Returning to drug or alcohol use after treatment for substance use disorder is a part of many people’s recovery journey. A person may make a plan to prevent this with support from a healthcare professional.

Some people use the term “relapse” to describe when a person with a substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD) returns to using drugs or alcohol after a period of abstinence.

However, many healthcare professionals refrain from using this term, as it may stigmatize people in recovery. Instead, they opt for terms, such as “returning to using” or “reoccurrence of use.”

Recovering from physical dependence and withdrawal symptoms as a result of AUD or SUD is not a quick or easy process and learning to manage the desire to use takes time.

In this article, we will explore five ways that may help prevent a person in recovery from returning to drug or alcohol use.

A person looking to prevent a relapse when it comes to substance use disorder -2.Share on Pinterest
SolStock/Getty Images

About half of people recovering from an SUD eventually return to using within 12 weeks of completing intensive inpatient programs that may last 4–12 weeks or more.

Return to use occurs in three stages: emotional, mental, and physical. Having an awareness of these stages and preparing to deal with them may help a person prevent returning to drug or alcohol use. A person may be vulnerable to recurrence of use during each of these phases.

Emotional return to use

During this phase, a person may not be thinking about using, but they may experience thoughts and behaviors that ultimately lead them toward reuse.

People may close themselves off, isolate from others, or keep their feelings pent up instead of sharing them with a loved one. During this stage, a person may also experience:

Mental return to use

During this phase, a person may experience intense difficulty with conflicting thoughts and desires. They may feel like some part of them wants to use drugs or alcohol while another part tries to fight these urges.

A person may think about the places or people they associate with drug or alcohol use. They may begin to reminisce about positive experiences they had while using and ignore the negative ones. At this point, a person may begin to bargain with themselves or make plans to return to use.

However, a person should note that occasional thoughts of using or cravings are a typical part of recovery. They should not have unrealistic expectations, which may involve never thinking about using substances again.

Physical return to use

In this phase, a person begins to actually reuse alcohol or drugs. Typically, this phase begins with a singular lapse, meaning a person may have one alcoholic drink, for example.

Eventually, this lapse may lead to regular reuse. However, this does not mean that a person cannot recover from SUD or AUD. With a healthcare professional’s guidance, someone may be able to resume their treatment plan, modify it slightly, or try a different treatment plan that works better for them.

Help is available

Seeking help for addiction may feel daunting or even scary, but several organizations can provide support.

If you believe that you or someone close to you is showing signs of addiction, you can contact the following organizations for immediate help and advice:

Was this helpful?

For some individuals, being around particular places, circumstances, or people may increase the likelihood of them returning to use. Understanding which environmental factors are likely to cause a person to reuse can help them avoid these situations and prevent returning to use.

Common triggers for people recovering from SUD or AUD include:

  • withdrawal symptoms
  • feeling lonely and isolated
  • feeling stressed
  • having difficulty with personal relationships
  • spending time around people who enable substance use
  • seeing drug and alcohol paraphernalia, such as:
    • pipes
    • needles
    • wine or beer bottles
  • being near places where someone previously used drugs or alcohol
  • not practicing proper self-care, such as not eating healthily and maintaining a regular sleep schedule

Learn about alcohol withdrawal syndrome.

Recovering from AUD or SUD alone can be a challenging experience. Having a supportive network of family, friends, or colleagues may make recovery easier.

A person should speak with a healthcare professional about treatments to relieve any withdrawal symptoms they may experience. A healthcare professional can help a person develop the skills they need to manage any urges they have to reuse. A person’s family and friends may help them feel heard or supported.

Additionally, support groups and 12-step programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), exist to help someone prevent reuse by connecting with a network of individuals with similar experiences to themselves.

Remembering the reasons someone has for quitting alcohol or substance use may help them stick to their recovery plan, particularly when they are experiencing an urge to reuse.

A person may find it helps to remember the negative emotions or physical sensations they felt when using drugs or alcohol. Remembering the negative effects using had on aspects of their life, such as their relationships, work, or studying, may also help.

Someone may find it useful to imagine how their life will be without using drugs or alcohol. Additionally, they can think about the benefits of rebuilding relationships that may have become strained when a person was using substances.

Individuals may want to make goals to focus on in their sobriety, such as:

  • improving their health
  • rebuilding damaged relationships
  • starting or maintaining a job
  • reclaiming financial control over their life

A person may have started using alcohol or drugs to relax, unwind, or lift their mood. Therefore, during the recovery process, a person should focus on building healthy coping mechanisms for managing stress or relaxing.

Some self-care strategies that may help a person relax and manage stress include:

Healthcare professionals typically use terms, such as “returning to using” or “reoccurrence of use,” to describe when a person in recovery from substance use disorder returns to using a substance they have abstained from using.

Having a plan to deal with the stages of returning to use, understanding personal triggers, reaching out for support, remembering reasons for quitting, and establishing self-care strategies, may help prevent the recurrence of use.

If a person does return to using substances, they should speak with a healthcare professional who can help them resume their treatment plan, modify it, or start a new one.