When you love someone who is in drug and alcohol addiction recovery, you may always have an underlying sense of anxiety about the potential for relapse. Relapse can be part of the recovery process, but it is also avoidable. Learning how to identify relapse triggers and the signs of relapse early on can be a critical component of relapse prevention. Sometimes the person who could potentially relapse may not be able to see these signs in themselves, and they may rely on a loved one to point them out.
Understanding the Warning Signs of Relapse
A relapse is estimated to affect 90 percent of people in recovery at least once before they can achieve ongoing sobriety. What many people don’t realize, and sometimes even the people in recovery themselves, is that a relapse isn’t one event. Instead, it’s a progression or a process. Some steps occur as someone approaches a potential relapse, with the actual use of drugs or alcohol being the final step.
If you are in recovery and you start seeing the triggers and warning signs of relapse, there are things you can do to prevent relapse at the full-blown level.
What is a Relapse?
Addiction is a chronic disorder. Like any other chronic disease, there is the potential for someone to receive treatment such as residential treatment or outpatient treatment and then enter into recovery.
Along the way, they may experience a relapse however and return to drug abuse or begin to drink alcohol once again.
This is similar to someone with diabetes. With medication and lifestyle changes such as diet and exercise, a person may get their diabetes under control. There may be periods of relapse where certain symptoms return, and the person with diabetes has to make changes to get it under control once again.
There are two types of relapse that we generally talk about in addiction recovery. One is a slip, and the other is a full relapse, also called a full-blown relapse.
What is a Slip?
A slip is a situation where a recovering addict might have some alcohol or recreationally do drugs, but they then stop. It’s a small relapse, for lack of a better word. Most people who aren’t in recovery wouldn’t even consider these scenarios notable, but in recovery, it can be.
When an addiction in recovery has a slip, it’s important to recognize what’s happening and take the necessary steps that will allow them to avoid a full relapse.
What is Full Relapse?
A full relapse occurs when an addict in recovery is seeking out drugs or alcohol actively. A full relapse may come in the form of a binge, or it can be ongoing. With a full relapse, it’s often best to return to treatment.
If someone takes the steps and returns to treatment or takes other necessary steps to avoid returning to a state of active addiction, then it stays just a relapse.
What Are the Most Common Signs of Relapse?
While every person is different and every situation unique, there are some common signs of relapse that are seen across the board.
Some of these signs of relapse were first identified by researchers Terence T. Gorski and Merlene Miller. They worked to identify some of the warning signs or steps leading to relapse, and over time these have been considered reliable predictors.
One of the key signs of relapse is a change in attitude. Frequently this will manifest as someone in recovery deciding they no longer want to participate in their recovery programs, such as AA, NA or individual therapy.
The attitude change may include the person saying it’s just not as important as it once was, or seeming to lose interest or enthusiasm.
Sometimes the attitude shift can be very subtle at first.
If you’re on the outside looking in, you may not know the person in recovery is experiencing an attitude shift, but you may seem them not making their meetings or therapy.
Increased stress is both a trigger of relapse and a potential warning sign. If you’re in recovery and you notice yourself starting to experience heightened levels of stress, you may need to evaluate that.
If you’re reacting in an overly emotional way to certain situations or having mood swings, it could be a warning sign to take action.
Reactivation of Denial
When you love someone who is in active addiction, the denial becomes so painfully obvious. The person will continue trying to tell you there isn’t a problem and maybe trying to make you feel like you’re the problem. If you’re an addict, you have likely denied your addiction to the people around you and even yourself for a long time before seeking treatment.
Reactivation of denial is, unfortunately, a significant warning sign of relapse.
However, reactivation of denial may not look the same as initially denying you have a problem with drugs or alcohol.
Instead, it may be a denial that you’re feeling stress or that you’re experiencing emotional difficulties. You may try and dismiss your own feelings to yourself and the people around you.
Changing Patterns and Routines
Anytime someone in recovery starts to make changes in their patterns and routines, it may be a red flag of a potential relapse. These can be even small changes, but in recovery and especially in the early days, routine is so important. If someone starts to shift away from these routines, they may need help.
This can include day-to-day activities, eating habits, sleep patterns or hygiene habits.
Minimizing Substance Use Problems
Sometimes if a person is headed towards a relapse, they will minimize the impact and severity of their substance abuse. They might start to say it wasn’t really that bad or that they didn’t necessarily need treatment.
Another one of the possible signs of relapse is seeming overconfident, such as in one’s abilities to remain sober.
Signs of Anxiety, Depression or Hopelessness
Anytime someone in recovery is experiencing or showing signs of depression, anxiety, hopelessness or self-pity, they may need to reevaluate their long-term recovery plan and perhaps make adjustments.
It’s normal to experience some of these symptoms, but they may require treatment or a change in treatment plan. Any signs of negative emotional or mental health side effects are important to take note of.
Avoiding Social Activities and Situations
If you find that you’re not interested in hanging out with sober friends or your family members, or you’re increasingly missing out on social activities and interactions, it could be one of the possible signs of an impending relapse.
If you’re on the outside looking in and your loved one is showing this red flag, you might consider talking to them about it.
Someone in recovery who could be on the brink of relapse might start making excuses as to why they can’t attend social activities or even support group meetings, and then it can end up leading to more and more isolation.
Feeling Especially Positive or Happy
Sometimes even pleasant feelings or good things that happen in your life can contribute to or trigger a relapse.
You may associate drugs or alcohol with feeling good, celebrating or positive things in your life so then in your recovery if good things are happening you may want to feel even better with a return to using.
What Should You Do If You See the Signs of Relapse in Yourself or Someone Else?
If you’re in recovery, always know that while you can’t control your disease, you can manage it. If you notice early signs of relapse in yourself, think about the resources available to you.
Do you need to talk with your therapist or your support system and maybe make some changes in how you approach recovery management?
If you think your loved one may be on the verge of a relapse, the following are some things you can do to help them:
- When of the best things you can do when you love someone in recovery is check in with them frequently, just to see how they’re doing. Even if you can’t always check in face-to-face text, call or email.
- If you see red flags that worry you about the potential for a relapse to occur, don’t be afraid to speak directly to your loved one. Ask how they’re feeling and what you can do to help.
- If you’re worried there’s been a shift that could indicate a potential relapse, don’t try to nag, however. If you ask the person about it and they say there’s not a problem, give them their space.
- Stay positive. Don’t appear overly anxious, angry, or aggressive.
- Talk to your loved one about the potential of a new type of therapy if they seem to be drifting away from their current program.
- Ask your loved one if they’re interested in having you come to a therapy session with them.
The possibility of relapse is scary, whether you feel a shift in yourself and your recovery, or you love someone in recovery. The important thing to know is that relapse happens on the road to long-term sobriety. It’s also important to take proactive steps and perhaps go back to addiction treatment to reduce the risk of relapse if you notice the signs in yourself or someone else.
Buddy T. “Warning Signs of An Alcohol or Drug Relapse.” Verywell Mind. November 6, 2018. Accessed March 28, 2019.
Addictions and Recovery. “Relapse Prevention Plan and Early Warning Signs.” Accessed March 28, 2019.