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Relapse is a common concern for individuals in recovery from a substance use disorder and for their friends and family members. While relapse is a part of the recovery process for some people, it doesn’t have to be. Here are some tips for avoiding relapse as well as information on how to approach the situation if a relapse has occurred.
Many individuals are bit confused about what relapse really is. In terms of what a relapse actually represents, it is important to understand that a relapse is a return to the behaviors that would qualify an individual who is in recovery to be re-diagnosed with a substance use disorder. The individual must have an extended period of abstinence in order to actually relapse, and their behavior must be severe enough to qualify them to be re-diagnosed with a substance use disorder.
What most people often label as a relapse is actually a lapse, which is a very brief slip from abstinence that is self-corrected by the individual. A relapse represents a prolonged return to substance use, whereas a lapse is a very brief slip that is corrected by the individual and the individual gets back on their recovery program.
Both lapses and relapses can be serious, and they can result in an individual in recovery losing confidence in their recovery program. However, an individual who has experienced a lapse has already made the change and moved back into the recovery program, whereas a relapse represents a situation where the individual is continuing to engage in prior behaviors. While both situations should be considered serious, relapse is obviously the far more serious of the two situations.
Both situations require that the individual rethink their approach to recovery. Individuals who suffer multiple lapses or relapses need to re-examine their approach to addressing their substance use disorder.
Individuals recovering from substance use disorders are often under the impression that having a lapse or relapse represents a failure. As it turns out, lapses and relapses are quite common and occur in similar proportions as relapses do for certain types of medical disorders that have a significant behavioral component to them. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, relapse rates for individuals who attempt to recover from substance use disorders are similar to relapse rates for common medical conditions, such as asthma, hypertension, and diabetes. Relapse rates for substance use disorders occur in 40-60 percent of individuals who attempt to recover from them, and this is consistent with relapse rates for these other disorders.
This is not an excuse to lapse or relapse, but it should be a sign to individuals that lapses and relapses represent a part of the recovery process for many, but not all, individuals. Individuals who can learn from their mistakes and move on will eventually be successful in their recovery program, whereas individuals who do not learn or attempt to adjust the recovery program are often doomed to a long, painful, and even continuous cycle of substance abuse, recovery, relapse, recovery, etc.
Just because relapse is not uncommon in recovery from substance use disorders does not mean that it is inevitable. The late addiction specialist Dr. G. Alan Marlatt published extensively on relapse prevention. In one of his classic works, Relapse Prevention: Maintenance Strategies in the Treatment of Addictive Behaviors, he offers a number of tips and strategies to avoid lapses and relapses. Some of the major points and suggestions from his writings are summarized here.
If you have lapsed or relapsed, it is important to remember not to catastrophize the situation. The first thing to do is to immediately stop any drug or alcohol use, and if able, remove yourself from the situation. Contact your therapist or support group members, and meet with them as soon as possible to discuss the situation.
Instead of viewing the lapse or relapse as a failure, attempt to analyze the situation, identify any knowledge of how and why the relapse occurred, and take steps to avoid similar situations in the future. This way you can utilize a lapse or relapse as a learning experience and turn it into a positive.