Why Do People Relapse in Addiction Recovery?

causes of relapse

As devastating as it is, relapse is often a part of a person's recovery journey. In fact, nearly half of people overcoming addiction relapse somewhere along the way. As a concerned loved one, however, you may be asking, “Why?” Why do people relapse, and why does it happen so often?

There are many reasons that can cause a person to relapse – or, to return to substance use after a period of abstinence. Still, the normalcy of relapse does not make it any less heartbreaking. If you have a loved one in recovery who has recently relapsed, you may feel hurt, angry, or discouraged by the news. You may blame this person for making a bad choice. You may feel that they – or their treatment – has failed. The truth is, when a person in recovery relapses, it does not indicate weakness or failure. Rather, it indicates that the person needs to speak with their doctor, or a clinical professional, “to resume treatment, modify it, or try another treatment,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

So, Why Do People Relapse?

Substance addiction is a chronic disease, meaning it requires ongoing, active management and a long-term commitment to recovery. This is very similar to other chronic illnesses, such as Type I diabetes and hypertension, with very comparable relapse rates.

If your loved one is in recovery, it is important to first recognize that addiction is a disease, not a choice. While all people make choices about whether to use drugs, they do not choose how their body and brain will respond to said drugs. Due to neurological changes, many people battling addiction do not have control over their cravings or behaviors – which is why so many relapse. Substance abuse physically changes the function of a person’s brain, taking over their ability to make decisions and exhibit self-control.

For this reason, the pure desire to get sober is usually not enough to yield a lasting recovery. It is also for this reason that addiction cannot be cured overnight. Long-term treatment and after care is needed to stay sober. Fortunately, many treatment programs now focus on relapse prevention as part of their therapy approach. For example, at Turnbridge, we focus on helping clients change deeply-rooted behaviors relating to substance use, and learn healthy ways to cope with everyday triggers.

What are the Causes of Relapse?

Usually, relapse happens when a person is exposed to people, places, things, or emotions that trigger memories of drug and alcohol use. These “relapse triggers” cause intense cravings in the individual, or make the person think they need drugs to cope. Some of the top reasons people relapse include:

  • Negative or difficult emotions, such as stress or anxiety. When a person does not know how to properly cope with these challenging emotions, it can quickly lead to relapse. Back to old ways, they may turn to drugs or alcohol for temporary relief.
  • Mental health issues. Similar to the above, many people revert back to drug use as a means to cope with difficult thoughts or emotions, caused by a mental health disorder like anxiety, depression, or PTSD. Currently, more than 9 million people battle co-occurring mental and substance use disorders – and even more are undiagnosed. All the while, only 7 percent of these people get the appropriate, integrated treatment they deserve. In order to overcome both substance use and mental disorders, dual diagnosis treatment is needed. Otherwise, there is greater likelihood that a person will relapse.
  • Environmental triggers. Perhaps one of the most obvious causes of relapse is environmental triggers that remind a person of the substance-using days – old haunts where they used to use, an abundance of parties where they used to drink, old haunts, or even seeing someone on the streets smoking a joint can be enough to cause difficult cravings.
  • Social triggers go hand-in-hand with environmental relapse triggers. Often, people who relapse do so because of the people they bring back into their lives – People who share their addictive behavior, as well as those who make them feel they need to use or drink (whether that’s through peer pressure, or a stressful relationship). Social triggers can be some of the most powerful causes of relapse, which is why it is so important to have a sober social network after treatment, especially in the early stages. A sober support system bolsters a successful recovery.
  • Inability to cope, or lack of coping skills. When a person does not know how to handle, or cope with, relapse triggers, it positions them at a greater risk for relapse. If your loved one feels like he/she cannot handle stressful situations, or pressure from friends, then this may indicate a need for revised treatment. Look for a treatment program that offers behavioral therapies, such as CBT, that can equip your loved one with the necessary coping skills.
  • Loss of motivation. For people in recovery, it is important to keep busy and to fill the days with positive, healthy activities. That is why, in treatment, clients establish a regime involving exercise, meetings, therapy, volunteer work, meal preparation, mindfulness and meditation. Outside of treatment, some people may lose sight of the importance of structure and fall back into old habits. They may stop going to meetings, or stop going to their job, or stop hanging out with friends. This lack of motivation can lead to relapse, and indicates that treatment should be re-engaged. In fact, a study from the Current Drug Abuse Reviews found that unemployment increases the risk of relapse after treatment.

For more information about the specific causes of relapse, visit our article here.

Why Do People Relapse Often?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 40 and 60 percent of people recovering from drug addiction relapse. Again, this is due to the chronic nature of the disease. These recurrence rates are similar to those of other chronic illnesses, including asthma and hypertension, which have relapse rates of 50 to 70%.

What Comes After Relapse?

When a person relapses, it indicates a need for treatment: either a revision in their treatment plan, a re-engagement with treatment after stopping, or a new treatment approach altogether. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, a good treatment program will evolve with an individual. Everyone in recovery has changing needs, and treatment should be assessed continually (and modified as needed) to meet those as they arise. When a person relapses, it indicates that something has changed and that treatment should be re-assessed to meet the current needs of the individual.

If your loved one has relapsed – even if he or she has already been to treatment before – take time to reflect on what might have worked, what hasn’t worked, and what might have changed along the way. Then, consider your next step. Individuals who relapse often benefit from:

  • Re-enrolling in a treatment program, specifically with behavioral therapy
  • Participating in 12-step meetings and support groups
  • Surrounding themselves with sober, supportive peers
  • Moving into a sober living home, where there is more structure
  • Learning new ways to cope with relapse triggers
  • Re-engaging in healthy activities, such as yoga, meditation, fitness, and art/music

If your loved one may benefit from a residential and longer-term treatment program, please do not hesitate to reach out to Turnbridge. Our focus is on re-integration, and teaching our clients the skills needed to successfully live sober inside and outside of treatment. For more information about our programs for young women and young men, please call 877-581-1793.