What Does Relapse Mean?

What Does Relapse Mean?

By In Addiction Recovery, Relapse Prevention, Tools for Recovery
Posted September 26, 2017

Getting sober is a major accomplishment, but maintaining sobriety is a lifelong task for recovering addicts.

In fact, studies indicate that about half of all recovering addicts eventually resume heavy use, and about 70-90% experience a “mild to moderate slip.”

Relapse is so common because it takes time to address and remove the situations, behaviors, and underlying issues that trigger cravings and drug use. Plus, drug abuse rewires the brain, and time is required to undo these changes.

While relapse may be common, there are steps you can take to avoid it. And if it does happen, view the experience as part of your recovery process: an opportunity to learn how to identify your triggers and find better strategies for addressing them in the future.

Relapse Definition: Lapse vs. Relapse

So what is exactly is a relapse?

Some view a relapse as any episode in which a recovering addict returns to the previous addiction, like when an alcoholic slips-up and has a drink.

More often, experts in the addiction field call episodes such as this example a “lapse.” “Relapse,” on the other hand, is defined by these experts as “the resumption of more extended and excessive alcohol or drug use involving the return of symptoms meeting the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder.”

glass of alcohol

Essentially, most experts agree that a “lapse” is a brief mistake involving drugs or alcohol, while a “relapse” is a full return to previous drug abuse.

Why does this distinction matter?

Labeling any brief slip up a “relapse” suggests either total success or total failure, which isn’t an accurate portrayal of addiction recovery.

Viewing relapse in such black and white terms can also cause the “abstinence violation effect,” in which the recovering addict feels extreme shame and guilt after what they perceive as total failure. Believing this means they aren’t strong enough to overcome addiction, or in an effort to cope with the shame and guilt, the recovering addict may give up on sobriety and fall back into full-blown addiction.

Additionally, these feelings of shame and guilt may prevent someone who has lapsed from reaching out for help at this crucial point.

Relapse Warning Signs and What You Can Do

Relapse typically begins with what is called “emotional relapse.” At this stage, you aren’t thinking of using. But you are experiencing emotions or behaving in ways that are setting you up for eventual relapse, such as:

  • Anger
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Isolation
  • Not asking for help or attending meetings
  • Poor eating or sleeping habits

You can avoid full physical relapse by recognizing and addressing these emotions. Practice relaxation techniques to deal with your anxiety. Go to meetings if you’re feeling isolated, or even call a helpline. Care for yourself by eating and sleeping better.

If you allow emotional relapse to go on for too long, you will become exhausted and may long for an escape, which can lead you to “mental relapse.”

man looking depressed

During this stage, you’ll begin thinking about using, and this may progress into cravings. Early warning signs include:

  • Thinking about the people you used with or places you used at
  • Lying
  • Glamorizing your past use
  • Spending time with your old friends
  • Fantasizing about using
  • Starting to plan your relapse

It will now be much harder to resist the pull of using. But there are a few things you can do:

  • Tell someone about your urges: a friend, sponsor, or others in recovery. Call a helpline if you feel uncomfortable.
  • Do something healthy to distract yourself. Go for a walk, exercise, write in a journal, etc.
  • Take it one day at a time. Don’t indulge in paralyzing or self-defeating thoughts like, “Will I be able to resist forever?”
  • Whatever you do, avoid triggers like places you’ve bought drugs, people you’ve done drugs with, or the sight of drug paraphernalia that may magnify your cravings.

For some recovering addicts, these stages can be avoided by going to a halfway house, which smooths the transition from structured rehab to completely independent living.


Relapse is common, but it’s not inevitable. Take your recovery one day at a time, and teach yourself to recognize the warning signs of a relapse. Once you notice the warning signs, address them immediately before they can progress any further.

Don’t let feelings of shame or guilt prevent you from seeking help. Addiction changes the brain, and it takes time to reverse these changes. Recovery is an ongoing process that may involve bumps along the road. Know that it gets easier with time, and keep going.





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