Understanding relapse and how to prevent one

Relapsing isn’t something to feel ashamed or guilty about. 

It can even help you to understand your own recovery better. If you’re recovering from an addiction to drugs or alcohol, a relapse doesn’t have to mean the end of that journey. 

Sometimes, people who are recovering from an addiction return to their old habits, and begin drinking or taking drugs again. This is known as a relapse.

Why do people relapse?

There are lots of things that can trigger a relapse, and what it is will depend on your own experiences. 

Sometimes the people, places and things around you can trigger a relapse. You might see something that reminds you of your old drug use, or visit a pub where you used to drink, for example. 

Your thoughts and emotions can also trigger a relapse. Feeling angry, upset or stressed can all make a relapse more likely. If it's an emotional time of the year for you, like a birthday or anniversary, this can also be a relapse trigger.

How do I prevent a relapse?

There are a few things you can do to make a relapse less likely:

  • Try to avoid things you think might trigger a relapse. This could be places that remind you of your drug or alcohol use, people who aren't supportive of your recovery, or it could be stressful situations. 
  • Keep making use of the support available to you. This might be one-on-one therapies, group sessions, activities or groups. It’s always good to spend time with people who understand your experiences and support your new direction. 
  • Lots of people in recovery like to keep themselves busy and productive. You might want to take up a new hobby, or do some volunteering work. It can also be useful to plan out your activities for each week, so that you always have something positive to focus on. 
  • Some people suggest making a list of the positive things you’ve gained because of your recovery. If you’ve started a new job or reconnected with your family, it’s good to remind yourself of these achievements.
  • Try not to spend emotional times of the year on your own. If you have a birthday or an anniversary coming up, or if it's nearly Christmas, try and arrange to be with people who support you.
  • Keep an eye out for changes in how you're thinking or behaving. For example, you might be having fond memories of your previous drug or alcohol use, telling yourself that just one time will be okay, or hiding how you’re feeling from other people. 

If you think you might be about to have a relapse, don't be afraid to talk to someone about how you're feeling. 

man in a black tshirt standing in front of a wall smiling

I’ve taken the knocks and the blows, I’ve relapsed. With the help and support of professionals and your own self-belief, you can achieve anything.

Lee - volunteer

Read Lee's story

What should I do if I relapse?

If you do have a relapse, it’s important to stay positive. Recovery is a process, and relapsing is sometimes a part of that process. Lots of people in recovery have relapsed, and lots of them have got their journey back on track.

Don’t be afraid to talk to family, friends, and support workers about what's happened. A relapse isn’t something to feel guilty or ashamed about, and discussing it with someone you trust is an important step in your recovery. If you’ve begun using drugs and alcohol again and you want to stop, it’s best to get help from a medical professional rather than stopping suddenly on your own.

Be open-minded to the advice people give, and the help being offered. For example, you might not feel like going to a group session at that moment, but it could be really positive in the long run. It's important to take part in activities and surround yourself with supportive people, rather than spending time alone.

Once your relapse is behind you, see if there’s anything you can learn from the experience. You might be able to identify emotions or situations that acted as triggers, and work to avoid them in the future.