Our Health Library information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Please be advised that this information is made available to assist our patients to learn more about their health. Our providers may not see and/or treat all topics found herein.
Planning for Alcohol or Drug Relapse
Stopping substance use, whether you use alcohol or illegal or prescription drugs, is very hard. Very few people succeed the first time they try to stop. A lapse or relapse is likely.
- A lapse is the first time you use a drug or alcohol again after you have quit. Or it can be brief episodes of use at later points.
- A relapse is not being able to stay drug-free or sober over time. It can occur if you have a series of lapses close together or a lapse that leads to heavier drug or alcohol use over a longer period. It's most likely to happen a few months after you've quit using drugs or alcohol.
A lapse or relapse doesn't mean that you or your treatment has failed. It may mean that you just slipped up. If this is true for you, accept the mistake and move on. Try to find out why you relapsed. Then make changes in your life so that it won't happen again. You also may need more treatment, another type of treatment, or more time in support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous.
You might have several relapses, whether you have tried to quit substance use on your own or have had treatment. As time goes on, relapses usually occur less often and are shorter. Some people never have a relapse.
What can trigger a relapse?
Triggers are things that might cause you to have a relapse from alcohol or illegal or prescription drugs. They may include:
- Certain people. Running into people you drank or used drugs with could trigger memories and a desire to use alcohol or drugs again. If you meet these people, they could urge you to use alcohol or drugs.
- Certain places. Walking into a bar, a friend's house, or a park where you drank or used drugs could trigger a craving. Even being in the same kind of area could cause cravings.
- Certain things. You may link objects to alcohol or drug use. For example, seeing a syringe or crack pipe could trigger memories.
- Certain times. Certain days or times of day, holidays, or weather could trigger a craving. It depends on your memories of alcohol or drug use.
- Certain smells, sounds, and sensations. The smell of the drug, cigarette, or a food could be a trigger. A rainy day, a song, or a television program could also cause a craving.
- Stress. Stress is a major trigger. Any situation where you feel stress makes a relapse more likely.
- Certain situations. Social activities, parties, or being alone could also make you think about having a drink or looking for drugs.
It may be helpful to write down your triggers and think about them. Are some more likely to cause a relapse than others? Rate your triggers from most likely to cause a relapse to least likely to cause a relapse.
Now you can make a plan to manage your triggers. You might need to avoid certain situations or people or stay away from a favorite place or activity. If you know you can't avoid a trigger, bring a friend with you for support.
How can you deal with a relapse?
If you begin using drugs or alcohol again, follow these steps.
- Stop drinking or using the drug at once.
Get rid of it. Pour it down the sink or flush it down the toilet. Leave the situation you are in.
- Keep calm.
Remember your plan for what to do if you have a lapse or relapse. Remind yourself how hard you've worked to stay sober or drug-free.
- Get support right away.
Call the people listed on your relapse plan, or go to the places your plan lists.
- Think about what happened.
When you've stopped drinking or using drugs, find out what caused you to relapse. Think about how you can prevent it from happening again. Put this in your plan.
Current as of: November 8, 2021
Author: Healthwise Staff
Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine
Martin J. Gabica MD - Family Medicine
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
Peter Monti PhD - Alcohol and Addiction
Christine R. Maldonado PhD - Behavioral Health
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2022 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.