Alcohol relapse refers to the behaviour of using alcohol again after trying to recover from alcoholism. Alcohol addiction is one of the most common types of addiction in the world. The person who uses alcohol without problems, perhaps occasionally and stops doesn’t fit this definition.
How Alcohol Relapse Happens
People who relapse have been addicted to alcohol previously and managed to go without it for a while only to later resume habitual drinking. Relapsing is needing alcohol and going back to a habit of drunkenness after doing without it for some time. Alcohol addiction takes some time to develop. So does alcohol relapse. Hence, it’s no surprise that managing alcohol addiction stretches over a period of time and include some relapse episodes.
At first, the time frames of the relapses might be closer together, until a time comes when you add up. Days become months and it may add up to a year or more. And then you can see the amazing results that recovering from addiction has on your life. You are proud of yourself and the tough journey you have been through. You manage to be around alcohol and not take a sip. Despite the inviting smell you manage to prevent yourself from taking alcohol. 5 days, 1 week, 2 weeks, a month, a year, two years, ten years…
Then, one day it begins again. Just as you feel you have come off alcohol and seeing no reason for going back to the bad habit, you can’t resist one day and you take some. You start by self-talk (perhaps influenced by some external pressures):
“I can take a tot. Just a tot.”
“I’ll just sip.”
You become drunk after a period time of sobriety. After a period of improvement and abstinence from alcohol, you backslide and start using alcohol again.
Causes of Alcohol Addiction Relapse
Relapses happen because of prevailing individual circumstances. Alcohol relapse usually occurs after something triggers your craving rendering you vulnerable to downing a bottle. The causes can be biological, psychological, social, environmental, or maybe clinical. Identifying the possible triggers of alcohol addiction relapse can help you with prevention.
Withdrawal symptoms at the early stages of abstaining from alcohol may become unbearable to you and reaching for the bottle seems like the only way to get immediate gratification. Other forms of physical pain caused by an illness or an injury may trigger people recovering from alcohol addiction to drink again. When your body lacks nutrients, the brain functioning is limited because of chemical imbalance. You may become irritable, anxious, and have a low mood. It’s worse during recovery from alcohol addiction because instead of giving it food, you’ll crave for alcohol. The resulting effect is returning to addiction.
Mental stress may lead to relapse if not managed. You may find the demands of work, marriage, academics, financial status unbearable. Negative emotions like anger, grief and sadness caused by mental illness, trauma, loss, or conflict with people can trigger relapses. Positive experiences can trigger relapses because you want to increase those feelings by using alcohol. Some people relapse because they were in a celebratory mood enjoying themselves with others and alcohol was available.
Perhaps the easy availability of different types of alcohol makes it so hard for you to stay sober. However, apart from availability, other environmental factors may also contribute to relapsing such as peer influence or being exposed to alcohol in the home environment because other family members abuse alcohol.
Poor support system
When you lack a psychosocial support network of people who are willing to support you through recovery, it becomes easy to relapse. Instead of giving you solace they label you, harshly criticise you, and fail to recognize your efforts to stay sober. Some may enable your addiction or disrespect your boundaries instead of supporting your sobriety.
Inappropriate intervention strategies on the part of the clinical staff that handled your case may also be a factor in relapse. The failure of treatment staff to identify comorbid (present at the same time) mental conditions with alcohol addiction may lead to relapse. Underlying factors might not have been addressed during treatment. When drug and alcohol rehabilitation staff use a general standard of treatment without considering demographics such as age and gender when applying clinical interventions, they may put those suffering from addiction at risk of relapse.
Alcohol Addiction Relapse Effects
Recovery from addiction varies based on individual circumstances and willingness to remain sober. While someone will have a relapse immediately after leaving a residential addiction treatment centre, another will never relapse.
The regret and guilt of using alcohol again after some time of sobriety can lead to extreme reactions. Backsliding to addiction causes some people to feel extremely guilty because of the failure to maintain soberness. Unfortunately, guilt can lead to total alcohol relapse. You might believe that alcohol will help alleviate unpleasant feelings of guilt and shame. But it doesn’t.
So, your dependence on alcohol begins again leading to uncontrolled use. Either you blame yourself so much and feel so bad about the relapse that it demotivates you. Or you feel a tinge of guilt and decide not to feel that way again. You may self-harm to punish yourself or engage in other reckless behaviours to try to minimize the discomfort.
