out your usual routine and healthy habits
- You are emotionally withdrawn from people and things you love
- Plan for a relapse.
This step may sound funny because this is, after all, a relapse prevention plan. However, it is important you have a plan set forth just in case a relapse were to happen. A relapse prevention plan is not only for you, but can be shared with your family members and friends so that they know what to do in case a relapse occurs. In addition to outlining the signs of relapse, have steps for dealing with the physical return to drug use. This may include them enrolling you in an inpatient drug rehab program, giving you a ride to a meeting, calling your sponsor or clinical provider, and more.
- Write down the names and contact information for those who support you most.
Finally, it is important to have a list of people in your support network who you, or a friend/family member, can call if things get worse. Think about the family members who love and support you most. Think about the friends who are there for you in recovery. Think about your sponsor and others in your 12-step meetings. Finally, think about those you have met in treatment, who are also in recovery. These people are the core to your sober support network, and understand what you are going through most of all. Write down their names and phone numbers.
These are also the people you should surround yourself with during your recovery. Having a good social network, that supports your recovery, can keep you busy and distract you from wanting to use drugs or from encountering difficult situations. You can these people to grab coffee if you are struggling with drug cravings, or simply want to grab a bite to eat. They are also the ones you can call if you feel like you’re spiraling out of control.
Starting Your Relapse Prevention Plan
The best way to create a relapse prevention plan, at first, is with the help of a clinician, counselor, sponsor, or treatment provider; someone who has seen you through this journey so far and who has experience with relapse prevention strategies.
Keep in mind that you can always revise your relapse prevention plan. People change over time and, more than likely, so will your goals and your needs. Stay aware and engaged in your recovery, and be sure to listen to yourself as you evolve through the phases of recovery. Do not be afraid to make changes as you discover new things about yourself – such as relapse triggers that hurt, or prevention strategies that work – and meet new people along the way.
A relapse prevention plan is a critical element to those in early recovery, who are just beginning this journey and who are still under the grip of addiction. Addiction is a disease that makes lasting changes in the brain. While the desire to get sober is easy, living sober takes commitment and time. If you feel that you are heading towards a relapse, showing signs of relapse, or facing one head-on, it is important to know that you have not failed. Your prior treatment has not failed. However, relapse indicates that your treatment plan needs to be revisited and revised. You need to get back on track.
If you are in this situation and seeking help to prevent relapse, do not hesitate to call Turnbridge. We are a young adult and teen drug treatment center with relapse prevention at the core of our programs. We can talk to you about your situations, your needs, the signs you are showing, and help create a plan for your next steps. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.