Recovery from addiction is not a simple goal that can be conquered and then forgotten about. True recovery cannot be achieved without relapse prevention strategies. Recovery is a lifelong process that requires mindfulness, accountability, and daily work that goes on for years after your initial detox.
For many people recovering from substance use issues, this long-term work will come in the form of battling regular urges to use, which is to say trying to avoid a relapse. To be successful in this long-term work, you will also need to start developing the skills necessary to pick yourself back up and get your recovery back on track if a relapse ever should happen.
Know Your Triggers
Everyone’s struggle with substance use disorder looks different and comes from a different place. Recovery and the treatments that work best will also differ from person to person. The triggers that can send someone from sobriety to relapse will also be deeply personal, but they tend to share some common themes from person to person.
Relapse is often rooted in one of the following feelings:
- Boredom or frustration — lack of purpose, lack of engagement in other activities
- Stress — often comes in the form of financial problems or relationship issues
- Resentment — being upset with people who do not want you to use can be a powerful motivator for resuming substance use, especially when your emotional state is not at its best
- “HALT” — a mnemonic for a set of common emotional relapse triggers to stay mindful of: hungry, angry, lonely, and tired
- Memory triggers — being around certain people or places that you associate with your past substance use, such as a favorite bar or a friend who used to supply you with drugs.
- Sensory triggers – sights, sounds, smells, etc. (a good example would be the smell of a favorite liquor for a recovering alcoholic).
Tested Tips and Relapse Prevention Strategies
As we’ve mentioned, substance use disorder and recovery look different for everyone. That means that some of these tips might not resonate with you or your situation, and that’s okay. Keep scrolling until you find something you think you can apply effectively to your own healing.
People coming from hard-partying or fast-living backgrounds are sometimes skeptical of meditation when they first enter recovery. However, it is a practice that has been helping people heal their minds and bodies for thousands of years, and it can work for you too. Meditation gives you time to simply be present in your body and learn to be comfortable with yourself. It is often some sense of discomfort with ourselves that first leads us to seek fulfillment through mind altering substances.
Meditation offers a path to confronting and fixing this discomfort in a healthy and productive way. Through meditation, you do not battle or suppress substance use disorder. Instead, you acknowledge and accept your desires and cravings. In seeing them for what they truly are, you can learn that you are in control of them—not the other way around.
Insomnia and fatigue are two potential triggers for relapse, according to the New York Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. They also happen to be two of the most widely reported symptoms by people who have successfully gone through the acute withdrawal phase of their addiction recovery. You can seriously help your chances of avoiding relapse just by eating nutritious foods, making time for a bit of exercise, and getting adequate sleep.
Recovery is all about taking care of yourself, so don’t skip the basics. As your body re-adjusts to a substance-free lifestyle, re-establishing healthy sleep patterns can be easier said than done. Be consistent and you’ll get there.
Accept You Still Have Work to Do
Recovery is not a switch that gets flipped when you stop misusing your substance of choice. All the behaviors you learned while using will need to be slowly unlearned. People who use substances every day to cope with the world around them will naturally forget how to cope with normal, everyday stressors without the substance of choice.
You may have to re-learn basic emotional skills for navigating uncomfortable situations or conversations, and that’s okay. It’s important to surround yourself with people who understand these limits and will give you room to grow. Better yet, these people should encourage you along the way. Learn to be honest when a person or situation is too much for you to handle at a given moment, and do not apologize for putting your sobriety first and being clear about your needs.
Participate in a Group
Regular group meetings are a major cornerstone of the recovery process for many people. Well-known groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have chapters meeting regularly through the United States, but there are alternatives. Smaller, informal recovery support groups are also an option.
The important thing is to find the support network that works for you. A sense of isolation is often part of what leads to substance use and relapse. Rebuilding a sense of community can be vital to avoiding relapse.
