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The Different Stages of Relapse in Addiction

Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MD By September 25, 2017
addiction relapse

When you are in treatment and trying to stay sober, the number one goal is to avoid drugs and alcohol at all costs. Unfortunately, relapse in addiction happens, and it happens frequently. People fresh out of rehab have a very high chance of relapsing, and the numbers slowly dwindle down as more time passes. For example, a person with five years sober will have a much higher chance of staying sober than someone with only three months.

While the stats are scary, educating yourself is one of the best things you can do to prevent a relapse for yourself or a loved one. Contrary to what many people think, relapse usually isn’t a sudden thing. It is premeditated and thought about until those thoughts finally turn into actions. It is important to stop a relapse in it’s beginning stages, before it becomes an actual physical relapse where drugs or alcohol are ingested.

The Three Stages of Relapse in Addiction

Ideally, you never reach any of these stages. But, life happens and as a recovering addict you most likely will think about drugs or alcohol from time to time. This is normal. However, you want to make sure to prevent it from going any further.

There are three distinct stages of relapse in addiction. Know what they are and what you can do in each stage to protect yourself from falling right back into your addiction.

Stage 1: Thinking About Relapsing

As we mentioned, it is normal to think about drugs or alcohol from time to time. However, if you find it creeping up in your thoughts more and more often, this is cause for concern. In bad cases, it can turn into a full-fledged obsession. This clearly is an indication that a physical relapse is imminent and help should be sought asap.

Even if you aren’t dealing with a complete emergency, it is important to get help and speak about the things you are thinking. Did something happen to make you start thinking about this more? Emotions are strong triggers for relapse, and a difficult situation can easily push you over the edge. This is a good time to turn to your support system and use them to ease the bad thoughts and come up with better ways of coping.

Stage 2: Planning for a Relapse

In stage 2, you are already figuring out where you are going to relapse, how, and when. You are most likely working out the details, and probably already putting money aside specifically to obtain drugs or alcohol. You are coming up with a relapse plan and in your mind you have already relapsed. This is the point where you cross over from thinking to doing.

It is essential that anyone who has gotten to this stage of relapse gets help immediately. Anything you can do to prevent crossing over to stage three has to be done here. Stage three can destroy your life and even be a cause of death. Act now before you get there.

Stage 3: The Physical Relapse

This stage is the part where you actually ingest drugs or alcohol. This is a full blown relapse. The ticking clock of sobriety will be set back to day one, and you most likely will need to go back to treatment to help prevent the relapse from turning into a long run. Still, there are things you can do here. If you relapsed, get help immediately so that you can safely detox and avoid using or drinking for a number of days in a row.

Even if you reach stage three, it isn’t the end of the world as long as you survive the relapse. You could have tried everything to prevent it and sometimes things still just happen. It is important to forgive yourself and look at it as a learning point so that you can figure out what lead to this point and how you can stop it from happening in the past.

Recovery is rarely a perfect journey for anyone. It is filled with bumps and hurdles. All you can do is know yourself and avoid relapse in addiction as much as you can by recognizing the signs and symptoms and changing bad behavior.

Article Reviewed by Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MD

Dr. Jeffrey Berman, MDDr. Jeffrey Berman is a psychiatrist in Teaneck, New Jersey and is affiliated with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. He received his medical degree from State University of New York Upstate Medical University and has been in practice for more than 20 years. He also speaks multiple languages, including French and Hebrew.

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