Remaining in Recovery: How to Avoid Alcohol Relapse

Last Updated: August 8, 2019

Avoiding Alcohol: How to Prevent a Relapse?

For individuals with alcohol use disorder, rehabilitation is vital in the fight against addiction. However, it is not the end of the fight; successfully completing rehab means winning a battle in the war against alcoholism, but there is still a long road ahead of the user. Alcohol relapse is a very real possibility should the user not work hard to remain in recovery.

Addiction relapse is a possibility whenever an addict is exposed to their addiction, no matter how long they have been in recovery. For those addicted to street drugs, avoiding being around them isn’t exactly easy, but it is easier than not being around alcohol. Unfortunately for those with alcoholism, beer, wine, and mixed drinks are everywhere, from company Christmas parties serving alcohol to dinner with friends over a glass of wine. With the temptation so present at all times, remaining in alcohol recovery even after the intervention for alcohol abuse means fighting against the disease for the rest of the user’s life and knowing what to do when an alcoholic relapses.

Signs a Relapse Is About to Occur

For both alcohol users in recovery and their loved ones, there is often a desire to spot signs of relapse. In truth, not all alcohol users will follow the same patterns when relapsing, so it may not be possible to spot the signs before the reversion occurs. However, the process can almost always be broken down into three stages of falling away from alcohol recovery: emotional relapse, mental relapse, and physical relapse. To spot warning signs, one must look at them in terms of these stages of relapse for the alcohol user.

Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse is all about the emotional state of the alcohol user. At this stage in the process, the alcohol user is not likely thinking about using alcohol or seeking it out. Instead, they are experiencing emotions that set the stage for reversion to occur. Because these emotions are often the same or similar to those the alcohol user drank to mask, it pushes them towards using again. Signs of emotional relapse from recovery are:

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Discontent
  • Intolerance
  • Anger
  • Defensiveness
  • Mood swings
  • Isolation
  • Not asking for help
  • Not going to meetings
  • Poor eating habits
  • Poor sleep habitsstressed nervous man holding his head

Mental Relapse

At this stage of alcoholic relapse, the alcohol user is starting to think about the possibility of drinking again. Part of their mind wants to give in while the other part is fighting to hold on. At first, the part of their mind that is holding on will be winning, but over time, the alcohol user starts to slide to the other side; what starts as idle thoughts turns to intense cravings, and eventually seeking out the vice. Signs of mental relapse are:

  • Thinking about the people the alcohol user drank with
  • Thinking about the places where the alcohol user often drank or had a memorable drinking experience
  • Thinking about the specific drinks they were fond of
  • Remembering past use with fondness
  • Covering up thoughts or spinning the truth when speaking to loved ones
  • Spending time with former drinking buddies
  • Fantasizing about the possibility of using again and ending recovery
  • Planning the reversion to hide it
  • Inability to avoid alcohol triggers

Co-ocurring mental diseases can force the development of this stage. That’s why the treatment for dual diagnosis may be longer and more difficult.

Physical Relapse

Physical relapse is the point at which the alcohol user begins taking actions to start using again. At first, they may still be able to hold back from using. The relapsing alcoholic might take drives past liquor stores, bars, clubs, and even the homes of drinking buddies pushed to go by temptation but pulling back and refraining from giving in. However, at this stage, it is essentially impossible for the alcohol user to stop themselves without help. As such, the signs of physical relapse are the same as signs an alcoholic is drinking again.

How to Prevent a Relapse

The top priority for alcohol users and their loved ones should be keeping an eye out for relapse warning signs, especially those of the emotional stage as they are the earliest signs and this is the stage that is easiest to pull back from. Relapse prevention has been studied for decades, and the approach to it has remained relatively stable over the years.

carefree woman lying on the grass watching the sunsetIn the emotional stage of reversion, the alcohol user should focus on self-care. This means finding ways to de-stress, ensuring they are eating and sleeping well, giving themselves space and time they need to get better, and seeking out therapy and group meetings that assist them in remaining strong when it is time to seek help. In the mental stage, the alcohol user needs to remain honest with themselves and others. For example, when they are glamorizing their past use in their minds, they need to think it through, to go beyond those first few drinks and having fun to the isolation and despair they felt when their addiction took over their lives and before recovery took place. It is also important that the alcohol user reminds themselves that the reason they are in recovery is for their benefit, not others, even if their recovery does help other people as well.

