How to Spot a Relapse Before it Happens

How to Spot a Relapse Before it Happens

Relapse is common in addiction recovery. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, between 40 and 60 percent of people who are treated for addiction will relapse within a year. A relapse has serious consequences. Most overdoses happen after a period of sobriety because people resume using drugs or alcohol at the same levels they are used to but they no longer have the same tolerance. Even if you don’t overdose, relapsing exposes you to all the same harm as before, including damage to your health, your career, your finances, and your relationships. You also face the same risk of accidents and legal problems. While some people argue that relapse should be considered part of recovery, there are more than enough reasons to do whatever you can to avoid it.

Many people assume a relapse is a spontaneous event. Someone has a rough day or is in the wrong place at the wrong time, they have a moment of weakness, and before they know it, their substance use is out of control again. However, relapses typically happen in three distinct stages–emotional, mental, and physical. It may take weeks or months to progress through these stages. People rarely go from having a strong recovery to relapsing overnight. The earlier you recognize the warning signs of relapse and take action to correct course, the better your chances of maintaining your recovery. This is true whether you are the one recovering from a substance use disorder or you’re trying to support a loved one in recovery. Here’s what to look out for at every stage of relapse.


Relapse always starts at the emotional stage. The early warning signs are when negative emotions start creeping in. You might feel depressed, irritable, or isolated. You may have stopped going to 12-step meetings or stopped sharing at meetings. You might start feeling pessimistic or cynical about recovery, perhaps because it doesn’t meet your initial expectations. A major sign of emotional relapse is that you start neglecting self-care. This might be basic things like not eating healthy food, not exercising, or getting enough sleep. It may be that you no longer take time to relax, meditate, write in your journal, or do other things that help you cope with stress in a positive way.

At this point, you probably have no intention of relapsing and you may not even think about substance use in a serious way. You probably still remember all the pain substance use caused you and really do want to stay sober.

If you or someone you love shows signs of emotional relapse, the most important thing is to pay attention to self-care. Be sure to take care of the basics like eating healthy and getting enough sleep. Then, pay attention to other needs, such as sharing your feelings and connecting with people you care about. Go to meetings and share. Meet up with friends. Make time every day to relax and give yourself a break from the stress of the day. Do things you enjoy. Talk to a therapist if you need to. This is when it is easiest to get your recovery back on track.


If you don’t address the symptoms of emotional relapse, you may progress to mental relapse. In the emotional stage, you really want to stay sober, but in the mental stage, you start to feel conflicted. You don’t want to drink or use drugs again but part of you does want to. The longer mental relapse goes on, the less you resist using again.

The signs of mental relapse include craving drugs or alcohol, thinking about people, places, and things you associate with drug or alcohol use, minimizing consequences of past use, glamorizing past use, bargaining, lying, thinking of ways to use in moderation, looking for excuses to relapse, or actually planning to relapse.

It’s important to note that not all thoughts of using signal mental relapse. It’s perfectly normal for someone at any stage of recovery–but especially early on–to think about drinking or using drugs. After all, it was a major part of their lives, perhaps for years or even decades. The real concern is if those thoughts fit the pattern of emotional and mental relapse.

If you reach the stage where you’re thinking about using again, it’s pretty much your last chance to turn things around and save your recovery. One way to do this is to “play the tape.” Typically, when you start reminiscing about drug use, you remember all the good times but conveniently forget the bad times. Playing the tape means you look beyond the initial gratification of relapse and picture all the negative consequences that will follow. Think of how remorseful you will feel about wasting so much time and effort and how disappointed your family will feel that you relapsed. Think about all the pain substance use caused you and finally made you seek help and enter recovery. Use that imagery to motivate you to get back on course.

Once you’ve decided that you actually do want to stay sober, start addressing the emotional issues that underlie mental relapse. Start paying attention to self-care and sharing at meetings. Talk to your friends or your therapist about what’s been going on. Let people help you.


Physical relapse is when you actually start using drugs or alcohol again. It is just the last step in a long process. Typically, a physical relapse happens when a mental relapse meets the right opportunity. That is, someone who is already thinking seriously about relapse runs into the wrong person or has an opportunity to have a few drinks without anyone knowing. If you reach the stage of mental relapse, it’s crucial to avoid these kinds of dangerous situations. However, the person in recovery is not always in the right frame of mind to recognize a dangerous situation. This is why it helps to have family and friends who are engaged in the recovery process. They are in a good position to notice when things start to go wrong and help their loved one get back on track.

At Patrick Hart Consultants, we provide a number of different services to fit the needs of each individual client. Among these, are helping you choose a treatment provider, helping you develop a treatment plan, helping you establish post-treatment support, and ensuring continuity among the different elements of treatment. Contact us today at 844-2627970 or or explore our website for more information.

AUTHOR: Patrick Hart Consultants