As a result of relapsing, you may think you will never be successful at sobriety. You overthink about the negative consequences of alcoholism even though it might just be one relapse. The hope for recovery may seem impossible.
You’ve followed the advice, the 12-Steps, other steps, and probably sought professional help. Those around you have noticed your improvement, and then you go back to square one. It’s like the work you had put in becoming sober was in vain. The sense of failure frightens you and you fear that you will always relapse and have to begin again.
You decide to give up, forgetting all the benefits you had experienced because of sobriety. You may feel like you no longer have the energy to press on. When you had said goodbye to alcohol and felt in control of your life. Now that you are drinking again, a sense of failure makes you want to resign to alcohol addiction.
After all, you can say you tried, right? That’s despair, it’s normal to feel this, but your reaction after a relapse will determine whether you succeed in the end. Relapses can make you sink into hopelessness. To relapse is disappointing. You may feel frustrated especially if you had long-term goals to maintain sobriety such as us to regain your job or marriage.
You feel humiliated and a great failure even losing your sense of worth and feel like a burden to those around them. The recovery process seems to be slow and intolerable. You might still be ashamed or embarrassed by your inability to maintain sobriety.
It’s like repeatedly seeking treatment for a terminal disease. You respond to treatment well but then your body refuses to comply. This mental state messes with your self-esteem as it increases the sense of lack of belonging and burdensomeness.
You point out how someone else made you indulge in alcohol and don’t see your role in the relapse but find someone, something, or a situation to blame. You may blame the extreme stress you might be experiencing on external factors other than yourself. Blaming others increase your negative emotions like resentment, anger, and frustration. You relapse to cover these up and then blame someone again, hence the cycle continues and impedes recovery.
You don’t feel most of the above. Perhaps you feel no guilt, no remorse, and no negative thinking. You justify your relapse instead of seeing it as an obstacle to recovery. This state is dangerous as it gives you a sense of entitlement and resignation whereby you feel you need alcohol in your life.
How to Cope with Alcohol Relapse
Experiencing an alcohol addiction relapse is not wrong, neither is it unusual nor the end of your sobriety journey. Failing happens, but you choose whether to stay down or rise up. It starts with your mindset and determination to quit over-drinking alcohol.
How can you regain your footing after a relapse? Conquering habitual drinking is not easy, but is possible if you set your mind to it. You can make sobriety a habit in place of over-indulgence in alcohol. These strategies can apply for relapse prevention (to minimize chances of relapse) and coping with relapse after it occurs.
Afterwards, you may do your best to become better by no longer abusing alcohol. You may expend resources and time to work on developing skills to help you stop being addicted to alcohol.
1. Contact your support network.
When you relapse, reach out for help from friends, family, and those on the path of recovery from addiction to substance as you. It’s for your benefit to quit overusing alcohol, but some peers or family members may not understand the effect of having a relapse. Maybe they drink alcohol but are not addicted. Thus, they may not identify with your struggle. If people you associate with keep pressuring you to use alcohol and don’t respect your goal of recovery, avoid being with them in situations that can trigger frequent relapses.
2. Keep your body busy.
Since alcoholism affects both the body and mind, regular physical exercise helps to energize your broken spirit and body. Exercising distracts you from cravings for alcohol and can assist you to delay gratification. Go to the gym for a structured workout, follow a do-it-yourself video tutorial, jog, walk, swim, play a game which demands physical movement. Exercising as a group can prove to be beneficial for accountability purposes and also for forming positive social connections with other sober people. Physical exercise also keeps you in a good mood and minimizes the anxiety or depression that may arise after an episode of alcohol relapse.
3. Improve your nutrition.
Prolonged alcohol use poses a great risk to your body putting you at risk of brain and liver damage. Healthy nutrition helps your body to rejuvenate after the effects it has experienced due to addiction. If your body is already damaged, eating healthy food maintains your health and prolongs your life span. If you relapse, don’t skip the next meal. Alcohol abuse makes people eat less food or lose nutrients through vomiting or diarrhoea. Thus, if you had a full-blown relapse, eat a balanced diet rich in carbohydrates, legumes, vitamins and proteins to keep yourself at your best. Substitute the money you’d have spent on alcohol to buy healthy food. It makes it easier for your body to detoxify naturally when you feed it enough nutrients.
4. Form a routine and stick to it.
If you have been to a rehabilitation centre you’d notice the routine these institutions have. Having a self-care routine helps you to have a day occupied with learning new things, facing challenges, and focusing your mind on self-improvement. Let your routine involve healthy mental and physical habits like getting enough sleep, eating healthy food, exercising, positive social interactions and helping others when you can. (Refer to coping strategies No. 1, 2, 3, and 5.)
