An individual who suffers from an alcohol use disorder (AUD), also referred to as alcoholism or alcohol addiction, has a chronic and often relapsing brain disease. This condition directly relates to the brain’s reward and pleasure center, which causes increased tolerance, dependence, and compulsive behaviors related to alcohol obtainment and use.
People who seek professional help to recover from an AUD have many options available. Still, comprehensive, evidence-based treatment, which focuses on changing behaviors through therapy and counseling, has been found to be more effective. However, because addiction is considered to be a chronic, lifelong disease, there is still a relatively high potential for relapse.
In fact, about half of all individuals who develop an addiction, including alcohol, will relapse at some point—a rate similar to other chronic disorders such as high blood pressure and diabetes. People who experience these conditions can go to their health provider to adjust their treatment plan, which may include pharmaceutical interventions and lifestyle changes. Alcohol addiction is no different.
People who have an AUD should regard the concept of relapse in a comparable way—as a recurrence of symptoms of the disorder that requires further treatment to adjust some aspects of the treatment plan or the creation of a new one. It is essential to understand and be able to recognize an impending relapse to address the problem quickly and effectively. Once symptoms are identified, these individuals should seek professional treatment as soon as possible.
What Is Relapse, Exactly?
Undergoing therapy, counseling, attending peer support groups, taking advantage of emotional support from loved ones, and cultivating healthier ways to manage stress and avoid triggers can help people new to recovery stay sober. However, it is crucial to realize that a relapse can happen to nearly anyone. Being able to identify warning signs is among the most effective ways of avoiding this and minimizing the damage associated with it.
When it comes to addiction, relapse is defined as the inability to stay clean or sober indefinitely. For those suffering from an AUD, this may lead to escalating alcohol use or abuse of another substance that acts in a similar manner as alcohol, such as benzodiazepines or opioids.
When a relapse occurs, this doesn’t necessarily mean that treatment was wholly unsuccessful. Instead, it implies that the person would benefit from more time and help to return to sobriety. This assistance could include additional or altered medications, improved social support, or more robust strategies to reduce daily stressors.
What Are the Warning Signs and Symptoms of Relapse?
Signs of that a person is on the cusp of relapse include the following:
Experiencing extreme and uncontrollable emotions – People who have abused substances such as alcohol to become intoxicated will have to adapt to life without self-medication. Moreover, adjusting to a job, family obligations, and social pressures can be challenging for those newly out of rehab, and some are not quite yet prepared. They may be able to engage in these tasks and feel positive about the results, but may also be in stark denial about how worry and stress can rapidly wear them down.
Having difficulty accepting the changes in life – It’s not unusual for individuals in recovery to experience stress related to schedule adjustments, health issues, or criticism more intensely than others. They may have a challenging time seeing the positive side, and as a result, depressed or anxious feelings may develop and lead to a relapse.
Holding the belief that relapse is unlikely – In some instances, people falsely believe that they have worked so hard to get this far that they will never let themselves regress. Despite statistics that suggest the contrary, they think they are somehow exempt from this risk. Believing that relapse cannot or will not happen to oneself actually raises the risk of this occurring.
Experiencing a loss of recovery commitment – People who stop participating in support group meetings, therapy, or counseling sessions are at an increased risk for relapse. Without psychological and emotional support, the return to compulsive, harmful behavior is an imminent threat.
Going to places (e.g., bars or clubs) or hanging out with friends associated with drinking or doing drugs – Returning to old habits, such as visiting old haunts or spending time with friends or family who drink excessively or use other substances places a person at higher risk for returning to problematic alcohol use.
Other warnings signs that a person in the nearing the point of a full relapse include the following:
- Breath smells like alcohol
- Breath frequently smells like mints or gum to conceal alcohol smell
- Being visibly intoxicated
- Money or other items go missing
- Expressing thoughts of missing or craving alcohol use
- Bottles, cans, or other debris present related to drinking
- Being absent at random times or for prolonged periods or absenteeism at work or school
Developing a Relapse “How to Stay Sober” Prevention Plan
For many, relapse may seem unavoidable, but once again, this does not mean that the treatment completely failed. A comprehensive treatment plan should also include relapse prevention strategies, but sometimes even these need to be re-learned or altered in some way. Understanding relapse means a person must be able to identify warning signs and symptoms and identify ways to avoid relapse when symptoms first become noticeable.
People recovering from alcoholism often benefit from prescription medication to mitigate cravings and address other symptoms, particularly during the first few weeks. For example, acamprosate and naltrexone are both commonly prescribed to reduce cravings after the individual has detoxed from alcohol. Minimizing the urge to drink helps the person concentrate on their recovery and altering their behaviors regarding how they think about alcohol and developing new coping mechanisms.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is probably the most commonly used treatment in addiction rehab and mental health treatment. This form of psychotherapy focuses on understanding the root causes of behaviors, recognizing how these behaviors are inconsistent with a healthy life and an individual’s values, and learning new, more constructive ways to act. Working with a CBT therapist can help those in recovery from AUD learn about the warning signs of relapse and enact new skills and coping mechanisms to prevent relapse.
Other methods that can reduce the risk of relapse include the following:
- Seek social support through a peer support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SmartRecovery
- Associate with positive people who can provide support and improve one’s mood
- Remember the acronym HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, or tired), as these states can raise stress levels and lead to poor decision-making.
- Learn new coping strategies, such as mindfulness meditation
- Know signs of relapse and actively monitor for them
- Immediately reach out for help if a relapse occurs
Working with a therapist or counselor to develop a relapse prevention plan can be beneficial. This work includes developing a dailay routine for meals, logging experiences, engaging in supportive exercise, and finding others to lean on for support during stressful times.
A relapse prevention plan may also include a daily checklist, a list of reminders for appointments, and ways of identifying triggers when they must be confronted. This plan should also include a section detailing how to manage stress and cope with triggers.
Getting Help For Alcoholism
The first step to overcoming alcohol addiction and solidifying willingness to begin the recovery process is to seek professional treatment as soon as possible. Just Believe Recovery offers integrated treatment programs in both residential and partial hospitalization formats, which include essential services, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, individual and family counseling, peer group support, aftercare planning, and more.
If you or someone you love is struggling with an alcohol use disorder, we urge you to contact us today to discuss treatment options and find out how we can help!