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What Does It Mean To Relapse?

Relapsing when you struggle with addiction can be a very difficult experience — and it can come with intense feelings of shame. No one wants to admit they’ve had a slip-up and used harmful substances again. But they are not alone.

Many people dealing with substance use disorders have a fear of relapsing looming over them constantly. It’s important to understand that mistakes like relapsing can happen, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of your journey.

Addiction recovery is hard enough. When someone is going through a relapse, the best thing that you can do is help lift their spirits and support them. Relapses can happen for many reasons and can impact everyone very differently. Unfortunately, they can be very common, especially in the early stages of recovery.

By keeping an eye out on family members and loved ones and listening to their struggles, you can help prevent relapses and support them when they need it most. Keep reading to learn more about what it means to relapse and how you can support someone going through one.

What Is a Relapse?

When recovering from addiction, relapses are (unfortunately) a normal part of the process. It is rare to enter into recovery without one tiny mistake happening, though it is possible!

The definition of relapse is a deterioration after a temporary improvement, and it refers to when a person in addiction recovery stops maintaining their sobriety and ends up using substances again.

Relapses can be momentary. Some people might have a slip-up where they have one drink while out with friends only to focus back on their sobriety the next day. This is known as a lapse and might be a moment of weakness, but it is always followed by returning to a person’s recovery goals.

People in treatment programs may experience physical or even emotional relapses (or mental relapses), where their coping mechanisms falter, and they experience backsliding into negative emotions. Emotional relapses may not automatically lead to repeating addictive behaviors, but they are nonetheless high-risk situations that must be taken seriously.

Relapses can occur and last for days, weeks, or even months. A person will return to the same levels of use they did before starting their recovery process. It might take some time to get back to the recovery process after a person relapses.

Why Do People Relapse?

There are so many reasons that a person could relapse. All of them are dependent on different factors in a person’s life.

When a person is addicted to alcohol or drug use, they become dependent on that drug. Even if a person is sober for a period, has a solid social support network, and has developed excellent coping skills, they can have intense cravings that eventually break them down.

A person relapsing is likely unhappy about their choices but feels like they can’t do anything to stop them. People in recovery deal with a lot of stress and pain simply to become sober and healthy, and sometimes it is too much to bear, and their vices get the best of them.

Causes of Relapse

Relapsing is not a sign of weakness. A person’s reason for relapse might be extremely personal for them and difficult to admit to others.

Many people may try to hide their relapse from those around them because they feel shame due to their actions. For many people, it’s a culmination of many factors that push them to relapse.

Some reasons a person might relapse during recovery are:

  • Mental or emotional health issues caused by environmental stressors

  • Coming across triggers when least expecting them or are in a vulnerable place

  • Poor physical health that can cause a person to seek out self-medicating behaviors

  • Guilt caused by lapsing during their recovery

  • Environmental and social situations that might encourage negative behaviors

  • Feelings of happiness and positivity can also trigger a person to want to celebrate

  • High levels of stress or anxiety

When a person relapses, they might need many months to get back on track. The process can feel like starting from scratch, but if you’ve done it once, you can surely do it again! This is your comeback story, after all.

Stages of Relapse

A person isn’t just diving back into substance abuse without thought or reasoning. A traditional relapse usually involves three main stages where it becomes harder and harder for a person to fight their urges: emotional, mental, and physical.

Occasionally, a person will do what is referred to as a “freelapse” where an unintentional relapse happens. A person might drink something they didn’t realize had alcohol in it or consume a brownie that actually contains pot.

Most of the time, people that are relapsing have made a conscious choice to use, even if it is hard to accept. It can take weeks of build-up to relapse without you even noticing that’s where you are heading.


The emotional stage is the first one that you enter. During this period, you might struggle with your emotions and feel unable to cope with stressors.

You can begin to feel like an emotional wreck. This instability in your emotions can cause you to isolate yourself from others, bottle up your emotions, lash out at people you love, and neglect your mental and physical health.

If you aren’t taking care of yourself emotionally, you can end up sliding right into a relapse. Emotional turmoil can lead people to use substances regardless of addiction or not, so for someone in recovery from active drug addiction, this can be difficult to overcome on their own.


At this stage of addiction relapse, you are actively thinking about sobriety and having conflicting feelings. On the one hand, you want to remain sober because you know it’s the best thing to do for yourself. But unfortunately, bad feelings and a decline in mental health issues can overpower your want for sobriety.

You might begin to have fond memories of the times you used substances in the past, and you might think of people you miss due to your choice to be sober. Cravings are likely to be at an all-time high, and there are beginning to be more reasons to use substances than not to.


The physical stage of relapse involves being closer to drugs and alcohol and in settings where lapses are more likely to occur. You might put yourself into situations where substances are present to give yourself an easier opportunity to acquire them. Your thoughts can take over, and substance use is the only thing on your mind.

What might start as just one drink can easily spiral into multiple. You might think that just one drink will be plenty, but the urges can be too powerful to control. Trying to stop after you’ve given in may simply not occur.

How Do I Handle a Relapse?

When relapses happen, and they frequently do, there are things that you can do to get back on track. This can be difficult due to the shame surrounding relapsing, but you can do it.

It’s important to know that seeking help immediately after a relapse is all that your loved ones want for you. Most of the time, being honest and open about what has occurred can make getting help a lot easier.

Things that should happen during and after a relapse could be:

  • Reaching out to a loved one to tell them what happened. Finding support can make the process of relapsing a lot less intimidating.

  • Go to a self-help support group. Share your experience with peers who understand your struggles. You will feel a sense of community that can help inspire and motivate you to get better.

  • Practice self-care. Do the things you did while in recovery that made you feel confident and strong. Make sure you’re showering and eating enough food each day.

  • Reflect on the reasons why you went through this relapse. Get to the bottom of it so you can begin making a plan for relapse prevention.

  • When relapse happens, entering into addiction treatment can be really helpful in getting better.

Preventing Relapses

Relapses happen, and sometimes, you simply cannot control them. However, there are many things that you can do to prevent them from happening or ever happening again. Many people create a relapse prevention plan during their recovery process to prepare for a slip-up.

Prevention plans might include the following:

  • Setting healthy boundaries with people and places that trigger you

  • Write down three coping strategies when you come across a trigger

  • Find meaningful activities that you can fill your free time up with

  • Surround yourself with a community of sober-seeking individuals and call on each other for support

  • Look out for warning signs that may indicate a high risk of relapse

  • Download online apps like Sober Sidekick to gain access to resources that assist sobriety, either on Android and iPhone

Getting help for your addiction means putting in the work every day for years to come. With community spaces like Sober Sidekick, you can do this with the support of others going through similar struggles.

Don’t let your relapse get the best of you! You can still turn things around and advocate for yourself and your sobriety.


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