What is a Relapse Prevention Plan?

During recovery, it’s not uncommon for people who struggle with addiction to relapse. Understanding potential triggers are at the foundation of a good relapse prevention plan. It is imperative to understand each trigger’s signs and symptoms for a lifetime of sobriety and sustained recovery. Each person is different, but most experience the stages of relapse similarly.

What is Relapse?

The definition of relapse is a recurrence of any disease following treatment and recovery. In this instance, relapse refers to recovering addicts returning to substance use. Recovery is a lifelong journey and consists of many ups and downs. Relapse is a significant setback in recovery, and it is not uncommon — more than half of people that start addiction rehabilitation relapse within months of starting treatment. Having a relapse prevention plan is equally important as any other aspect of treatment.

Relapse Prevention Planning

Creating a relapse prevention plan is vital during and after treatment. In treatment, people learn how to develop healthy habits and coping methods.  Relapse prevention planning involves devising personal techniques and measures to avoid slipping back into unhealthy habits and behavior.

During the first year of recovery, up to 85% of people relapse. Having a plan and utilizing recovery tools will help fight relapse. Each person is different and comes from a different situation. Because of this, relapse triggers vary from person to person. Understanding triggers is an essential part of sustaining sobriety.

Since different techniques work for different people, individuals in recovery should make an effort to understand how relapse works. Once people acknowledge their triggers, it becomes easier to fight urges. Luckily there are many ways to fight relapse, such as continued therapy and involvement in support groups.

The Three Stages of Relapse

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Contrary to popular belief, relapse occurs over some time. People generally show signs and symptoms in their behavior before relapse. It is not usually a sudden event. Keeping a relapse prevention plan from the start of treatment gives people the best chance to avoid giving in to urges. Relapse takes place in the following stages:

Emotional Relapse

Emotional relapse happens before you are even thinking of substances. This is the first stage where individuals begin engaging in behavior that commonly leads to relapse. As mentioned before, understanding this stage may be what prevents you from giving in to your addiction.

Emotional relapse starts with an individual suppressing feelings of anger, sadness, or anxiety. Sleeping or eating habits may change. This behavior may be familiar. In treatment, people generally learn how to deal with these emotions. Following treatment, it is up to the individual to seek support when they notice a weakness instead of suppressing their emotions.

Mental Relapse

The next stage is mental relapse. Here, you may experience feelings of internal conflict. At this point, relapse is on the horizon, and the threat of relapse is becoming more apparent. People experiencing this may want to stay sober, but they start to miss the aspects of consuming substances. During this stage, individuals have a tunnel vision idea of using the substance, often neglecting the downside. Before a physical relapse, you may find yourself hanging out with old friends or at old spots, opening the door for a potential relapse.

Physical Relapse

This is the final stage of relapse. Physical relapse is the actual event when someone makes contact with the substance they are addicted to. It only takes one use of the substance to trigger a relapse. At this point, the relapse prevention plan is no longer. Even if an individual does not start abusing the substance, it’s usually just a matter of time. Following a physical relapse, more treatment may be necessary.

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Signs and Symptoms of Relapse

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Each stage of relapse initiates different signs and symptoms. When relapse prevention planning, note each symptom and become familiar with their signs. By doing this, you are ready to deal with the real difficulties that come with addiction recovery. Even if not for yourself, you can use these signs and symptoms to know if an individual may be in trouble with relapsing. Here are symptoms that transpire in each stage of relapse:

Emotional Relapse Symptoms

A person experiencing emotional relapse might:

  • Generate new or old general anxieties
  • Have a short temper or become easily angry
  • Develop intolerance for random behaviors
  • Start to isolate themselves, especially in social situations or in work environments
  • Become defenseless and show signs of hopelessness
  • Not ask for assistance when struggling
  • Change their eating habits, eating too little or too much
  • Change their sleeping habits, sleeping too little or too much

Each person experiences symptoms differently. These behaviors are common, though, in people facing an emotional relapse. Some of these symptoms are common following recovery. It is vital to look out for symptoms that may signify a mental relapse.

