A relapse doesn’t happen spontaneously. Although someone might occasionally relapse suddenly, relapse is typically a gradual process that begins weeks or months before someone finally starts using again. This process typically occurs in distinct stages–emotional, mental, and physical. The earlier you interrupt the process of relapse and get back on course, the better your chances of staying in recovery. Much of treatment is about teaching you to be more attuned to what’s going on in your head and how to cope when things go wrong. However, this process is ongoing and you can’t allow yourself to become complacent when it comes to relapse prevention. Learning to recognize the stages of relapse and make the appropriate corrections is vital to a long and healthy recovery.



The first stage of relapse is emotional. At this stage, you’re not thinking about using again. In fact, you really want to succeed in recovery because you still remember all the pain addiction has caused you and how much effort you’ve put into staying sober. However, you don’t feel right. You may feel stressed, angry, resentful, depressed, overwhelmed, cynical, or negative. Sometimes this is because of external life stress or inability to cope with stress. Sometimes people have too high expectations for recovery and they feel disillusioned when things go more slowly than they expected.

Some signs of emotional relapse include bottling up emotions, skipping mutual-aid meetings or going to meetings but not sharing, isolating yourself, feeding resentments, or becoming too involved in other people’s problems. Perhaps the biggest sign of emotional relapse is a general decline in self-care. Self-care includes all the things you do to stay healthy and emotionally stable. This especially includes eating healthy, getting regular exercise, taking time to relax, and getting plenty of sleep. Neglecting these basics quickly leads to more stress and anxiety and poorer self-control and emotional regulation.

The emotional stage of relapse is the easiest place to turn things around. Your first priority should be to pay attention to self-care. Make sure you’re eating healthy, getting some exercise, relaxing, and getting plenty of sleep. If you’ve stopped going to meetings or stopped doing other parts of your recovery plan, resume those right away. Talk to people you trust and let them know what’s been going on. Talk to a therapist if necessary and use your cognitive therapy tools to combat distorted thinking.



If the emotional stage of relapse goes on long enough, it will turn into the mental stage. During the emotional stage, you feel worse and worse until you reach the point where you think about using again to escape your emotional discomfort. At the beginning of the mental stage of relapse, you are likely to feel conflicted. You may have cravings or you may start thinking about using again, but you also really want to stay sober. You haven’t forgotten about all the problems addiction has caused you but your emotional state is beginning to feel intolerable. Signs of mental relapse include having cravings, thinking about friends who still drink or use drugs, glamorizing substance use or reminiscing about the good times, lying, thinking about schemes for using in moderation, bargaining, looking for excuses to relapse, or actually planning a relapse.

Typically, you begin the mental relapse phase feeling conflicted about relapse but as you progress, your resistance to relapse gradually declines. Therefore, it’s crucial to notice the signs of mental relapse as early as possible and act right away to preserve your recovery. However, not all thoughts of using indicate mental relapse. It’s normal to think about using again, even if recovery is going well. Thinking about using again is only a cause for concern if it follows a period of emotional decline and other signs of mental relapse.

One way of getting back on course during mental relapse is to “play the tape.” When you play the tape, you imagine the consequences of relapse beyond the initial gratification of using again. Imagine your remorse, your family’s disappointment, and the feeling that you’ve wasted months or years of hard work in recovery. Remember as vividly as possible the negative consequences of addiction and why you decided to get help in the first place. Use that imagery as motivation to get back on track with your recovery plan and self-care.

It’s also important at this point to avoid high-risk situations. If you are looking for an excuse to relapse or believe you can use in moderation, you are on the verge of relapse. High-risk situations don’t only include spending time with friends who drink or use drugs or emotional stress, but also positive events like vacations, which people often see as a vacation from recovery too. A personal recovery assistant can offer guidance, support, and accountability to prevent a mental relapse from becoming a physical relapse.



Physical relapse is the final stage and what we typically think of as relapse. This is when you finally decide to use drugs or alcohol again. Physical relapse happens when mental relapse meets opportunity. This is why high-risk situations should be avoided. At this point, it is very difficult to prevent a relapse. Relapse isn’t just a failure of willpower at the moment of opportunity; it’s the final result of a long build-up. Although it is possible to abstain even at the last moment, remaining sober long-term requires attention to the underlying causes of relapse.

Most people leave treatment knowing how relapse happens and knowing how to cope with emotional stress and so on, but actually using those skills in real life is another matter. It takes months to break out of old habits and establish more positive habits. The transition from treatment to daily life is an especially tricky time and having a personal recovery assistant can help you smooth that transition, spot warning signs, and avoid high-risk situations.

Hired Power is a transitional service offering individualized addiction recovery assistance from crisis intervention to the first year of recovery and beyond. Some of our services include getting clients into detox and treatment, finding an appropriate treatment center for a client’s specific needs, helping clients transition from treatment to daily living, providing mentorship, sober assistance, and other services. Explore our website or call us at 800-910-9299 for more information.