Think it Through
When the urge to relapse is too strong, or an opportunity is too tempting, give yourself a minute to step back and think the entire scenario through to its likely end. If you take that drink or use that substance, what is the worst possible outcome? Be honest with yourself and do not minimize the possible outcomes. Remember the issues you’ve caused for yourself in the past and how much work has been required to rebuild your life and your relationships. It’s likely you’ll decide it’s not worth it, after all.
There is no shame in reaching out to a family member, sponsor, or an emergency care facility when you just can’t do it on your own. We all need help sometimes, and that’s why every successful drug and alcohol recovery program in the world relies on intervention from professionals, as well as the building of communities and meaningful relationships. It’s okay if you can’t do everything on your own, and you don’t have to.
Build a Quality Support System
As mentioned above, a wonderful resource exists in your family, friends, other folks in recovery, and online groups. Your support system can be as extensive as you’re comfortable making it and should consist of anyone in your life who makes you feel good, keeps you accountable, and won’t do anything to undermine your recovery. It is a sad truth that people in recovery sometimes need to leave old friends in the past if those friends are linked to substance misuse and codependency. If they are really your friends, they will understand and aid in your success in this important quest.
Keep Your Hobbies Close
Sometimes, all you need to beat a craving is some other distraction. Whatever your hobbies and interests are, keep the tools of the trade nearby, whether that be musical instruments, books, art supplies, video game consoles, car parts, or something else. If you don’t have any absorbing, engaging hobbies, now is the time to develop some. If your old, favorite hobbies are all too closely linked to substance use in your mind, pursuing something new can be a fantastic way to keep cravings down and keep yourself feeling fulfilled and active. Is being sober boring? Many people don’t think so.
Celebrate your sobriety milestones. Whether it’s your first week or your tenth year sober, don’t be modest about patting yourself on the back. Sharing your sobriety milestones with friends or through social media can be a simple way to garner positive comments and make yourself accountable to the people around you.
Take yourself out to dinner at your favorite restaurant or buy that pair of shoes you’ve been eyeing. You did the work, and you deserve the reward. If you should experience a relapse, don’t stop celebrating your success when you get back on track. One week sober is one week sober, and that’s something to be proud of, whether it’s the first one or the hundredth in a row.
Believe in Yourself
Sometimes, the urge to return to substance misuse will be the most significant thing in your life. That doesn’t mean your recovery has failed. It means you’re a human being doing a great job facing a difficult struggle. Even in these low moments, remember that you have the power to choose something better for yourself and your future.
What to Include in Relapse Prevention Strategies
If you’re worried about a relapse, one powerful thing you can do is to create a plan full of relapse prevention strategies. Then, save it for future reference, whether in a notebook or computer file. Your relapse prevention plan should include the following components.
Emergency Contact List
Your contacts should be people you can get a hold of and confide in when you’re feeling a strong urge to relapse. Contacts should be empathetic but not enabling since you want to be held accountable without being shamed. Other people who have recovered from drug and alcohol use disorders are often ideal for this role. Family members who love you and want to see you succeed are also good to have on this list. You might include medical providers or trusted treatment facilities in case you need to seek treatment.
Your Short- and Long-Term Recovery Goals in Writing
Putting your goals for the future in writing and re-reading them when times get tough can help give you the conviction to overcome your urges to relapse. Even if relapse occurs, you can revisit your goals to make a fresh start once you return to the path of recovery.
Your List of Reasons Not to Use
These will be deeply personal and could consist of family members’ names, the negative consequences of your past use, or simply abstract ideals that you’d like to live up to. Your list can—and should—change and grow over time.
Tools and Coping Mechanisms That Have Worked For You in the Past
As you utilize the ten tools provided above—or any others that have worked in the past—to prevent relapse, add them to your list. No matter how insignificant a strategy seems, record it here for future use.
Relapse Prevention Strategies for a Brighter Future
It can be frustrating when the people in your life assume that because you’ve completed a treatment program, you’re permanently cured from urges to use drugs or alcohol. In reality, the road to drug and alcohol recovery is a lifelong process. Defeating urges and avoiding relapse can be a day-to-day struggle and struggling does not mean you’ve failed.