Mental Relapse Symptoms

If an individual is moving toward a potential mental relapse, they may show signs of internal conflict by:

  • Glamorizing or romanticizing about the good times they have had while using substances.
  • Lying about thoughts and habits related to substances.
  • Surrounding themselves with people that are not sober.
  • Imagining situations and fantasizing about relapse.
  • Planning to relapse but keeping it secretive.

Once reaching this stage, it is not too late. If thoughts of relapse have not turned into actions, it is possible to stay clean. At this point, an individual or their loved ones should take preventative action. If a relapse does occur, they may need to repeat the addiction treatment process.

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The Relapse Prevention Plan

One of the critical factors of relapse prevention planning is understanding triggers. Your plan is not something that is completely set in stone. It is primarily a list of potential measures. Understanding what makes you crave substances may be the most important part of your sustained recovery. People generally turn to substances when external stressors are too severe. Old habits may lead them to self-medication, which is a complete physical relapse. Common triggers for people in recovery are:

  • Emotionally and physically painful withdrawal symptoms, followed by the urge to want to make them stop
  • Non-supportive people; unhealthy or harmful relationships
  • Being surrounded by enablers
  • Being in an environment where substances or paraphernalia are present
  • Going through harrowing life events such as break-ups, death, or losing a job
  • Being in a location that reminds you of using substances.

Dealing With Triggers

Although everyone is different, triggers will be a part of daily life for most people following addiction treatment. This does not need to be as difficult as it sounds, though, since various practices minimize triggers and effects.


Stress is one of the top causes of relapse. Many people suffer from addiction because they turn to substances to deal with external challenges. To remain sober, one must sustain healthy methods of coping with stress. Many of these coping methods are learned during treatment. Following treatment, individuals struggling with addiction must keep practicing these healthy methods.

One practice to help with stress as a trigger is avoiding stressful situations. Although it is impossible to avoid stress completely, it is possible to regulate stress healthily. Making changes in your lifestyle, priorities, and relationships can help reduce stress and ultimately help reduce the chances of stress-induced relapse. Practicing mindfulness meditations, frequent exercise, and healthy eating are effective and attainable ways to cope with stress.

Challenging or Negative Emotions

People who underwent treatment for addiction often have trouble tolerating or managing emotions. Addictive behaviors begin when alcohol or drugs are used to combat or provide relief of these feelings.

Overcoming addiction means getting comfortable with uncomfortable emotions and feelings. When challenging or negative emotions arise, they do not need to resemble setbacks or relapses. Reframe these negative emotions as opportunities for growth.

Times of Celebration

Unfortunately, times of celebration such as holidays and birthdays are triggers for many people. Individuals who have addictive tendencies have difficulty knowing when to stop. Therefore, having one drink or smoke at an event will be detrimental to the recovery process.

Being in recovery does not mean avoiding times of celebration. Keep a trustworthy friend around in these situations. Avoid going into celebratory settings alone. Go into these situations prepared. Therapists may help in putting together a plan on handling temptations that occur at parties.

Reminders of Addiction

Physical reminders of addiction are another unavoidable subject when it comes to sustaining sobriety. Your relapse prevention plan should remind you that you will likely be exposed to substances you are trying to avoid. It is normal to feel tempted by your past addictions. But keep your goal of recovery in mind. Embrace the new and healthy version of yourself that abstains from substances.

Intrepid Detox Can Help

Recovery is a long journey. At times it is easy; other times, it may be difficult. Regardless, the journey is well worth it and much better than being controlled by addiction. Having support from loved ones can make all of the difference. Proper support and a relapse prevention plan make the burden of addiction recovery much lighter. If you or a loved one struggles with addiction or needs help preventing relapse, please contact us today.