In any stage of reversion, the alcohol user should not be afraid to reach out and let loved ones know they are at risk of using again or are using again. This is why it is so important that users have support systems in place as they enter the recovery stage. These people should be prepared to listen and seek out help.

The Rules of Recovery

A major part of preventing alcoholism relapse is focusing on the rules of recovery. These are rules that the user likely learned about during their time in rehabilitation, but if they are sliding into reversion, might be losing sight of. It is important that they take time to refocus on these rules to prevent becoming a relapsed alcoholic.

Rule One: Change Your Life

When someone has an addiction, their entire life will often revolve around it. They seek employment that allows them to mask their use, make friends who use with them and even find places to live that put them within easy access of their vice. For the user to remain in recovery, they must change their life to remove the negative influences. There are many alcohol recovery books that can serve an example.

Rule Two: Be Completely Honest

Lying, truth spinning, and deception is all parts of addiction. A relapsed alcoholic will need to do things like hiding alcohol in the home, lie about where they were, and guide the perception of others to prevent suspicion. One way to remain in recovery is to commit to being completely honest at all times.

Rule Three: Ask for Help

Entering recovery can be a heady feeling for the user, as good as or better than the “high” they felt when using. Because it makes them feel powerful and in control, it can be upsetting to consider asking for help. However, it is vital to remain in recovery, as there will be low periods, even for the strongest recovering addict. Self-help groups are always a good place to ask for help. Counseling for alcohol addiction is also a good way to cope with the temptation.

Rule Four: Practice Self-Care

Addicts often use their addiction as a way to reward themselves. They have had a hard day and made it through; don’t they deserve something special? The user has to find ways of rewarding themselves without relapse alcohol being a factor. They also need to ensure they are taking care of their basic needs, such as adequate sleep and a healthy diet, as a means of preventing the emotional stage of reversion.

Rule Five: Don’t Bend the Rules

Users will often look for loopholes in the rules of recovery. For example, they may commit to changing their life, but figure that they can still see their old friends if they treat them as acquaintances instead. Ultimately, the rules of recovery are there for a reason and should not be bent in any manner.

Getting Through the Relapse

group of people comforting a woman at rehabilitation centreIf a user gives into their addiction, those around them may wonder what to do when a loved one relapses. The exact answer will depend on if the user has lapsed or relapsed from their recovery. Essentially, this comes down to understanding what does it mean to relapse. A lapse is when a user drinks just once, while relapse is when the use becomes habitual once more. With a lapse, loved ones should encourage the user to attend their recovery groups daily and check in with them often. Reversion requires a different approach.

What to do when someone relapses? Essentially, the process will be the same as when the addiction was discovered in the first place: help the user find an alcohol addiction rehab and get the care they need. Depending on how long the reversion has been occurring, rehabilitation may go faster than when the user was first admitted, or it may take longer if the user is struggling with the fact that the reversion has occurred. Help the user keep in mind that relapse does not mean that rehabilitation does not work; it just means that this reversion is part of their journey.

While in rehabilitation, the user should work on creating a recovery plan and bring their loved ones in on this plan so they can assist them. While this may feel awkward, and there may be concerns about what to say to someone who relapsed and saying the wrong thing, do not worry. What matters here is your support.

Relapse Is Not the End of the Road

While experiencing a reversion can be disheartening, it does not mean that recovery is over. Instead, the user should think about it as a bump in the road. With the right help, they can get back on track and become stronger than ever. Remember: recovery is for life, and it will not be perfect all the time. When help is needed, never hesitate to ask. There is a suitable alcohol treatment opportunity for everyone, for example, residential and off-site rehabs suit various needs. The difference between inpatient and outpatient facilities is that the second one does not require the patient to stay overnight and all the daily family and professional duties might be preserved.


Gregory Okhifun

Dr. Gregory Okhifun

Medical Reviewer

Dr. Okhifun is a passionate medical doctor, with over five years’ experience as a general practitioner. His passion for medical education led to his journey in medical writing. He has a wealth of experience writing for hospitals and medical centers, health organizations, telemedicine platforms, wellness organizations, medical tourism publications, addiction websites, and websites focused on nutrition and nutraceuticals.
He also serves as medical coordinator and content writer for Gerocare Solutions, for which he also volunteers as a health advisor/consultant for the elderly.
Dr. Okhifun enjoys traveling, meditation, and reading.

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