Substance addiction is a relapsing disease, much like asthma, diabetes, and other chronic conditions. Research tells us that about half of people in recovery will relapse at one time or another. (This is similar to the rates of relapse for other chronic illnesses, like hypertension and asthma.) Despite how common relapse is, though, we often wonder: Why do people relapse? What factors make a person more likely to relapse? And, what increases the risk of relapse in recovering individuals?
Below, we discuss the biological factors behind relapse, the factors that can increase a person’s risk of relapse, and the steps you can take to mitigate and cope with relapse triggers.
Why Do People Relapse?
To understand relapse, we must first understand the nature of addiction. Substance addiction is a chronic disease that changes the chemical make-up of the brain. It happens when a person repeatedly uses a substance, over an extended period of time. The brain becomes reliant on the pleasurable effects of the drug, and demands more of the drug to function and feel “okay.” This is why so many people continue to drink or use drugs, despite the consequences. Their minds and bodies demand it.
The neurological changes in the brain are often what lead to relapse, or a return to drug abuse. Those in early recovery may not have full control over their behaviors, or may not know how to cope with difficult drug cravings. The brain may still, physiologically, be reliant on drugs to function. This usually takes time, and treatment, to overcome. For this reason, relapse prevention is a common focus of substance abuse treatment today.
What Factors Can Increase Your Risk of Relapse?
Without knowing the strategies to prevent relapse, a person might return to drug use after encountering a relapse trigger. A relapse trigger is essentially a risk factor for drug relapse—something that triggers a craving, or a difficult feeling, and makes a person fall back to using again.
There are common categories of relapse triggers, or causes of relapse. These include:
- Negative or difficult emotions, such as fear, stress, low self-esteem, and sadness
- Mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Exhaustion or trouble sleeping, which can make it harder to fight drug cravings
- Encounters of a prior substance-using environment, like a bar or friend’s home
- Boredom or lack of motivation, and unsure what to do with one’s time
- Fantasizing about past drug use, remembering only the good times and never the bad
- A toxic or abusive relationship that might lead one to use substances again
- Drug-using friends or family, who are not fully supportive of one’s recovery
- Social isolation, particularly if all one’s old friends are connected to substance abuse
- Social anxiety, if one feels they need to use drugs or drink to be outgoing and likeable
- Opportunity to take a hit or take a sip, which can spiral back into drug abuse
If you or a loved one is at risk of these relapse triggers, take note. There are strategies you can use to cope with and overcome relapse triggers as they occur. Before we get to relapse prevention tactics, we’ll cover who is most at risk of relapse today.
Who is at Greatest Risk of Relapse?
Anyone who is in recovery from substance addiction is at risk of relapse. However, certain individuals may be at greater risk of returning back to drug abuse. These demographics include:
National studies have reported that women are more susceptible to drug cravings and relapse. This poses a unique obstacle for women in addiction treatment.
- Those in early recovery.
The first few weeks of recovery are often the most difficult. The body may still be craving or demanding the substance of choice. Those in early recovery often think that “one last time can’t hurt,” although that one time typically leads to more.
- Those who were in treatment for a short amount of time.
Research supports the value of long-term drug treatment, associating longer bouts with better outcomes in recovery. Of course, short-term rehab can work for those with mild drug problems. However, more intense addictions will require more intense treatment. Sometimes, people leave a short-term rehab program thinking they have control over their substance use. They may carry the perception that they can start and stop whenever they want, when in reality, their addiction is more controlling than they thought.
- Those with mental health disorders.
Co-occurring mental health disorders, such as depression or anxiety, can make recovery from addiction much more difficult. Those battling substance use and mental health disorders will require very specialized treatment for their dual diagnosis. Without dual diagnosis treatment, one is more likely to relapse back to drug abuse.
- Those with a lack of coping skills.
An inability to cope with triggers, such as stress or sadness, can lead to relapse. One may not know how to deal with conflicts at work, stressful relationships, or emotional upset without the support of substances. They may go back to their old ways of coping, which includes hitting the bottle, taking a pill, or smoking to escape their negative feelings.
How to Prevent Relapse If You Are at Risk
If you or a loved one has relapsed, or has felt the urge to use substances again, this does not mean you have failed. This does not mean that your prior treatment has failed. Rather, it means that treatment needs to be re-evaluated. People change, and in recovery, your needs will change over time. As a result, your treatment plan may need to change, too.
As stated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “When a person recovering from an addiction relapses, it indicates that the person needs to speak with their doctor to resume treatment, modify it, or try another treatment.”
Long-term drug treatment that focuses on relapse prevention is recommended for those battling a substance use disorder. Those with co-occurring disorders, who do not have a stable place to recover, or who have tried outpatient rehab may consider long-term, residential drug treatment. These programs typically focus on recovery in mind, body, and soul, and can help clients change the deeply-rooted behaviors that often lead to relapse. At Turnbridge, we focus on relapse prevention and coping strategies (such as mindfulness), so that clients leave well-equipped to handle everyday triggers. 95 percent of our clients who complete 270 days in treatment stay sober for at least one year.
If your loved one is struggling with drug abuse and has recently relapsed – or is at risk of relapse – it is important to stay supportive. As much as you may feel hurt, angry, or disappointed, you must understand that your loved one is battling a chronic disorder. As much as you may want to blame them, or their past treatments, you must recognize that relapse is a risk, and recovery takes time and hard work. The best way to tackle substance abuse and addiction is with professional help and ongoing, active care.
Turnbridge is here for you. To learn about the residential treatment programs at Turnbridge, please do not hesitate to call 877-581-1793.