How Can I Prevent Relapse?
After successful treatment for substance abuse, you may be faced with new challenges when reintroduced to the world as a sober individual. Many in recovery struggle with daily triggers, temptations, and cravings. Getting sober is a huge step but it is only the beginning. Staying in recovery can be difficult; however, attaining long-term sobriety is made easier by taking certain measures. You can prevent relapse by taking care of yourself and seeking ongoing support in the form of individual therapy, group counseling, 12-step and other support group meetings, sober living homes, and more.
A Healthy Mind, Clear Goals, and Positive Changes
Facts About Relapse Prevention
A great option for drug relapse prevention is regularly scheduled therapy or counseling sessions with a mental health professional.1 Substance abuse counseling is a key part of your addiction relapse prevention or aftercare regimen. Ongoing sessions with a professional strengthen help to reinforce and build on the skills learned in treatment. They also serve to assess changes in your thinking, emotional state, and behavior that may suggest an impending relapse.1
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a mainstay of addiction treatment and relapse prevention.2 In this type of therapy, you will learn to cope with and avoid situations that may be triggering and tempt them to return to drug use. CBT also helps you to identify and adjust maladaptive thinking that may have led you to abuse drugs.1 Therapists may help you explore and weigh the short-term positives and potentially broader-reaching negative outcomes of returning to drug use.2
Some people benefit from the use of medications in their recovery. Different medications may be used to suppress cravings, block the euphoric effects of drugs that reinforce abuse, or help restore balance to certain brain processes or functions that have been impaired by substance abuse.3 Examples of treatment drugs that help to minimize cravings and withdrawal include methadone and buprenorphine for opioid addiction—both of which have been labeled "essential medications" by the World Health Organization.4
A counterproductive myth about addiction recovery is that any use of medication somehow negates a person's sobriety; however, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) dispels this myth, stating that measured doses of treatment medications do not get the person high but help to stabilize certain imbalanced brain circuits and help people remain sober.4
A positively engaged mind is less likely to be focused on drug use.
Another integral part of drug relapse prevention is keeping the mind healthy and focused. A positively engaged mind is less likely to be focused on drug use. Staying occupied with positive pursuits such as educational and career goals, or even hobbies that promote learning (such as playing an instrument) are great ways to maintain sobriety. As you work toward these goals, you will gain a sense of pride and improve your self-esteem, both of which can boost your ability to stay away from drugs and alcohol.
Intensely stressful environments or experiences can trigger relapse, so try to avoid situations that you know will put a lot of unnecessary stress on you, especially immediately after treatment. Of course, some stress is unavoidable, but there are practical steps you can take to relax. When entering a scenario you suspect may be difficult, enlist help: talk to your therapist beforehand and/or ask for the support of a trusted friend. The people that love you and are invested in your recovery are likely to be more than happy to give you the support you need. It will also help to set some manageable goals and no when to say "no" when too much is being asked of you.5
In recovery, you'll also need to make some changes, and that includes trying to avoid the people, places, and things that you associate with using. Changing your life in this way enables you to avoid putting yourself in high-risk situations that may endanger your sobriety. You may think you should be able to be strong enough to do the things you used to do and see all the people you used to see, but there is no weakness in admitting that doing so isn't good for you and may harm you in the end.1
Maintaining your sobriety goes hand in hand with nurturing a positive, supportive network of interpersonal relationships with the people in your life. A healthy family environment bolsters your recovery by:
- Acting as a healthy support system.
- Helping to reduce your stress levels.
- Fostering happiness and overall well-being.
- Offering a healthy outlet to talk about your feelings openly.
You can strengthen your relationships with your family by attending family therapy. You and your loved ones will work on developing positive communication skills (and practicing them at home) and strengthening the bond that you share. You will learn to work through potential conflicts in constructive ways and change destructive patterns of interaction.6
Reaching Out to Others
Another important aspect of drug relapse prevention is giving back. This may include educating others about the perils of drug abuse. Educating others about addiction may help you feel empowered and reinforce what you know about drugs and the harms of living in active addiction. This may lessen your risk of relapse, as doing good can make you feel good (and the better you feel, the less likely you may be to turn back to your old life).
Seeing that you're not alone may help to relieve the guilt and shame you carry about your addiction.
Attending group meetings for individuals in recovery (such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or SMART Recovery) may also be extremely beneficial. Regularly meeting with your recovering peers not only serves as a reminder of the negative outcomes of substance abuse but also gives you the chance to connect meaningfully with others who understand what you're going through.1 It also provides another way of giving back, as eventually you may act as a sponsor or otherwise provide sobriety wisdom to someone new to recovery. Other benefits of regularly attending recovery groups include the following:1
- Seeing that you're not alone may help to relieve the guilt and shame you carry about your addiction.
- You can benefit from what other people have learned, e.g., you might learn new techniques in handling cravings.
- You'll have a place where you feel safe, not judged, and where you can speak be completely honest and vulnerable.
Mistakes Do Happen
Addiction is a chronic condition that regularly includes relapse, so it is possible that you may slip up. If you do suffer a relapse, do not fear that your path to recovery has to come to an end. Recovery is a lifelong journey and relapse is a normal point on that journey for many people. According to NIDA, 40-60% of recovering addicts relapse at some point.7 It can help to view a relapse not as a failure but as a signal that you need to adjust your treatment plan.
Starting the addiction treatment process over again may be difficult but you can use what you learned during your relapse to guide how you approach your recovery this time around. For example, if you participated only in outpatient therapy last time, you might consider trying an inpatient rehab. Don't consider a relapse a sign that you're not cut out for sobriety. Addiction is like many other health conditions that involve periods of relapse, especially when treatment is discontinued or adherence to treatment dwindles. You can recover and maintain your sobriety with the right care and continued focus on your recovery.
- Melemis, S. M. (2015). Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 88(3), 325–332.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Alcohol, Marijuana, Cocaine, Methamphetamine, Nicotine).
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Medication and Counseling Treatment.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). Effective Treatments for Opioid Addiction.
- National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). 5 Things You Should Know About Stress.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Treatment and Recovery.