5. Volunteer to help others.
Offer assistance to those who are facing the addiction challenge such as by being their sponsor. When they need someone to talk to as a friend without negative judgement but with understanding, be there for them. Being busy with assisting others keeps you accountable because you will have to be a role model for someone. Thus, helping others through addiction can minimize the frequency of relapses.
6. Practise self-acceptance.
In addiction treatment, healing starts when you admit your alcohol drinking behaviour is a problem. The concept is still the same when you experience a relapse. Continue being honest with yourself. Admit you have started to use alcohol again and will yourself to stop. Self-acceptance is necessary if your journey to recovery should be successful. With self-acceptance, you will have confidence in your ability to stay sober despite the challenges caused by relapsing. Blaming other people for your alcohol relapse doesn’t help. Accepting the problem you have and taking personal responsibility for your actions, leads to progress.
7. Show self-compassion.
Forgive yourself when you relapse. You will not use a relapse as a judgement of your entire being. Remember the recovery is not a one-day thing, it’s a process. To develop your self-compassion, start by setting healthy boundaries to protect you from future relapse. Without boundaries, you’ll continue putting yourself in situations that amplify your relapse instead of promoting recovery. After a relapse, be kind to yourself cut contact anyone who encourages you to use alcohol. Never Lose Your Self-Kindness and Generosity to Yourself. Self-kindness is an antidote to life-threatening behaviour and depression you may be tempted to engage in when you relapse.
8. Adjust your mindset.
Instead of looking at relapse as a failure, you can never recover from, adjust your attitude by looking at the positive side. Relapsing shows you what you still need to work on. Consider how it happened. What can still trigger your desire for alcohol? What situations should you avoid to keep your sobriety? Answering these questions will teach you what to do differently next time. Learning from your relapse experience rather than whining about your failures and getting stuck in addiction. The path to recovery is not always smooth. Having relapses does not mean you have lost the battle against alcohol addiction. Let relapsing be a learning experience on how to remain sober next time.
9. Revise your relapse prevention plan.
Experiencing a relapse during your alcohol addiction treatment means you had a plan, but everything didn’t go as planned. When you relapse it’s not time to quit the entire plan. However, it is time to revise your plan to stay sober. Outline what triggered your latest relapse. Think of the coping strategies you failed to use and should use next time the temptation to relapse arises. Your plan must include people you can contact during a crisis. You can always make adjustments to your plans as required. An addictions counsellor can guide you through the process of coping with relapse and planning for relapse prevention. (Refer to all the coping strategies discussed in this article and include them in your plan.)
10. Attend group and individual counselling.
Counselling is both a strategy for coping and prevention. It will help you to develop healthy coping strategies when things are tough and also how to be more assertive. Counselling can equip you with the support needed to apply the abovementioned strategies of coping and maintaining them. It will also help you deal with the negative emotions like anger and guilt which may arise after a relapse. Furthermore, you may get connected with a support group (Alcoholics Anonymous) made up of people who are facing the same challenges as you although they each might be in different stages of relapse.
You can Overcome Alcohol Relapse
Most people find combining coping strategies helps them to manage their addiction problem. It may include medical care, psychotherapy, self-care or a complete change of lifestyle.
Alcohol relapses are overwhelming to both the person suffering from addiction and their loved ones. Therefore, it’s important to identify signs that you may relapse and take necessary steps to prevent it. If you relapse, it’s not the end of your world, but a setback you can overcome and keep going.
Life is for living. Keep living. Don’t give up.
The information shared in this article is true to the best of my knowledge based on researches as referenced below. It’s not meant to replace professional treatment. Maybe it’s just a supplement. If you have tried these strategies and they have worked for you, I would like to hear your comments. If you have tried them and they didn’t work, also share it in the comment section below or use the contacts page.
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Melemis, S. M. (2015). Focus: Addiction: Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 88(3), 325. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4553654/
Nikmanesh, Z., Baluchi, M.H., & Motlagh, A.A.P. (2017). The role of self-efficacy beliefs and social support on prediction of addiction relapse. International Journal of High Risk Behaviors and Addiction, 6(1).
Sudhir, P. M. (2018). Cognitive behavioural interventions in addictive disorders. Indian journal of psychiatry, 60(Suppl 4), S479.