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How To Cope With A Relapse After Several Years Of Sobriety



Recovering from substance use is an incredibly difficult journey. It takes hard work, commitment, and a willingness to challenge yourself and find new ways of coping. Maintaining sobriety is challenging, and if you’ve had years of sobriety, it is something to be proud of! However, the work doesn’t end with maintained sobriety.


Lapses and relapse are a very common part of long-term recovery. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40-60% of people relapse after completing treatment. Relapse is a difficult reality of recovery--so, how do you cope with a relapse?


What Is A Relapse?

Recovery is an individualized process. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to sobriety and long-term recovery.


Some individuals find community with peer recovery groups, and others find success through outpatient counseling. Some take a strict abstinence-only approach, while others manage their recovery differently.


You may hear the words ‘lapse’, ‘slip,’ and ‘relapse’--what do they mean? These terms for relapse are similar--they will vary depending on the individual situation. Typically, a ‘lapse’ or ‘slip’ is considered a brief return to substance use before an immediate return to sobriety. A ‘relapse’ is considered a full return to drinking or drug use.


Relapse is considered a three-step process that happens slowly before an individual ever picks up a substance.


Emotional Relapse

You may stop interacting with your emotions in a healthy way. You may find yourself returning to previous patterns of suppressing your feelings, avoiding uncomfortable emotions, isolating yourself from others, or finding it more difficult to take care of yourself. The emotional stage of relapse can last for months before someone ever picks up, which is why these cues are so important to recovery.


Mental Relapse

You may be thinking about relapse in this stage. You may notice an increase in cravings or urges, find yourself reliving memories of using substances, or seeking opportunities that would allow you to relapse. This stage can also last weeks or months before an individual ever picks up a substance.


Physical Relapse

The physical relapse stage is what you likely think of when you think about a relapse. Physical relapse involves returning to using substances. Though this phase is what people most often refer to as relapse, it is not the only stage in the process.


Relapse is Not A Failure

A relapse is not a failure. Addiction is a disease, and relapse is a part of that disease. Relapse is common and is not in any way an indication of individual moral failure.


Relapse does not erase the work done in the years of sobriety. Likewise, relapse does not erase the progress, personal development, and self-awareness built over time. Coping with relapse is emotionally challenging, but it can be helpful to remember that it is a function of the disease and not an individual failure.


Relapse Is An Opportunity to Learn

Relapse indicates that something in your recovery journey is no longer working. This can provide an opportunity to change the routine, learn new skills and strategies, or seek a different form of treatment.


Take a look at your relapse prevention plan. What areas could use additional development? For example, it may be helpful to look at your triggers, coping skills, and sober support system again and assess what areas need adjustment.


How Do You Cope with a Relapse?

You understand what a relapse is, how it happens, what you can learn, and that it is not a failure. That information is helpful to know, but it does not address the very real emotional, physical, and mental pain that can come with relapse. So, how do you cope?


Practice Self-Care

Relapse can come with immense guilt, shame, disappointment, and embarrassment. Allow yourself to practice self-care as you navigate these challenging feelings. These feelings are indicators that you want to change, and you deserve self-compassion and self-care during that time.


Seek Immediate Support

Reach out to your support network. Whether it is an addiction counselor, therapist, sponsor, peer recovery coach, or a family member--you do not need to be alone. These conversations may be difficult, but they will help you get back on track and support your long-term recovery.


Consider Your Options

You may want to return to treatment after a relapse. You may need to reconnect with peer recovery groups or get back regularly working with a coach or sponsor. Take stock of your options for recovery work, and consider what makes the most sense for you at this time.


Final Thoughts

Relapse is a common feature of addiction and does not mean you failed. However, with proper support and treatment, you can recommit to your sobriety and recovery and cope with a relapse effectively.


At The Resurface Group, we believe in supporting clients at all stages of their recovery. Relapse can happen, but we are here to support you during this process. Contact us today to get connected!


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