Road to Recovery: Relapse Protection


Recovery, like any other journey, includes a few bumps in the road; some are minor, some are monumental. Developing an effective relapse prevention plan can help you manage the bumps, the sharp left turns and traffic jams that are a natural part of life and recovery.

The Three Stages of Relapse

1.    Emotional Relapse

The first stage, emotional relapse, refers to the point in recovery when a person may not be thinking about returning to substance abuse, however, they struggle to cope with overwhelming emotions, cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Not coping with emotions is almost always the largest barrier to maintaining sobriety.

2.    Mental Relapse

Mental relapse happens when recovering addicts reconsider substance abuse, reconnecting with toxic acquaintances and repeating certain patterns of their past behavior. In this stage, a person may begin thinking “maybe I’m not an addict/alcoholic” or “I don’t need my medications any longer because I am feeling fine.” This stage of relapse happens when a person in recovery stops attending meetings, begins hanging out with old people, places and things and chooses risky situations. The good news is that physical relapse is still preventable, as long as the person can recognize the patterns and take action. 

3.    Physical Relapse

The final stage, physical relapse, refers to the point at which the urge to use becomes too strong and former addicts return to their habit. This stage of relapse is much harder to recover from and can lead to substance abuse treatment having to start from the beginning again so that they may relearn the control of destructive behavior.


An addiction treatment plan should include services such as intensive outpatient (IOP) or continuing care therapy as well as connections and engagement with support programs including 12-step programs or alumni groups. These efforts can increase chances of long-term sobriety, with each piece of additional treatment and support only strengthening the stand against relapse.

In addition to the treatment plan, a relapse prevention plan provides the stability, coping skills and structure intended to place a person in regular contact with people who will help them to avoid alcohol and other drug use, encourage and engage in working a recovery program and help them to identify and manage relapse warning signs.

Finally, the role of family in recovery is particularly important. A supportive family can make all the difference between recovery and relapse. Family members often struggle with co-dependency, as it is part of the addictive dynamic in families with loved ones who struggle with addiction. Family members are encouraged to seek treatment themselves simultaneously with their loved ones. This helps recovering people and their families work together as a team to recover together and avoid future relapse.

By exploring substance misuse motivations, and by being completely honest with themselves and their family, an individual can eliminate high-risk situations and factors from their life, vastly reducing their risk of relapse.

It is important to remember that recovery provides the opportunity to change a life in incredible, powerful and hopeful ways. Make every effort to leverage ongoing support, community resources and a recovery plan to stay focused and avoid relapse.

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