Relapse can be a Positive Experience

For people who have navigated the rough waters of addiction and achieved hard-won sobriety, relapse seems like something to be avoided at all costs. Drug and alcohol treatment centers and rehabs go to great lengths to help clients prevent relapse, but despite of all good intentions, the National Institute for Drug Abuse (NIDA), estimates a relapse rate of 40 to 50 percent. Some people relapse more than once.

There’s no doubt that relapse is difficult for everybody, including friends and family who have finally begun to relax after months or years of worry, fear and turmoil over their loved one’s addiction. However, relapse is powerful experience and when addressed therapeutically, can be a powerful part of the healing process. The key is to take the right action when relapse happens.

As strange as it may sound, people who attain long-term sobriety often say it was necessary to go through relapse to learn important lessons going forward. A relapse demonstrates the serious, progressive nature of addiction and provides an opportunity to determine what changes must be made, to identify triggers and learn better coping skills. Many people emerge with a stronger commitment to recovery and are ultimately grateful for the relapse.

Relapse occurs for a variety of reasons. Often, people don’t learn how to navigate a life of sobriety or to cope with inevitable cravings. Some people become complacent and believe they no longer need to concentrate on recovery. Many relapse during difficult periods or major life events such illness, financial difficulties, divorce, loss of a loved one or negative emotions such as anger, irritability or boredom. Relapse often occurs as a result of social pressure or exposure to people or places associated with drinking or drugs. Holidays and celebrations present risk of relapse for many people.

Lapse or full-blown relapse?

It’s important to differentiate between a lapse or slip and full-blown relapse. A relapse is a return to drugs or alcohol use that may last a few days or much longer. A lapse or slip occurs when a person uses drugs or alcohol, then immediately regrets it and is able to recommit to sobriety.

Don’t minimize the importance of a slip, which is a sign that something has gone awry, but don’t torture yourself with regret and guilt.

If you or a loved one experiences a relapse, consider ways to get back on track:

  • Accept that you’ve relapsed and take responsibility. Don’t make excuses and don’t blame others. Pointing fingers at others does no good.
  • Don’t view a lapse or relapse as a failure. Resolve that the experience is a temporary setback and take steps to get back on track.
  • Develop a strong support network consisting of friends, family, counselors or a support group. Don’t hesitate to ask for help; you will need their support and encouragement.
  • Take time to think about the reasons for the lapse or relapse. Armed with this knowledge, you will  be better able to identify triggers, warning signs and weak spots in your recovery plan.
  • Learn ways to cope with cravings. Practice stress-management techniques such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing or regular exercise. Determine what works best for you and practice regularly. Don’t wait until stressful situations arise.

Re-enter treatment or rehab if necessary. It may feel like you’re retracing your steps, but if you’re having a difficult time, treatment can help you get back on track.

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