Preventing an alcohol or drug relapse is at the core of one’s recovery from addiction. Unfortunately, relapse rates for individuals in recovery from alcohol and drug dependence are staggering. Up to 60% of individuals relapse on drugs and alcohol within their first 30 days of leaving an inpatient treatment center, and up to 85% relapse within their first year. As such, individuals with an alcohol or drug dependence should know that addiction recovery requires ongoing attention in order to sustain recovery. Learning relapse prevention skills in early recovery and utilizing these tools throughout recovery will help you sustain long-term recovery from drugs and alcohol.
10 Tips to Prevent an Alcohol and Drug Relapse
Know the Warning Signs
Relapse does not just happen suddenly out of the blue, nor is relapse simply about ingesting a drink or a drug. Relapse is a slow and gradual process that occurs well before alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines, or other such drugs enter the body. In other words, mental relapse and emotional relapse usually precede physical relapse. The earlier one recognizes the warning signs of relapse, the easier it will be to prevent. Some warning signs of relapse include withdrawal from recovery related activities and rituals, low mood, irritability, boredom, loneliness, relationship issues, career stressors, financial pressures, and increased thoughts about using drugs and alcohol.
Know Your Triggers
People, places and things – oh my. Building awareness of what triggers you is fundamental to relapse prevention. Knowing what makes you feel sadness, worry, stress, and other negative emotions, as well as what triggers you to experience thoughts, urges and cravings to use drugs and alcohol is a key relapse prevention tool. When you are aware of your triggers, you can help avoid them, minimize exposure to them, and be better prepared to cope with them. Common triggers for addiction relapse include boredom, loneliness, financial difficulty, anger, relationship issues, events with alcohol or drugs, certain people, and certain places.
Check in With Yourself
Emotional relapse precedes physical relapse. Our behaviors are impacted by our emotions. When we feel stressed, depressed, anxious, or experience other negative emotional states of being, or when we HALT (are hungry, angry, lonely or tired) we tend to want to suppress it, avoid it, and get through it with as little discomfort and as quickly as possible. As an individual with a substance use disorder, one is often used to coping with negative emotions by numbing them with drugs and alcohol. In recovery you must find healthier ways to cope with negative emotions and learn to experience them without reactive impulse. In recovery you can learn that emotions are neither good nor bad, they simply are. The more frequently we check in with ourselves on a day-by-day and even moment-by-moment basis, the better able we are to connect with our emotional being, build awareness, bring ourselves back to center, and cope in a healthy way.
Self-care helps minimize mental health issues, helps cope with life stressors, and improves overall quality of life, among other benefits. Self-care is a way of showing and telling yourself that you care enough about yourself to make yourself a priority, and that your wellbeing is not worth sabotaging with alcohol or drugs. Self-care is different for everybody, but may include things like eating well, exercising, reading, meditating, mind-body relaxation techniques, taking a soothing bath, or engaging in a hobby or leisure activity, among other activities. Self-care also involves knowing when to say no and when to say yes, and also knowing that it is ok to not be ok as long as you are taking care of yourself.
Play Out the Tape
When it comes to addiction, the brain is wired to recall pleasurable associations with our drug of choice rather than negative ones. When we experience thoughts, urges, and cravings to use drugs or alcohol we are naturally inclined to remember the good feelings and experiences that went along with our substance use rather than the bad ones. As such, when experiencing thoughts, urges or cravings to use drugs or alcohol it is important to force ourselves to think a relapse all the through to the very end. Instead of focusing on the temporary pleasure it has brought you in the past or could bring you in the future, think about how it will feel after the high subsides. Think about the guilt and shame you may feel and the overall impact it will have on yourself and those you love. Remind yourself that stopping will be very challenging, and that you may very well spiral from a slip up into a full-blown relapse that could even be fatal. Play out the tape to the very end.
Know Your Push and Your Pull
With any goal we have, including sobriety, it is important to have a push and a pull. The push is often identified as the consequences we have faced in active addiction that pushes us into recovery. Pushes are often not enough to sustain our motivation or inspiration for long-term recovery from addiction, but nevertheless they are very important. The pull on the other hand is identified as the opportunity that we have in recovery. Pulls are based on the vision we have of the person we want to and can become in recovery. It is important to remind ourselves of both our pushes and our pulls in order to sustain our recovery, especially during times we are in relapse mode.
Mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, depression and anger are often our biggest challenges when it comes to long-term sobriety. A helpful tool that can be used at any time in any given situation is grounding. Grounding is a mindfulness-based technique that allows your body and mind to relax, allows you to have more control, and ultimately helps you cope with mental health stressors and reduce the risk of relapse. There are various grounding techniques, and the goal of all of them is to become more present and centered. Grounding can be done through simple meditative breathing exercises (example: take slow deep breaths in and out by counting a breath in slowly for 7 seconds, holding your breath for 2 seconds, and breathing out slowly for 7 seconds) or by mindfulness-based exercises (example: use the 5-4-3-2-1 mindfulness technique by acknowledging 5 things around you that you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can head, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste).
Support is a cornerstone of addiction recovery. Addiction professionals generally encourage their patients to surround themselves with individuals who support their recovery. Oftentimes this level of support is found through support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, Refuge Recovery and many others. Support can also be found through close family and friends, fitness groups, or other hobby and leisure groups. You need to have at least one person you can confide personal details to such as your emotional state and inner thoughts, and also people that you can turn to for a laugh, a hug, and sometimes to just get your mind off of things. Support is important at all stages of addiction recovery, but especially during early recovery and through challenging times.
Cognitive Behavioral Techniques
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the primary therapies used in treating addiction related disorders. CBT serves to help identify and change negative thoughts, feelings and beliefs, develop healthy coping mechanisms, and ultimately change behaviors. CBT is a skill that is taught to patients by therapists, allowing them to practice this skill on their own in their daily lives. As such, it is a fundamental skill to learn and practice in order to help prevent relapse.
Ask for Help
Asking for help is often one of the most challenging things to do but is one of the best things we can do for ourselves during difficult times. Asking for help is often correlated with weakness, but the irony is that asking for help often takes incredible courage and strength. Always remember that you are not alone, and that help is available. Sometimes help may come in the form of family, friends, or others in your support system, and other times it may come in the form of professional help such as addiction professionals and addiction specialists such as an addiction psychiatrist, addiction psychologist, addiction recovery coach or sober coach, or other such addiction specialists and mental health professionals.
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