Drug relapses occur when the urge to use overcomes any rational thought or inhibition that might have otherwise kept a person from using drugs again. In part, drug relapses are as common as they are due to the chronic nature of addiction as a brain disease, as an illness that changes the way we process certain thoughts and chemicals, and as a progressive issue that alters the brain and mind in drastic ways over a long period of time.
But on the other hand, relapses also don’t usually happen out of nowhere. The urge to use remains, and can grow stronger in times of stress, but it’s often a specific moment or event that drives a person to start using again. These high-risk situations can be identified and avoided. But the key lies in knowing what to look for and knowing why certain situations or events cause a person to make the jump and relapse.
Identifying High-Risk Situations
Different people possess different pressure points, and it is important to consider what memories and associations you feel affect you most strongly. Certain situations and sensations may catch a recovering addict off-guard, making them feel things and remember things they have not felt nor remembered for some time.
Anything from a specific song to a stroll through an old neighborhood can bring back memories that evoke a time when drug use was still a normal part of the day, and when it was much harder to envision a life without drugs. A degree of nostalgia is normal for any person, but when we become nostalgic for things in the past that relate to our addiction, we’re putting ourselves at risk for a relapse.
Being around old friends who still use or being with people who use around you can be a powerful trigger as well. This can elicit reactions and feelings you might not want to have, including the urge to give into the darker parts of yourself and have one last hit/high. As such, few common high-risk situations that need to be avoided are:
- Old places where you used to drink or use.
- Old music that reminds you of some of your favorite moments.
- Old friends who still use or don’t respect your sobriety.
- Struggling with physical pain or chronic pain.
- Being around strangers who are using.
- Being invited to a party with drinks and/or drugs.
- Struggling with social and/or peer pressure to drink again.
- Having problems in your relationships with others.
- And more.
These high-risk situations can, at times, bring out the worst in a recovering addict. Being in pain both emotionally and physically, being overwhelmed, and being reminded of what it was like to be numb to everything except the drugs can, when put together, be a deadly combination to anyone’s convictions, especially when your motivation to stay sober is already combating your brain’s natural urge to switch back to using again. Physical and emotional dependence takes time to heal but staying away from drugs for that long is not easy. Thankfully, it does get easier over time. Day after day, with each passing moment of sobriety, you’re making yourself less likely to relapse.
Identifying Risk Factors Before They Escalate
Risk factors are factors that increase the risk of something happening – in this case, they’re factors we should be aware of when trying to understand how likely it is for a person to relapse again. A risk factor means that it can contribute to a person’s chance of relapse, but it never guarantees it. Nor does a person need to struggle with many different risks to relapse.
However, identifying risk factors is important in preventing relapses by minimizing the reasons a recovering addict might have to use again. To do so, figure out:
- What in your life currently presents you with overwhelming stress, and how can you delegate some of that to reduce your stress?
- How can you manage your fears and anxieties, as well as your stress, without taking advantage of a drug?
- Are you getting enough rest, food, and exercise?
- Are you speaking with a professional about mental health issues that worry you?
- Do you feel lonely, angry, irritable, sad, or ashamed at random times in the day without any rhyme or reason?
These are just a few factors that might contribute to a person’s struggle against relapse, by undermining their recovery with negative thinking and the false promise of a better, easier way of dealing with problems through continued drug use.
What to Do When A Relapse Happens
When a drug relapse does occur, it’s important not to panic. Talk to a professional first and seek help immediately. The best response to a drug relapse is a reaffirmation of your recovery. Speak to your therapist, sign into a rehab program, or consider temporarily staying in a sober living home. It’s normal to feel ashamed and disappointed after relapsing, but it’s also important to look at the bigger picture. A relapse does not mean an end to your recovery.
In the simplest of terms, a drug relapse occurs when an individual loses hope in their recovery. It might only be for a few minutes, or even just a few moments, but all it takes is one big step off onto a slippery slope. However, a relapse never means the end of a person’s recovery journey. Instead, relapses best present themselves as opportunities for an individual to improve on weaknesses in their recovery. Don’t see a drug relapse as a loss, but as a lesson.
Part of why this mindset is crucial is because it is important not to forget how common relapses really are. At least about half of all recovering addicts relapse at least once within the first year after finishing a recovery program. It’s impossible to think that these relapses are caused solely by a lack of motivation or interest in recovery. Losing hope in some measure is part of the process and reveals an opportunity for you to identify what it is that made you the most vulnerable to using drugs again. It’s important to shore up those weaknesses, rather than dismissing them or missing the opportunity to reflect on what happened and figure out what you should pay the most attention to in the future.
Over time, research shows, it becomes easier and easier to resist the urge to use again. The brain does heal after quitting drug use, although the extent to which it can fully recover differs from person to person. Nonetheless, it’s very possible to reach a point in your own recovery where you can completely overcome the fear of relapse, given enough time and enough growth.